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Inadvertent peek at caucus resistance shows Tory dilemma in Nexen review

An inadvertently-sent letter has brought home how much resistance Stephen Harper is facing from within his own ranks over the proposed takeover of Nexen by CNOOC.

The Conservative government recently announced that it would be extending until Dec. 10 its review of the proposed acquisition of the Canadian petroleum firm by the state-owned Chinese energy giant. That letter could be part of the reason why.

Michael Harris wrote Monday at iPolitics.com about a dispute between Manitoba Conservative MP James Bezan and Jill Winzoski, a former reporter with the Selkirk Record.

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That dispute may have contributed to Ms. Winzoski losing her job, which is the thrust of Mr. Harris's column. In the midst of the dustup, Mr. Bezan's office accidentally sent Ms. Winzoski a letter in which the MP outlined his opposition to the proposed CNOOC takeover of Nexen.

"I am strongly opposed to this deal" wrote Mr. Bezan, "and I have raised my concerns directly with Cabinet as well as with the Prime Minister.

"…Due to China's dismal record on human rights and freedoms, I take particular exception to allowing a state-owned company from China to purchase a Canadian company," he continued. "…As a Conservative, I am in favor of keeping markets open in Canada, however I do not support allowing state-owned and state-controlled enterprises to take over publicly traded Canadian companies."

He concluded: "It is important to note that although caucus members such as me personally oppose this deal, should [Industry] Minister [Christian] Paradis feel the Nexen bid meets all requirements under the Investment Canada Act and the Competition Bureau Act, there is little that can be done to stop it."

"Caucus members such as me?" How many "caucus members such as me?"

Mr. Bezen's office then sent another email recalling the first one and substituting another, far more anodyne, missive.

But as we all know – though politicians never seem to learn – email, tweets and other electronic postings, once sent, can never be unsent.

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The Globe's Bill Curry and Shawn McCarthy previously reported, that several Tory MPs have voiced either reservations about or outright opposition to the CNOOC takeover. Mr. Bezan, whether he wanted to or not, has now joined their ranks.

His office did not respond to a request for an interview.

The Prime Minister little cares about critics on the left who argue that foreign investment in the oil sands (which they would like to see shut down anyway) will lead to a loss of control over Canada's natural resources.

But critics on the right are another thing. While they have no problems with foreign investment – especially from such friendly sources as the United States – many conservatives and Conservatives deeply oppose closer links with China, citing its lamentable record on human rights, oppression of the people of Tibet, and general untrustworthiness.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is rumoured to be among their ranks.

Outside caucus, the Fraser Institute, perhaps Canada's most conservative think tank, has also come against the deal.

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Because it is state-owned, "CNOOC is primarily motivated by non-market considerations and certainly not driven by shareholders to seek the best possible returns," wrote authors Gerry Angevine and Fred McMahon in an analysis of the deal.

"While government should stay out of the way of true market transactions, takeovers by state-owned companies are simply not in the best interest of Canadians, given the long sorry record of such companies."

A number of conservative columnists – including Diane Francis and Terence Corcoran at Postmedia and Brian Lilley at QMI – have also gone on record opposing the deal.

It leaves the Prime Minister in a quandary. If his government vetoes the takeover, it will send the worst possible signal to China, which Mr. Harper has been courting as a major new source of trade and investment.

But if the Conservatives approve it, they risk alienating their own supporters, including part of the caucus and cabinet.

The Liberals can tell you what happens to a governing party that starts neglecting its base.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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