Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What if Hydro were for sale?

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Imagine for a moment the provincial government decides to sell off Manitoba Hydro to the public and then, some years later, an Australian company comes knocking at the door wanting to buy our electricity company and merge it into a worldwide energy conglomerate.

Does the Manitoba government try to block the sale? Does it campaign for the federal government to rule Hydro is a strategic asset or that the purchase, under the Investment Canada Act, provides the country with no net benefit?

Equally important, how would we, Manitobans, feel about it? Is owning an asset like Manitoba Hydro important to us, and if so, in what way: economically, socially, to our sense of ourselves as a province or as a nation?

A sale of Manitoba Hydro is not likely to happen but following the federal government's rejection of the Australian company BHP's $39-billion planned takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, it's worth thinking about. It's worth thinking about because Canadian ownership of at least some of our resources and institutions has become integrally tied to who we are and how we define our country and our nationality.

Free marketers, who look at the government's decision to declare Canadian ownership of PotashCorp as a "strategic asset," as a form of protectionism, may be missing the point.

Nations regularly draw rings around certain types of companies, resources or intellectual property and declare them off-limits to foreign takeover.

In a piece of pure irony, in 2001 the Australian government blocked the sale of its largest oil company, Woodside Petroleum, to the UK-controlled Royal Dutch Shell.

The United States, often regarded as the bastion of free enterprise has its own controls: No one but an American can own American television networks and stations, although there are no such restrictions on newspapers.

In Canada, foreigners are effectively prevented from owning Canadian newspapers and magazines through tax legislation and foreigners cannot buy controlling stakes in broadcasters or film and television companies.

There are not, however, foreign-ownership restrictions in Canada on oil or gas companies or on mineral resource corporations, which is why the Sudbury-based nickel giant Inco and Montreal-based aluminum company Alcan were both acquired by large foreign-ownership groups.

It's really hard to argue ownership of potash mines is of strategic importance to Canada when nickel and oil are not, but then, this whole question of what we should allow foreigners to buy and what we should protect is fraught with politics and nationalist emotion.

The best way to sum up Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approach to which companies are important to the national interest is to say that, in general, his government hasn't a clue, but once a company of strategic importance is the subject of an offer, it will suddenly become clear.

So, on the one hand, the government allowed an Egyptian-financed mobile telephone company operating under the name Wind to enter the Canadian market in apparent contravention of the rules, but on the other prevented the space company MacDonald Dettwiller from being sold to a Minneapolis company because it controlled a radar satellite important to Canadian security.

So what happens if an entity like Microsoft Corp. decides it wants to get in the mobile hardware business and makes an offer for BlackBerry maker Research In Motion?

Is RIM a strategic Canadian asset? What about Winnipeg-based MTS? At present, ownership of MTS is restricted by rules preventing foreigners from controlling Canadian telecommunications companies, but those rules are under review.

How would we feel, for example, if our national or provincial lotteries were run by a company that was foreign-controlled? That's the case in the U.K., where the National Lottery is run by a company controlled by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. A French company recently bought control of part of the U.K.'s rail infrastructure.

It's hard to imagine such sales happening in Canada. It would be wrenching to our economic and political pride if companies like Manitoba Hydro, MTS or, for that matter, RIM, were to fall into foreign hands.

Most economists will tell you foreign investment aids competitiveness and that losing a company to foreign control is nothing more than a blow to false pride.

That may be so, but in Canada we lack the kind of heft a company like BHP brings to Australia, that the Shell group brings to the U.K. and that companies too numerous to mention bring to the United States.

We lack bragging rights. We feel that with each foreign takeover of each high-profile company we eat away at what we own and who we are.

It's that feeling that frightened Stephen Harper's government into blocking the potash deal. It doesn't make it right, but it does make it understandable.


Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2010 A14

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