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National Post, Thursday, August 17, 2006

Orchard boosts Dion's farm team

by John Ivison

OTTAWA - If you had spent the last few years abroad -- maybe working for the BBC and teaching human rights at Harvard -- the Liberal leadership race might seem a bit like a soap opera you lost touch with long ago.

"So Belinda Stronach, the blonde who used to be a Conservative, pulled out because she couldn't speak French, but Bob Rae, who used to be blond and a New Democrat, is in? Scott Brison? He'd love to be blond but isn't he a Conservative?"

The story took a further improbable twist yesterday when that most liberal of Liberals, Stephane Dion, announced that David Orchard, the Saskatchewan farmer and former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate, was backing his campaign. This is the same David Orchard who has long railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement and opposed Canadian involvement in the war in Kosovo, the Meech Lake Accord, gun control and gay marriage.

The secret to the success of this relationship must be to avoid mention of the war, and all these other issues, because Dion is very much for them.

The two do agree on the environment, the central pillar in Dion's platform, with Orchard pointing out that he has been an organic farmer for 31 years. Even here, though, the impetus is very different -- Orchard contends environmentalism is a conservative idea based on the impulse to conserve. For his part, Dion says he welcomes the skills of a man with decades of experience in sustainable farming.

So why is a conservative Prairie farmer backing the professorial Dion?

After years of denouncing the Liberals -- he once warned they planned to put the military under U.S. command and merge the two economies -- Orchard joined the party before the last election, claiming it was the only home left for former Progressive Conservatives.

It's not hard to fathom why he is disillusioned with the current iteration of the Conservative party. Famously, he struck a deal with Peter MacKay in the 2003 PC leadership race, in which Orchard pledged his support for MacKay's bid in return for an agreement not to merge with Stephen Harper's Canadian Alliance party.

Six months later, MacKay reneged and joined with Harper to unite the right. The issue still rankles with Orchard, and his Web site features an old Montreal Gazette cartoon of MacKay's handwritten agreement: "What's most troubling is that anyone with handwriting this terrible should be running anything."

The real prize for Dion is the number of supporters who agree with Orchard's unconventional brand of conservatism, nationalism and environmentalism, particularly across the Prairies.

Orchard says he is "just a Saskatchewan farmer" and has no idea how many people may follow his lead. That is false modesty -- Orchard runs a slick media operation, and one report said he maintains a database of 30,000 names across the country of people who agree with him.

"If there are others who feel I speak for them, I urge them to take a serious look at Stephane Dion as well," he said yesterday.

It's yet another coup for Dion. He is one of the few names in the race that would be recognizable as a Liberal by anyone who has been out of the country for the past decade, even if they probably wouldn't have touted him as future leadership material.

Yet he has put himself in the top tier of candidates by virtue of a focused campaign that has received stronger-than-expected support.

Last week, a group of 14 current and former female parliamentarians backed his bid after he committed to running a minimum of 33% female candidates if he becomes leader. He now has more of the parliamentary sisters backing him than any other candidate, which must bode well for his chances with female delegates.

Stephane Dion -- the thinking woman's dish. Now there's a plot line in which truth would be stranger than fiction.

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