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On the Potash file, PM's pragmatism outweighed his principle

With a stroke of political pragmatism, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has silenced the opposition parties while extinguishing a Prairie fire by refusing to allow Australian mining giant BHP Billiton swallow up Potash Corp.

The decision will no doubt cost Mr. Harper votes among conservative true believers, but will pacify a much larger component of his political base: Prairie populists. The Tories have also neutralized the united opposition of the Liberals and the NDP to any selloff of what they see as a vital Canadian resource. And in this instance, it is probably the NDP that Mr. Harper had more to fear from.

The Stephen Harper who keeps telling us he is trained as an economist - and from the University of Calgary at that - would never have let the federal government interfere in the takeover of one private company by another.

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If you're a conservative, you must support the right of a company's shareholders to dispose of their assets as they see fit, untrammelled by government intervention.

If you're a conservative, you believe investment dollars should flow to where they're wanted, and that protecting Potash Corp. from the market would endanger Canadian investors looking to acquire assets abroad.

Stephen Harper used to be that kind of conservative, and so was his Industry Minister, Tony Clement, who helped craft Mike Harris's political manifesto in the 1990s. Their decision to prohibit the sale of Potash Corp. to BHP flies in the face of what both men once passionately believed.

Standing by principle, however, could have had dire political consequences. However symbolic Canadian control of Potash Corp. might be, given that its head office is in Chicago, Saskatchewan voters didn't want whatever was left of the company that was still Canadian being sold to the Australians.

Prairie premiers, in particular, jealously guard their control over natural resources, resisting federal efforts to regulate them, which is why Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall had Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger with him in the fight.

Mr. Harper has not forgotten that his rise to power began when he helped reunite a conservative movement that fractured over the perceived indifference of the Progressive Conservative Party toward the will of the West. Remember stripping Winnipeg of its fighter maintenance contract in 1986? This is a whole lot bigger than that.

There is more to it, however, than opposition from the provinces. This is not the first time Mr. Harper has left the ideological straight-and-narrow when faced with other considerations. Reversing the stand on income trusts; growing rather than shrinking the bureaucracy; decrying fiscal stimulus in the face of a recession and then embracing it. The Prime Minister tacks when facts convince him he needs to tack.

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On the Potash file, Stephen Harper would once have said let the market decide. But the man who has been prime minister for four years is a more malleable creature than he once was.

Mr. Clement said in his statement that keeping Potash Corp. Canadian was in the best interest of the country. "And that is my bottom line." Maybe that is what he believes. But it is not what he used to believe.

"Canada works," Mr. Wall said in triumph after the announcement.

It might have been more accurate to say that in politics, pragmatism beats principle every time.

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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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