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National Post on line, Friday, January 11, 2008

David Orchard: the man Ottawa loves to cheat

by Kelly McParland

At some point, David Orchard is going to start suspecting that people in Ottawa just don’t want him around.

Sure, they’re willing to pal around with him as long as he’s able to deliver votes, delegates, organizing expertise or whatever other bit of political capital they happen to need at the moment. But after that it’s arrivederci Davie. Don’t let the door slam on your way out.

Orchard got a pretty good example of this when Peter MacKay double-crossed him during the 2003 Progressive Conservative leadership race. MacKay, needing a boost to defeat Jim Prentice, bought the support of Orchard and his fervently loyal supporters in return for giving his absolute solemn promise never to merge with the Canadian Alliance. MacKay signed the deal, shook hands with Orchard in front of the cameras, and a few months later started talks with the Alliance that ended in merger. Oops, did you say no deal with the Alliance? I thought you meant new deal with the Alliance.

For most people that would have been enough to put them off dealing with wannabe party leaders from Ottawa. But in 2006 Orchard was back at it, delivering dozens of precious delegates to Stéphane Dion as Dion struggled to be taken seriously in the Liberal leadership race. This time there was no written agreement, but Orchard clearly assumed that in return for helping the man who ultimately became Liberal leader, the party would at least treat him with a modicum of decency. Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

This time Orchard has been unceremoniously blocked from seeking the Liberal nomination in the Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, one of four ridings that will hold by-elections to replace departing Liberal MPs on March 17. Orchard says he campaigned for the nomination for three months, signing up hundreds of members and clocking 20,000 km in travels across the riding, in the belief it would be an open contest. Instead, Dion used his powers as leader to hand the nomination to Joan Beatty, a former minister in the provincial government who was the first aboriginal woman to hold a seat in Saskatchewan’s cabinet.

Not surprisingly, Orchard feels betrayed. He says he was specifically assured there would be an open race and urged to campaign hard. He refuted a claim by Ralph Goodale, the House Leader and dean of Saskatchewan Liberals, that all prospective candidates were made to sign a paper acknowledging Dion might bypass the nomination process and appoint his own candidate. He dared Goodale to produce the paper or back off.

There is no sign Goodale is planning to do that. There are reports that it was Goodale who wanted someone other than Orchard as a candidate, recognizing the danger of adding another loose cannon to the Liberal caucus. Orchard is known for his ardent opposition to free trade and penchant for speaking his mind, nevermind whether it fits with party policy. The Liberals already have the Garth Turner Party in their ranks and an alliance with the Elizabeth May Party; all they need is the David Orchard Party to add to the fun.

Nope, the Liberals weren’t having that, so on Thursday they gathered in strength to welcome Beatty to the fold. Goodale, Bob Rae, Ken Dryden — they all turned up in the huge northern riding, all of it planned well in advance, of course, totally unrelated to all the noise Orchard was making. The Liberals say they’d be happy to have Orchard run in another riding, but since there’s only one other Liberal riding in the province, and it’s held by Goodale, that’s not much of an offer.

You can accuse Orchard of terminal naivete for taking Dion at his word after the treatment he got from Peter MacKay. But you also have to wonder — again — about Dion’s judgement, not to mention his honesty. The Liberals like to portray Stephen Harper as a cold-blooded political operator lacking the integrity required of a national leader; Dion, they’d have us believe, is a relative model of moral fervour.

His treatment of Orchard certainly doesn’t support that portrait. MacKay has been justifiably lampooned for backing out on his deal with Orchard, even if it was a dumb deal to begin with. Dion obviously knew the history and could have had no illusions about the Saskatchewan farmer’s beliefs, his persistence in pursuing them or the danger of doing deals with him. But he did it anyway, then dumped Orchard when he was no longer useful.

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