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What would the opposition have done differently with CNOOC/Nexen?

On the CNOOC/Nexen deal, the New Democrats and the Liberals appear to object to every aspect of the decision except the decision itself.

Often, when opposition parties hammer away at questions of process and transparency, it's because they recognize that they would not have done things very differently, had they been in charge. That may be the case here.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair wanted to know Monday why the Harper government didn't hold public hearings before approving the acquisition of the Canadian energy company Nexen by the Chinese state-owned enterprise CNOOC.

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He also wanted to know what the government means by the "strategic assets" that can henceforth be acquired by foreign government-owned companies only under "exceptional circumstances."

"The Prime Minister does not think he needs Parliament to change the law," Mr. Mulcair protested in the House of Commons during Question Period. He accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of rewriting the rules regarding foreign ownership without either consulting Parliament or defining those rules.

"How are foreign companies supposed to know what those rules are?" he asked (we suspect rhetorically). " If it was not fair on Friday, how is it fair today?"

Liberal Leader Bob Rae was after Mr. Harper to release the commitments the Chinese company had made to the federal government in order to secure the deal. "Are those terms and conditions going to be made public, yes or no?" he demanded.

But neither leader, either in the House or afterwards in talking to reporters, came out and declared whether they supported or opposed the decision to allow the sale, or the decision to effectively close the door to new acquisitions by state-owned enterprises.

Mr. Rae has an additional problem. He will only be interim leader for four more months, and Justin Trudeau, who leads the pack in the race to replace him, came out in favour of the deal. One suspects the Liberals will let this particular issue migrate to the farthest burner.

Both Mr. Rae and Mr. Mulcair seemed far more comfortable berating the Conservatives over their botched acquisition process for a new jet fighter. There, they were on rock-solid ground. The Tories have gone from defending the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the only plane available and a good deal at $9-billion, to admitting they must go back to square one, as the estimated cost climbs over $40-billion.

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There will be more to come on the F-35 file this week. But one last observation about the Nexen takeover: There is a reason for the "studied ambiguity," as political scientist Fen Osler Hampson calls it, to the new foreign-investment rules.

Creating a specific list of criteria that must be met before a foreign company may acquire a major Canadian resource simply invites those companies to craft a bid in which all the boxes are duly checked, even though the government of the day may have concerns about the bidder and the bid.

That is why this Conservative government, and Liberal governments of the past, gave themselves the power to consider each application on its merits, without being bound by specific criteria.

Interestingly, Mr. Harper attended Question Period, which he rarely does on a Monday. When asked about the F-35 debacle, he more often than not handed the question to Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, perhaps to remind her that man was born to suffer. But he was happy to answer many of the foreign-investment questions himself.

No doubt Mr. Harper wishes the fighter-job problem would just go away. But on foreign investment rules, our policy-wonkish prime minister actually appears to be enjoying himself.

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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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