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The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon), Friday, December 8, 2006

Orchard's strategic influence

by Randy Burton

If delivering support to the winning candidate means anything in politics, then David Orchard's star must surely be on the rise in the Liberal party.

The longtime critic of free trade, two-time candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party and new Liberal can be credited for playing a significant role in Stephane Dion's rise to the Liberal leadership.

Exact totals are unclear at the moment, but Orchard's organization managed to deliver close to 150 delegate votes at the Montreal convention -- 32 of which came from Saskatchewan.

In fact, every Dion delegate from Saskatchewan but one was part of the Orchard camp.

Some were prior Liberals, but many were personal supporters of Orchard from past campaigns. The Orchard camp helped many of them raise the money to go and most of them stayed together at the same hotel, where they had booked a block of rooms.

If Dion was the outsider from within the Liberal establishment, then it seems somehow fitting he should have the support of a consummate outsider like Orchard.

Their partnership could not have been more successful. As the record shows, Dion garnered 854 votes on the first ballot, beating out rival Gerard Kennedy by just two votes on the first ballot. As a result of their prior agreement, Kennedy wound up throwing his support to Dion, which sealed his win. Had the first ballot gone the other way, Kennedy might be the leader today.

There were many reasons why Dion won, but he obviously would not have had the horses to overtake Kennedy without Orchard's support.

Once again, the man many dismiss as a political gadfly has proven it's a mistake to underestimate his influence.

Through organizations dating back to the mid-1980s, from the free trade wars to two runs for the Progressive Conservative leadership, Orchard has built a huge list of contacts. His chief organizer, Marjaleena Repo, estimates they now have some 39,000 names in their databank.

There may have been other people supporting Dion with this kind of reach, but certainly no one who reaches the variety of people who tend to support Orchard. Some are environmentalists seeking pesticide bans; others want to promote organic farming and the Canadian Wheat Board. Still others believe Canadian foreign policy is tilted too far in favour of Israel.

What they have in common is that they see Orchard as a means of empowering ordinary people. In an era where party affiliation means little, Orchard has managed to construct a portable power base that has now influenced the outcome of three different national leadership campaigns.

This turn of events raises some very interesting questions about Orchard's future. There's no doubt he intends to remain active in Liberal politics, and there are a number of issues he intends to press.

The Canadian Wheat Board issue is one of those, as is tighter controls on pesticides and the ongoing problem of low farm income. At the convention, Orchard was rubbing shoulders with former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan, and he's now in conversation with John Turner's former ag minister, Ralph Ferguson, who wants his help on farm policy issues.

If Dion should eventually become prime minister -- and every elected Liberal leader since 1896 has -- Orchard will be well-positioned to play a role in a Liberal government.

How intoxicating the prospect must seem for him. The perpetual outsider who had so much difficulty gaining the respect of the Progressive Conservative hierarchy now finds his opinion sought out by players in the Liberal party.

Should he decide to run for the Liberals and actually win a seat, he might even have a shot at a cabinet post.

Many will blanch at this prospect, but stranger things have happened.

Orchard is noncommittal at this point, but admits he's considering running.

In an interview this week, he said he has had invitations to run for the Liberals in a variety of ridings across the country.

"I have to take a look at all of them and decide where to go," he said.

However, his farm and his history are in Saskatoon Wanuskewin, where he recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of his family's farm.

Wanuskewin remains firmly in the grip of Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott, but Orchard is clearly tempted by the prospect of running against him.

Whether it's the Conservatives' efforts to undermine the wheat board, or Vellacott's "whole-hearted support for the bombing of Lebanon," Orchard says his current MP leaves plenty to be desired.

As other high-profile candidates such as Chris Axworthy have learned, Vellacott is not easy to beat. But there's a certain symmetry to the idea. Who better to take on the ideologically driven Vellacott than the equally hard-nosed Orchard? It would pit Vellacott's disciplined group of evangelicals and pro-lifers against Orchard's coalition of greens, anti-free traders and social democrats.

In many ways it would be a microcosm of the national campaign, right here on our own doorstep.

You could sell tickets to a contest like that.


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