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Canadian Press, Thursday, January 10, 2008

Orchard says he was assured Liberal nomination for Sask byelection would be open

by Joan Bryden

OTTAWA - David Orchard says he'd never have campaigned to become a Liberal candidate in Saskatchewan if he had been told from the outset that Leader Stephane Dion would appoint a woman.

In his first comments since controversy erupted over Dion's decision to appoint NDP defector Joan Beatty, Orchard told The Canadian Press he was assured there would be an open contest to choose the Liberal candidate for the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River byelection on March 17.

Orchard vehemently refuted Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale's version of events.

Goodale, the lone Liberal MP from Saskatchewan, said Wednesday that Orchard and other prospective candidates knew full well that Dion might appoint a woman. Indeed, Goodale said all would-be candidates signed a paper acknowledging that the leader might bypass the democratic nomination process and make an appointment.

"Mr. Goodale's statement is completely and utterly false," Orchard said in a brief telephone interview.

"In fact, I was assured that there would be no appointment whatsoever and urged to work hard for the riding.

"Does anyone believe that I would have campaigned for three months - I criss-crossed the riding, 20,000 kilometres, signing up hundreds of members - if there'd been a threat of an appointment over my head?"

And Orchard issued a blunt challenge to Goodale.

"So my answer to Mr. Goodale is this: Produce the paper about the female candidate or back down."

Orchard, an anti-free trade activist and two-time contender for the Progressive Conservative leadership, spoke to The Canadian Press as he awaited a flight back to Saskatoon. He confirmed that he had been in Ottawa to meet with Dion.

He declined to say whether he feels disappointed or betrayed by Dion, for whom he delivered crucial support during the 2006 Liberal leadership contest. But judging by the few comments Orchard was prepared to make, the meeting with Dion did nothing to mollify him.

Orchard's supporters contend Dion would not have been able to stage a come-from-behind victory in the leadership race without the 150 delegates Orchard's organization delivered to the convention.

They compare Dion's treatment of Orchard now to that of Peter MacKay, who won the 2003 PC leadership after striking a deal with Orchard. As part of the deal, MacKay agreed he would not engage in any negotiations to merge the PC party with the Canadian Alliance, a promise on which he reneged only a few months later.

Some irate Orchard supporters have predicted the controversy will cost Liberals the northern Saskatchewan riding. The party only managed to win Desnethe by 67 votes in the 2006 election but the victor, Gary Merasty, resigned abruptly last summer.

Some of Orchard's supporters have organized an emergency meeting on Saturday, at which they intend to elect a new Liberal executive in the riding and set a date for a nomination contest - in defiance of Dion's decision last week to appoint Beatty.

Dion defended his decision Wednesday, noting he has promised that a third of Liberal candidates will be women and asserting Beatty, the first aboriginal elected to the Saskatchewan legislature, is a particularly good catch.

Dion said he has a high regard for Orchard and hopes he'll serve the party in some other capacity.


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