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Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, June 2nd, 2006

Orchard dares to challenge conventional wisdom

by William Neville

What makes David run? The David in question is David Orchard, twice a candidate to lead the Progressive Conservative Party, a long-standing and informed critic of the North American free trade agreements, environmental advocate (he's engaged in organic farming in Saskatchewan) and a man given to unconventional thinking. To say who he is is also to say what makes him run, for he is animated by a kind of old-fashioned patriotism and concern for the future of Canada, which seems to discomfit the comfortable and others who seem to be sleep-walking their way through some of the real challenges facing the country.

As a Progressive Conservative, Orchard sought to remind the Tories that, out of their own history and traditions, it was possible to frame sensible approaches to urgent issues facing contemporary Canada. He reminded Canadians, whose knowledge of their history can only be described as History Lite, that from John A. Macdonald onwards through Borden, Bennett, Diefenbaker and Clark, the party had an honourable tradition of understanding Canadian interests, particularly in its dealing with Britain and later, with the U.S. That tradition was jettisoned by Brian Mulroney but, in the party's long history, Mulroney's continentalism was the aberration. Orchard's campaign probably seemed Quixotic to some, but he made an impact by tapping into a genuine unease within the party and the country about Canada's future.

At the 1998 convention that restored Joe Clark as Tory leader, Orchard won 25 per cent of the vote. In 2003 he came second to Peter MacKay on the first ballot. He agreed to support MacKay on the next ballot in return for MacKay's signed agreement that he would not lead the Progressive Conservatives into a union with the Canadian Alliance. Once elected, in one of the fastest and greatest betrayals in our political history, MacKay, without any apparent moral qualms, broke his word. As his reward he became Stephen Harper's chief lieutenant and got to preach in the Commons about the immorality of the Liberals.

Orchard's reward, ultimately, was to be banned outright from membership in the new Conservative party. This extraordinary move on the part of the Conservative leadership strongly suggests that they were afraid to have their doctrinal rigidity challenged by people who might think heretical thoughts. He was lucky to avoid being burned at the stake. Whether Orchard would have found the Harper party at all congenial is surely moot, but being banned certainly clarified his options: In January, shortly before this year's election, he joined the Liberal party.

Among the things Orchard took with him was a database of 30,000 names, of people all across the country who, sharing many of his ideas, had rallied to support him. Were they, in any significant numbers, to follow him into the Liberal party, they could, obviously, be a political force to reckon with. Orchard was in Winnipeg this week, consulting informally with some of those supporters as to the role he and they may play hereafter.

His visit provided an opportunity for a conversation, in which we discussed his current thoughts on the unfolding implications of the so-called free trade agreements. He drew my attention to an article he co-authored with Mel Clark that appeared in the Toronto Star last August. Clark, now retired, was the deputy chief negotiator for Canada at the Tokyo Round of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, now the World Trade Organization) and chief negotiator for the International Grains Agreement: Clark, obviously, is a man who knows his onions when it comes to trade and trade agreements.

They point out that under GATT/WTO, trade disputes between Canada and the U.S. were mostly won by Canada and that the U.S. abided by the results.

They also observed: "When Washington not long ago threatened hefty steel duties against Europe, Japan and a number of other steel exporters, Europe triggered the WTO retaliatory process and the Bush administration backed down." Similarly, they note that in all the years that GATT governed Canada-U.S. trade relations, the U.S. never launched a single formal action against the Canadian Wheat Board, "because they knew they could not win."

However, since Canada entered a bilateral, one-on-one trading relationship with the U.S., the U.S. has taken 10 trade actions against the board and, as a result, the U.S. now imposes tariffs on Canadian wheat exports. Their point is that the defences available to Europe over steel and, previously, to Canada over wheat, are still available to Canada were it to exercise its option, with six months notice, to withdraw from the free trade agreements.

More recently, of course, the softwood lumber dispute was "resolved" not through the dispute resolution mechanisms in the free trade agreements, but by "negotiation." This "victory," cost Canada $1 billion, unlawfully taken by U.S. authorities in the first place, and other caps and restrictions being imposed on "free trade" in softwood. Orchard, not unreasonably, concludes that this is not a free trade agreement.

One might, indeed, go further: It is neither free trade nor, self-evidently, an agreement. One consolation is that with a major breach of the agreement having now been legitimized, Canada should feel freed from the outrageous provision, agreed to by Mulroney, to continue exporting to the U.S. the same proportion of our energy production irrespective of how much our own energy resources decline. Thinking such unthinkables is not, of course, something to which our major parties are accustomed. For that reason, we should be thankful that Canada has a David Orchard challenging received opinion and conventional wisdom. We could use a few more.

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