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Regina Leader Post, Tuesday, January 16, 2008

The drama of Beatty and the beast

by Murray Mandryk

There may be a reason why you don't see that many Liberals around -- especially here in Saskatchewan.

After all, not everyone can tolerate that much drama in their life.

Consider the greatest battles in the Liberal party in this province in the past 15 years or so and how many times those dramas were fueled by issues of personality, rather than substance:

- Remember the theatre of the absurd when past provincial leader Jim Melenchuk and then-MLA Ron Osika joined the NDP government "coalition" after the 1999 election for reasons of personal gain (i.e. cabinet posts and power)? Remember the nasty battle to oust Melenchuk?

- Who will ever forget the drama surrounding the demise of former leader Lynda Haverstock? She was overthrown in 1995 by members of her own caucus (some of whom now lead comparatively tranquil lives as the new heads of Saskatchewan Party government's ministries).

- Then there was the infamous and dramatic 1993 battle for the Regina Wascana federal nomination between Ralph Goodale and Tony Merchant --argu- ably the nastiest, most vicious political fight in recent times, with both sides accusing the other of dirty tactics including bringing in busloads of teenage delegates with the lure of pizza and beer.

- The most recent Liberal fiasco is federal leader Stephane Dion's appointment of former NDP MLA and cabinet minister Joan Beatty as the Liberal candidate in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.

This production of Beatty and the Beast (the latter title role played by either Ralph Goodale or David Orchard, depending on your perspective) again has people buzzing about Liberal politics, though not necessarily in a good way.

The ultimate problem for Dion, Goodale and company is that few are willing to buy the Liberals' altruistic explanation that this is about finding quality female candidates in winnable seats.

For one thing, there's simply too much personal sniping to accept this surface argument. For another, it doesn't seem plausible that Dion would replace one supposed injustice with another.

Accepting that some of the melodramatic rhetoric we heard from the emergency protest meeting in Prince Albert on the weekend about "colonial attitudes" has likely been uttered for dramatic flare, one might assume that the Liberals would at least try to be conciliatory to those in the northern riding who now feel put upon.

That the Liberal hierarchy doesn't seem to be the least bit chastened by Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River Liberals who feel that their democratic rights have been overridden only leads one to conclude that something else is driving this dispute.

In Liberal circles, that generally means nasty, personality politics.

For months now, some Liberals have privately contended that they would leave the party if David Orchard started to play any bigger role than he has already.

Admittedly, one can understand why Orchard hasn't exactly been met with open arms. Few political figures (to be an actual politician, don't you have to get elected to something?) have proven to be as disruptive or self-serving.

That said, Orchard was welcomed into Liberal ranks. Heck, he was even Dion's key organizer in Saskatchewan, so one can appreciate why he would feel he has the right to run for a party nomination.

So, typical of the Liberals, what you again have is a personality mess -- one ripe for all the drama we've come to expect in Liberal ranks.

Whether or not you agree with the philosophies of the Conservatives, the Saskatchewan Party or the NDP, you would concede that their more defined philosophies tend to be a unifying force for their membership.

While these parties may still have personality conflicts, more often than not, they can identify their enemies as those outside the tent.

But in the big-tent world of the Liberals, where philosophy matters less and where all are welcome, is it any wonder that conflict takes on an element of personality? Would you expect a different outcome in a plot line involving the party's leader (a Quebec separatist in his youth), appointing a New Democrat to stop the candidacy bid of an anti-free-trader who once ran for the Conservative leadership?

In Liberal ranks, it tends to be all about the actors . . . all about the drama.

- Mandryk is the political columnist for the Leader-Post.


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