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For a response to this column, please see Marjaleena Repo's "Orchard: and 'open book' not a 'loose cannon.'"
National Post, Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dion plays to win with Orchard snub

John Ivison

OTTAWA -Stephane Dion's decision to appoint a former NDP Cabinet minister as the Liberal candidate in an upcoming Saskatchewan byelection has provoked a lot of tosh about "democratic deficits." The fact is candidates are not chosen by "the people," they are chosen by riding associations that usually consist of about 50 men in tweed jackets with elbow patches and 20 women in flowery frocks.

Nonetheless, some supporters of David Orchard, the Saskatchewan farmer and former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate, have organized an "emergency" Liberal membership meeting of the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding to protest the appointment of Joan Beatty as candidate in the March byelection. Jimmy Durocher, a past president of the Metis Association of Saskatchewan and an Orchard backer, said in a press release he was not prepared to let Mr. Dion's "Indian Act mentality" go unchallenged.

Mr. Orchard has been campaigning in the riding for months and, according to campaign manager Marjaleena Repo, has signed up 500 new members in a constituency where the association has been dormant. Ms. Repo said Mr. Orchard was asked to run by Mr. Dion and Ralph Goodale, the former finance minister whose riding is in Regina. "The question here is good faith -- good faith has disappeared," she said. "Maybe Stephane Dion and Ralph Goodale will realize a serious error has been made."

At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Dion looked suitably sheepish when asked about his betrayal of Mr. Orchard, who endorsed Mr. Dion during the Liberal leadership contest. "I have a strong regard for David Orchard and hope we can use his talents and skills in an optimal way," he said quietly.

Ultimately, this was a business decision made with calculated ruthlessness by a leader who wants to win the next election. After the NDP was turfed from office in the provincial election, Ms. Beatty decided she would swap the Opposition benches in Regina for those in Ottawa. Her resume is, on the surface, impressive -- one of 13 children of Cree parents, she was an award-winning journalist for the CBC and the first aboriginal woman to be elected to the Saskatchewan legislature.

In making his decision, Mr. Dion must have weighed two key factors: Ms. Beatty is a well-qualified, aboriginal woman (he has committed to ensuring a third of candidates at the next election are female); and, Mr. Orchard is a potential loose cannon who might backfire during a campaign (he has long opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, gun control and gay marriage).

There is still the potential for Mr. Dion's decision to explode in his face if the loyalists who back Mr. Orchard's peculiar brand of conservatism, nationalism and environmentalism campaign against Ms. Beatty and allow the Conservatives to sneak back in (Liberal Gary Merasty won by 67 votes from the Tory incumbent Jeremy Harrison in 2006).

But campaign managers are flint-hearted people who are paid to win and operate by Disraeli's maxim that in politics, nothing is contemptible. Mr. Dion's advisors have clearly calculated that Ms. Beatty can win the seat and are prepared to weather any storm that blows up in the short-term.

Any squalls will likely be subdued because all parties reserve the right to pick what they consider a winning team. Just as the Liberals made surprisingly little of the ouster of the Conservative candidate for Toronto Centre, Mark Warner, beyond noting that Red Tories do not seem welcome in Stephen Harper's party, so the Conservatives have not yet made hay with Mr. Dion's local difficulties in northern Saskatchewan.

This quiet understanding may now extend to the use of Mr. Orchard as a blunt instrument to beat Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who famously struck a deal with the Saskatchewan farmer during the 2003 Progressive Conservative leadership race. Mr. Orchard pledged his support for Mr. MacKay in return for an agreement not to merge with Mr. Harper's Canadian Alliance party, only for the latter to renege on the deal six months after becoming PC leader. The incident has been the bane of Mr. MacKay's life ever since, with Liberals like Scott Brison taking every opportunity to remind Canadians of the betrayal. Now that Mr. Dion has proven former federal minister C.D. Howe's contention that "no side has a monopoly on sons of bitches," Mr. MacKay may be able to remove the Orchard millstone.

Mr. Dion and Mr. MacKay must now hope that Mr. Orchard doesn't find solace in the arms of Jack Layton and pitch up in Ottawa to haunt them as an NDP MP.

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