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The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon), Thursday, December 20, 2007

David Orchard, Dion's dilemma

by Randy Burton

After three federal leadership races, you would think the federal political structure would begin to get the idea.

When you sign on with David Orchard, you're not forming a partnership with a guy who is prepared to lie down and be run over if the leader thinks it advisable.

What you get is a practised grassroots politician with a flair for organization. You also get a committed activist who expects to be treated with some respect for his abilities. It sounds simple enough, but for some reason, this equation does not seem to compute easily in Ottawa.

The scene now unfolding in Liberal circles bears all the hallmarks of a movie Orchard has seen before. The script goes something like this:

Ambitious politician seeking his party's leadership sees an opportunity for a come-from-behind victory by running a low-cost, network-heavy campaign. In order to succeed, he enlists the help of a nationally known political maverick long on principles but short on compromise. After achieving an unlikely victory with the maverick's help, the candidate turns his back on his unlikely helpmate, freezing him out of the inner circle he yearns for.

If this sounds familiar it should. Orchard played the maverick's role opposite Peter MacKay in the old Progressive Conservative party and he seems to be repeating the role in Stephane Dion's Liberal party.

This is what's happening.

For the past six weeks, Orchard has been campaigning for the Liberal nomination in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, which was vacated by former Liberal MP Gary Merasty last September. Unless a general election is called first, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will call a byelection for Churchill River within the next couple of months.

With his typical work ethic, Orchard has already sold hundreds of Liberal memberships at $25 apiece, no small feat in the poorest federal riding in the province. However, it may all be for naught.

Anxious to increase the number of women running for the Liberals in the next federal election, Dion is considering appointing former provincial NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty to be the party's candidate in the northern riding.

So far, she hasn't said anything about this one way or the other beyond the fact that both the NDP and the Liberals want her as a candidate. I suppose it would be hopelessly old-fashioned to suggest she has an obligation to the voters who just re-elected her to the legislature, but that's another issue.

However, it's pretty clear that unless she's appointed, she doesn't have a snowball's chance in Phoenix of becoming the Liberal candidate in northern Saskatchewan.

That's not to say Orchard would be the obvious winner of a contested nomination, given that he would first have to get by local consultant and educator John Dorion. But there is no doubt he would have an insurmountable head start over Beatty should she choose to run.

What's particularly interesting about this is that the only reason Beatty is a consideration is because Saskatchewan Liberal heavyweight Ralph Goodale does not want Orchard as a candidate. He is also said to have made this crystal clear to Liberal campaign co-chair David Smith, a senator from Toronto.

Exactly why remains a mystery.

It may be that Goodale doesn't want the Liberal brand to be confused with Orchards' long-standing concerns about free trade and what that might do to the Liberals' chances with the business community. It may be that Orchard represents something of a wild card in terms of public messaging. Not all of his issues are necessarily Liberal issues, and he is unlikely to express his views in Goodale's trademark opaque manner. It may also be that Goodale doesn't want to be supplanted as the province's most influential Liberal should Orchard wind up getting elected to Parliament.

Whatever the reason, this turn of events puts Dion in a bit of a pickle, given that neither of his options are particularly attractive. He can accede to the demands of his parliamentary House leader and short-circuit Orchard's run for the nomination. But to do so would be to poke a stick in the eye of the man who played a crucial role in his successful run for the leadership last year. It's clear that without the 150 delegates Orchard delivered, Dion could not have won.

If he cared about that, Dion would stay strictly out of the nomination and let the chips fall where they may. But if he does, he runs the risk of alienating Goodale, the only Liberal MP in Saskatchewan who actually has a winning record.

The ultimate choice he makes will say a lot about whether Dion represents generational change in the Liberals or merely new management.

Phone: 657-6212
E-mail: rburton@sp.canwest.com


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