Owning the podium, selling the stadium

The Harper government portrays itself as standing up for Canada, but it is preparing a major sell-off of Canadian interests that will compromise our cultural sovereignty, national identity and national security.

In last week's federal budget, the Harper government signalled its intent to throw open the doors of foreign ownership in three strategic, previously protected, sectors: telecommunications, satellites and uranium.

The issue here isn't foreign investment, which is allowed. At issue is a move to allow giant multinational conglomerates to come in and take over Canadian companies in these key sectors.

Our federal government has long shielded strategic sectors, for good reason. James Gillies, former dean of York University's Schulich School of Business -- and a former Conservative cabinet minister -- explains it well:

"We need to assure that firms considered strategic to the development of our economy are not taken over. The markets alone will not provide the optimal solution. If we relied on markets alone to determine our economic destiny, this country would not exist."

There are many examples of how strong Canadian regulations work in the public interest.

For instance, foreign ownership restrictions, combined with strong lending limits, are credited with shielding our banking sector from the worst of the 2008 global financial meltdown.

RBC Financial CEO Gordon Nixon warns: "If the banks do not have ownership restrictions, they'll be gone... New owners would likely run Canadian banks by remote control from enormous head offices and information centres outside the country (and) top jobs would disappear and urban vitality would suffer."

The same applies to other sectors. Opening up satellite and telecommunications companies to foreign ownership puts Canadian broadcasting on a slippery slope.

The advent of broadband erased the divide between telecommunications and media, between communication and culture. Allowing foreign ownership in one sector will produce a domino effect, placing enormous pressure to do the same in other sectors.

Canadian media and telecom CEOs may be in favour of opening the floodgates, since it will no doubt boost share prices and CEO compensation packages. But it is not in the public interest.

How can we maintain cultural sovereignty if broadcasting decisions are made outside our borders?
Once decision-making passes into the hands of a Time-Warner or an AT&T, only the hopelessly naive believe that the priority for using Canadian production and featuring Canadian content will take precedence over conglomerate interests. In reality, they will exert enormous pressure to bypass regulations mandating Canadian drama, news and music.

This will inevitably lead to the deterioration of our ability to tell Canadian stories and hear Canadian perspectives on our airwaves.

Imagine watching the Canadian-hosted Winter Olympics through the eyes of American television companies. We might own the podium, but what does it matter when we've sold off the stadium?

Not only would a foreign sell-off of Canada's telecommunications companies threaten Canada's cultural sovereignty, it would weaken our privacy and security standards.

Telecommunications are part of our critical information infrastructure. In the event of a natural disaster, do we really want our essential communications infrastructure in foreign hands? Do we want the personal records of Canadians subject to seizure under the U.S. Patriot Act?

The government has also signalled its intention to remove the 49 per cent ownership limits in the uranium sector, putting Canada's national security at risk, too.

Companies, such as the French-owned Areva, would no longer have to seek joint ventures with Canadian partners. Federal legislation, which currently prevents a non-resident investor from owning more than 25 per cent of the Canadian industry leader and former Crown corporation Cameco, would be scrapped.

For a government preoccupied with national security, to open up uranium control to foreign capital -- reducing its ability to regulate uranium production and trade as the new nuclear weapons proliferation risk rises -- is curious at best.

Far from eroding restrictions in these strategic sectors, the federal government should be adding to the list of strategic sectors; for example, our foreign dominated oil and gas sector. Canada is the only major oil-producing nation that does not restrict foreign corporate control.

The Harper government maintains it wants to loosen foreign ownership rules to make Canada more competitive and lower consumer prices. In truth, it is simply engaging Canada in a race to the bottom, watering down safety and cultural standards that currently protect the public interest.

A lot more goes into the sovereignty and identity of a country than performing well during a Winter Olympics. It's one thing to own the podium. It's quite another to sell off the stadium.

Bruce Campbell is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This article first appeared in The Toronto Star.


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