David Orchard
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The Ottawa Citizen, Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Can an opponent of free trade save the federal Conservatives?

by Susan Riley

Finally, and fortunately, the official remnants of the once-dominant Progressive Conservative party have a leadership candidate with a compelling idea that will differentiate the party from the Liberals. He also possesses dogged integrity, a rare tendency to answer questions directly and an ability to communicate his vision forcefully in English and passably in French.

Unfortunately, that candidate is David Orchard.

It is unfortunate not because there is anything particularly wrong with Orchard, who launched his campaign to succeed Joe Clark in Ottawa yesterday. In fact, he is arguably the most dynamic candidate so far in an anemic slate, if only because he has a clear vision of what is wrong with the country (and the Liberals) and of how it can be fixed.

Like Preston Manning, Orchard doesn't come to Ottawa with the generalized, even fossilized, complaints about Liberal infamy that most voters learn to tune out, nor is he driven primarily by career ambition. Both men are Big Picture types. Both have mused long and hard about the fundamental values and traditional alliances upon which this country is founded. Both have read history; both are somewhat nerdish, as far as image goes, but both are serious thinkers who are vulnerable to being trivialized by opponents and media commentators more comfortable with the old nostrums. And both, of course, are from the West.

Orchard, a Saskatchewan organic grain farmer best-known for his unwavering opposition to free trade -- he placed second to Clark in the 1998 Tory leadership race on an anti-free-trade platform -- continues to oppose the trade deal most of the population has long since accepted, even if reluctantly.

But his message, and his appeal, extends beyond trade to the larger question of Canada's sovereignty. He is concerned, he told his press conference, "about our future as a sovereign nation." Defending that sovereignty, he says, is the "big idea" that will bring ordinary voters to the Tory fold and distinguish his party from the "Liberal idea of merging with our southern neighbour." He links the decline of Prairie agriculture to the unwillingness of Liberals to match U.S. farm subsidies, and he laments the sale of some 13,000 Canadian companies to foreign interests in recent years, our inability to outlaw a controversial fuel additive over U.S. industry objections and the ongoing pressure from U.S. timber interests to end public ownership of our provincial forests. He wants more money for Canada's military, too, which, Orchard says, is "a key tool to defending and maintaining our sovereignty."

Orchard's case is well-argued and has attracted considerable support outside official circles, but is it conservative? He was famously accused by Clark of being a "tourist" in the PC party; others say Orchard should be running for the New Democratic Party. But Orchard insists he draws inspiration from the great British conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, whose goals were to "elevate the condition of the people and maintain the institutions of the country."

He portrays himself as a successor to John A. Macdonald, George Etienne Cartier and John Diefenbaker (once derided as a "Prairie bolshevik") -- all Canadian nationalists who resisted the pull towards closer economic integration with the U.S., insisted on an independent foreign policy and believed in strong national institutions, such as the CBC and the railway, to serve the collective good. Orchard insists he isn't the one who is out of step with traditional Tory values; instead, it is the post-Mulroney Tories, mostly those who would move the party to the right.

None of which is going to help him win the Tory leadership, given that it is party members who get to choose. Susan Elliott, the astute former national director of the party, says Orchard's problem "is that we are no longer the party of Sir John A. We've changed. We fought a bitter, heavily contested battle (over free trade) in 1988 and we won. That is deeply ingrained in our souls and I don't think he can get past that." And if he was to win by dint of recruiting new members, says Elliott, "it would fracture the party."

At the very least, he will challenge it. Unlike the Clark caucus, Orchard supports the Kyoto Protocol. He "strongly opposes" Canadian participation in a war against Iraq. He also opposes the Liberal gun registry. He isn't a New Democrat, he says. He is a Tory and always has been. He doesn't want just to lead the Conservative party; he wants to rescue it.

Susan Riley writes Monday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail: sriley@thecitizen.canwest.ca .
©  2003 The Ottawa Citizen

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