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National Post, January 09, 2008

Dion's Prairie parachutist

by Colby Cosh

At first, we thought it was quite obvious why Stéphane Dion wanted to appoint Saskatchewan NDP MLA Joan Beatty as his party's candidate for a spring by-election: She is clearly one of the deep political thinkers of our age. When challenged on the decision to abandon her party and the Cumberland provincial seat she won two months ago, Ms. Beatty, Saskatchewan's outgoing Minister of Culture, Youth, and Recreation, attested: "That is the one thing that I have found out, that you have to be in government to have say when it comes to policy or budget decisions or raising issues at that level."

That's right, it turns out cabinet ministers have more power than opposition critics. How many other people could have ferreted out such a deep truth from only eight weeks' experience in opposition?

Of course, for parliamentary government and party politics to work, someone has to occupy those opposition benches. Apparently, Joan Beatty doesn't think she's one of those little people. But has anyone bothered to inform her that even if she is able to win that March 17 by-election in the federal constituency of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, she will almost certainly start out all over again in opposition? (Cue Homer Simpson "D'oh!" sound effect.)

She does have two X chromosomes, and that's what really counts as far as the federal Liberals are concerned. David Orchard, the popular agriculture and protectionism advocate who backed Stephane Dion for the party leadership and who has been selling Liberal memberships in the riding, found himself unexpectedly betrayed by virtue of lacking the correct genetic apparatus. There is a principle at stake for the party, insists national campaign co-chairman David Smith. "We're prepared to bite the bullet," he says, "to demonstrate that our commitment to increasing our number of women candidates — particularly well-qualified ones — is very real."

It's not clear whether Mr. Smith chose his metaphor with care. In literal terms, "biting the bullet" is what battlefield patients did during painful surgeries in the days before anaesthesia. It almost sounds like an unwitting prediction that the Liberals' razor-thin margin of incumbency in the riding is doomed, and that the seat is about to be amputated from their caucus like a gangrenous limb.

Judging from the response to Mr. Dion's handover of the riding to Ms. Beatty, that seems like a good guess. Ms. Beatty has a track record of winning elections in northern Saskatchewan, thanks in part to her aboriginal ancestry. But in jerking the rug from under Orchard, Mr. Dion has attacked another politician with a history of supporting aboriginal protests and causes. And the "Ottawa-hath-spoken" flavour of Mr. Dion's decision has not gone unnoticed. One local Indian leader called it a "slap in the face" and an act of "tyranny." A Métis organizer was reminded of "the old Indian agent mentality ... The idea that 'we' know better than 'you' the people, what is good for you."

As for the non-aboriginal Saskatchewanians in the area, particularly the longtime New Democrats, it is hard to find a reason they wouldn't feel exactly the same way, or even use the same words.

In fact, we can't improve on them either.

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