OTTAWA - Canada is a democracy and public opinion plays a role in the Conservative government's decisions on foreign takeovers, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Wednesday.
Public sentiment is not a criteria listed in the Canada Investment Act but the Harper government appears to be wrestling with voter opinion as it applies the "net benefit" test to foreign takeover bids — especially by state-owned enterprises.
Following a Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa, Oliver was asked directly if public opinion is one of the criteria for determining net benefit.
"This is a democracy and the government takes into account the opinions of Canadians," Oliver responded. "Beyond that I have no comment."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said clearer new rules will be drafted in the wake of his government's weekend decision to reject a proposed takeover of Alberta's Progress Energy by a Malaysian state-owned oil and gas company.
A $15.1-billion bid by China's National Offshore Oil Corp., for Nexen Inc., is the next decision looming for the Conservative government.
A new survey Wednesday suggested the CNOOC takeover may be running into head winds in Alberta.
A poll by the University of Alberta's China Institute found public opinion deeply divided on Chinese investment in the province, with 37 per cent of respondents saying partial Chinese ownership in Alberta resources is acceptable, 36 per cent against and 27 per cent undecided.
The same survey asked about full Chinese ownership and just 15 per cent of respondents found it acceptable, with 64 per cent against.
Oliver said he hadn't seen the poll, nor its specific questions, so he wouldn't comment on it.
"I've heard a variety of opinions on this issue and obviously the government takes into account the opinions of Canadians," said the minister.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair jumped on Oliver's comments to say the government must hold public consultations as it drafts new criteria for foreign takeovers of Canadian companies, especially by state-owned enterprises.
"If he says that he cares about public opinion then he should sit down and listen to the public," said Mulcair.
Liberal interim Leader Bob Rae said the expectations have to be "comprehensible to the investor," adding the Harper government has him baffled.
"It doesn't take any leadership to put your finger in your mouth, wet your finger and hold it up in the air and see which way the wind is blowing — and say that's our policy," said Rae. "How can anybody do business with a government that has that kind of an attitude?"
Rae agreed that public consultations on new rules are needed, with a caveat.
"But I don't think — and I say this very directly — I don't think xenophobia has any place or part in how we deal with or treat investments," said the Liberal.
Oliver wouldn't bite on published reports that the government is considering a new two-track set of criteria that would address both state-owned enterprises and more traditional, free-market models.
"I really can't get into that," said Oliver. "The prime minister was very clear that there was going to be a policy framework and when that comes out I'd be happy to discuss it."
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RUSSIA -- 12
A Russia supporter, his face painted in the colors of the national flag, wait outside the stadium prior to the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group A match between Greece and Russia in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, June 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajyama)
CANADA -- 11
Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police participate during the annual Canada Day parade in Montreal, Sunday, July 1, 2012. . (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Graham Hughes)
BRAZIL -- 10
An activist dressed as a clown lies on a huge Brazilian flag during the "Global March" during the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in Defense of the Commons, a parallel event during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
U.S. -- 9
Alex Vidor, of Atlanta, carries a United States flag as he talks with friends after finishing the 43rd annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 4, 2012. Peter Kirui of Kenya won the Peachtree Road Race. Kirui's unofficial time of 27 minutes, 36 seconds ties the fourth-fastest time in race history. It is the first Peachtree victory for the 24-year-old. The defending men's champion, Sammy Kitwara of Kenya, finished eighth. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)
EU, AUSTRALIA, CHINA (3-Way-Tie) -- 6, 7, 8
FRANCE -- 5
Bastille Day fireworks explode over the Seine river next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris Saturday night, July 14, 2012. Bastille Day commemorates the storming by Parisians of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, setting off the French Revolution that toppled King Louis XVI and put an end to monarchy.(AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
JAPAN -- 4
A fan of Momoko Ueda, of Japan, carries a Japanese flag near the 16th green during the second round of the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship golf tournament in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Friday, March 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
ITALY -- 3
GERMANY -- 2
German soccer fans celebrate the kick off of their team's first game of the Euro 2012 at a public viewing zone called 'fan mile' in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, June 9, 2012. Germany plays against Portugal in Lviv, Ukraine during the Euro 2012 soccer championship. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
UNITED KINGDOM -- 1