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Wall won't support BHP takeover of PotashCorp

The Saskatchewan government came out firmly against BHP Billiton's US$38.6-billion bid to acquire PotashCorp Thursday, but the international mining giant said the company remains confident it can win over the province and get the deal approved.

The Saskatchewan government came out firmly against BHP Billiton's US$38.6-billion bid to acquire PotashCorp Thursday, but the international mining giant said the company remains confident it can win over the province and get the deal approved.

Premier Brad Wall told a Regina business group that he won't support the biggest takeover in Canadian history because the bid for the former Crown corporation and his prairie province's biggest company provides no net benefit to Canada no matter how you look at it.

He also said it's a takeover attempt like no one has ever seen in Canada and and would continue a trend that has already seen much of the country's steel and mining sectors swallowed up by powerful multinationals.

"In the interest of jobs for Saskatchewan families, in the interest of the quality of life that we prize that's funded by revenue to government, in the interest of the place of our province and our country in the world, we must say no to this hostile takeover," he told the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce.

But Andrew Mackenzie, BHP's chief of non-iron ore operations, said he has by no means given up on the takeover.

"I'm engaging with the federal government to see how many of the commitments I've made thus far can be turned into binding undertakings, and I will take those undertakings and I will find ways of convincing the Saskatchewan government that those undertakings will be commitments written with real power and things that we will not disappoint on," Mackenzie said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

He added that he's prepared to address Wall's concerns directly.

But Wall said there's nothing BHP can do to make him change his mind.

"We've made our case," he said after the speech.

Wall's speech came as reports circulated that the federal government will approve the planned takeover if BHP Billiton meets Saskatchewan's concerns.

But Industry Minister Tony Clement denied the report by CTV that the government is prepared to approve the takeover if BHP agrees to "most of Saskatchewan's demands." Clement must decide whether the takeover would be of net benefit to Canada. He is scheduled to release his decision on Nov. 3.

"I have not made a determination," Clement said Thursday in Question Period.

He added that he won't let Wall's strong words sway him in either direction.

"I am neither a headwaiter to the premier of Saskatchewan, nor am I butler to the president of BHP."

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that the hostile deal is not about the loss of a Canadian corporate champion. Harper said the fight for Potash Corp. is over "a proposal for an American-controlled company to be taken over by an Australian-controlled company."

Ralph Goodale, deputy Liberal leader and the party's only Saskatchewan MP, said there will be political fallout if Ottawa approves the deal despite the province's objections.

"There are going to be consequences if the prime minister effectively gives the premier a slap in the face," he said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton agreed, pointing out that Wall is a conservative ally of the Harper government.

"Even he recognizes ideology takes a backseat to basic math. And the numbers here don’t add up for Canadians," Layton said.

Wall said BHP's plans to run PotashCorp's (TSX:POT) operations at full capacity would hurt expansion plans by other players in the industry, including Mosaic and Agrium, potentially resulting in as many as 750 jobs lost.

And if BHP pulls out of Canpotex, the existing marketing cartel, this could put dozens more jobs at risk, particularly if it isn't able to go ahead with a new rail car maintenance facility and it has to shut down its ports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C., Wall said.

The premier also said he believes Saskatchewan could lose between C$3 billion and $6 billion in revenue from taxes and royalties if BHP's bid is successful.

And he said Canada's strategic interests would be put at risk if it sold most of its potash industry — which accounts for about a third of the world's supply of the mineral used in fertilizer — to an international company.

"This is not like any other takeover that we have contemplated in this country," he said.

If the federal government did approve the deal, Wall said he would make changes to the province's taxation regime so it would be guaranteed to maintain its revenue.

"If we were forced to accept this deal, if the federal government was simply approving it, then we would look at tax measures to make sure that our revenue is protected," the premier told reporters after his speech.

BHP has made several promises to Saskatchewan, saying it would locate the headquarters of its global potash operations in the province, it would maintain employment levels and it would make sure the province's coffers aren't hurt by the takeover.

Mackenzie added Thursday that BHP would be prepared to address the government's concerns by staying in Canpotex "for a period of time."

"If ... the minister of industry did ask us to remain there without many changes or any changes for a period of time, we would definitely be prepared to consider that," he said.

But Wall said promises have been made to Canadian governments before by foreign companies, and these are often broken.

"I know that there is this suggestion out there that promises can be made. But you'll pardon the government of Saskatchewan or anyone in this province if we're a little concerned about them being kept."

In recent years, foreign companies have acquired former steelmakers Dofasco, Stelco, Regina-centred Ipsco and Algoma Steel. Meanwhile, iconic nickel miners Inco and Falconbridge have also been swallowed up by Brazilian and Swiss conglomerates as part of a wave of global consolidation in the resources sector.

PotashCorp, Wall said, is one of the few resources companies left that is independent and Canadian based.

"We need to think about how another foreign takeover in our mining sector would be for the country, for Canada's influence over strategic resources," the premier said.

"Canadian-led mining companies are at risk of becoming an endangered species. This is the last and the biggest one, some have said," he added.

PotashCorp thanked the province for its "thorough and thoughtful review" of the issue. The company has rejected the US$130-per-share offer as inadequate.

"We have longstanding relationships with employees, suppliers and community organizations which are woven into the fabric of our company. We proudly carry the flags of Saskatchewan and Canada, building a global leader in the fertilizer industry from deep and enduring Saskatchewan roots," the company said in a statement.

PotashCorp has been criticized as un-Canadian, even though it's headquartered in Saskatoon, because the majority of its shareholders are based outside the country and several of its senior executives spend most of their time at its offices in Chicago.

In other developments Thursday:

— BHP Billiton chairman Jacques Nasser told shareholders at its annual meeting that it will not be caught up in a bidding war for PotashCorp and won't overpay to acquire the Canadian company. Nasser said BHP sees its bid as a way to cash in on growing Chinese demand for the key mineral used in fertilizer as China's farmers seek to boost crop yields in the coming years.

— New Brunswick's Opposition Liberals called on Conservative Premier David Alward to ensure the province's interests are protected in the proposed takeover bid. The company is a major employer in New Brunswick and is building a potash mine in the Sussex area that is expected to employ about 500 people.

Shares in PotashCorp gained 78 cents to C$146.68 in Thursday trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

 
 
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