Canada is putting out the welcome mat again for US investment

The Canadian government has radically changed the way it is going to do business with the world, especially the United States. Foreign investment rules have been scrapped. New investment will be welcome, with no questions asked. And the controversial National Energy Program may be next to go.

Canada's Conservative government is shedding the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) set up 10 years ago by Liberals under Pierre Trudeau. The new rules - which could become law by next March - will make it easier for foreigners to invest in Canada and will be supervised by a new agency called Investment Canada.

''I think we've come up with a fairly good approach and hopefully an approach that will certainly result in much more investment in Canada,'' said Minister of Industry Sinclair Stevens.

The new agency would review takeovers of Canadian companies with assets of more than $5 million (Canadian). Indirect acquisitions (if for instance an American company took over one with a Canadian subsidiary) would also be reviewed, but only if the companies had assets of more than $50 million.

Investment in new businesses would be exempt from review except in the culturally sensitive areas of book publishing and telecommunications. An association of 140 Canadian book publishers has already asked Mr. Stevens to review a takeover of Prentice-Hall in the United States by Gulf & Western because Prentice-Hall's Canadian operations are part of the package.

Foreign investment policy is not the only thing Ottawa wants to change. In a speech in New York this week, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told an audience of American businessmen that he would be altering the National Energy Policy, especially a provision that gives government-owned Petro-Canada the right to 25 percent of all oil found on federal land.

''This practice is odious,'' Mr. Mulroney said. ''Canada was not built by expropriating other people's property.''

Mulroney said the FIRA and the energy program were the wrong policies at the wrong time: ''At a time when the world economy was becoming more interdependant and open, Canada turned inward and interventionist.''

The scrapping of FIRA fulfills a Conservative election promise. Making it easier for foreigners (in most cases that means Americans) to invest in Canada should help create jobs for the country's 1.3 million unemployed. Canada's unemployment rate was 11.3 percent in November.

FIRA was blamed for a slowdown in foreign investment in Canada particularly because of the time it took to approve new investment from abroad. The federal Cabinet has to approve all applications.

Mounting criticism of FIRA had some effect in forcing politicians to think twice before turning down investment or takeover proposals. More than 90 percent of the investment applications had been approved by the Liberals. Not one has been turned down since the Conservatives were elected in September.

The financial community in Toronto was enthusiastic about the new rules. Carl Beigie, chief economist of Dominion Securities Pitfield, said the changes would make it easier for companies that wanted to invest in new industries.

''If you want to be in a new area with development potential, the government will welcome you with open arms,'' Mr. Beigie said. But he felt there was one area that even the Conservative government would want to protect from foreign takeovers. ''They will still look at the really big ones in the natural resources area.''

''Rational, realistic, and businesslike,'' said Hans Maciej of the Canadian Petroleum Association in Calgary, Alberta. His association represents companies that produce 85 to 90 percent of the oil and 75 percent of the gas in Canada.

The new policies will bring new investment, according to Mr. Maciej: ''We expect some players will enter Canada, and some of those who disappeared will reenter.''

The man who set up FIRA, former Liberal Cabinet minister Herbert Gray, was critical of the proposed legislation, saying it would increase the number of corporate decisions made outside Canada. The New Democratic Party, with a platform of socialism and economic nationalism, says it will fight the abolition of FIRA.

The NDP helped bring in FIRA when it held the balance of power with the Liberals from 1972 to '74. The Conservatives should have no trouble dismantling FIRA; they have 210 seats in the 284-seat House of Commons.

Concern over foreign control of the Canadian economy was the major reason FIRA was established. In 1970, 36 percent of Canada's economy was under foreign control, with the level being much higher in the oil and gas sector. By 1981 that foreign control was reduced to 26 percent, according to Statistics Canada.

Canada has been undergoing a resurgence of foreign investment, with $1.75 billion worth so far this year, compared with only $200 million in 1983 and a net outflow of $900 million in '82, most of that brought on by the government's energy policy, which discouraged investment by foreign-owned oil companies.

The foreign investment policy in Ottawa had changed even before the Conservatives came to power, but the Mulroney government felt it had to send out a message to foreign capital. ''The Investment Canada bill is saying to the world that we want to encourage as much investment as possible,'' Industry Minister Stevens says.

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