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The StarPhoenix, Saturday, January 05, 2008

Political shake-up

By James Wood

REGINA - In a move with major repercussions on both federal and provincial politics in Saskatchewan, federal Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has appointed NDP MLA Joan Beatty as his party's candidate in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.

Beatty will run in the March 17 byelection in the sprawling northern riding and her departure from the legislature, less than two months after being re-elected, will force a provincial byelection in her Cumberland constituency.

The bypassing of the nomination process also appears to sideswipe David Orchard - the one-time anti-free trade activist and one of Dion's most prominent Saskatchewan supporters in his 2006 leadership campaign - who was campaigning for the nomination in the riding.

Beatty, who in 2003 became the first aboriginal woman elected to the provincial legislature and appointed to cabinet, acknowledged Friday she likely would have stayed with the provincial NDP if it had been re-elected as the government in the Nov. 7 election.

She said she decided to jump ship because she can have more of an impact in a party that could potentially soon form government federally rather than sitting in opposition provincially.

"I respect the people that I have worked with within the NDP government and the NDP party and maybe there are others that don't understand why I'm doing this but I hope that down the road they will see why I've done this. I think my priority has always been the people first and secondly, party loyalty," she said in a telephone interview from Prince Albert.

The federal riding was vacated last September by the resignation of Liberal MP Gary Merasty.

Last month, Orchard's camp was up in arms over the prospect of Dion appointing Beatty, alleging it was done at the behest of Saskatchewan Liberal kingpin Ralph Goodale, the Wascana MP and former finance minister.

But Senator David Smith, co-chair of the Liberal campaign, said the appointment was made based on Beatty's merits and Dion's commitment to have one-third female candidates, not to block Orchard.

Dion and Orchard had spoken prior to the announcement, said Smith, but he was not privy to the substance of the conversation.

"I have positive feelings about Mr. Orchard . . . There's certainly nothing negative about him whatsoever but it was just the combination of circumstances," he said.

Orchard, who twice ran for the leadership of the defunct federal Progressive Conservative party, did not return phone messages Friday. In the last PC leadership race in 2003, Orchard threw his support to Peter MacKay based on an agreement that there would be no merger with the Canadian Alliance. MacKay then entered talks with Alliance leader Stephen Harper that led to the merger and formation of the Conservative party.

Smith downplayed the significance of both Beatty's switch of parties and the short-circuiting of the nomination process.

"Political parties and churches are both in the same category. If you don't take converts you've got a bit of a problem," said Smith, who noted that former Ontario NDP premier, and Liberal leadership candidate, Bob Rae will be running in a Toronto byelection at the same time as Beatty.

"With regard to the appointment procedure, sure, sometimes you just have to do this,"

Beatty's defection may not hurt her chances in the riding. In 2000, MP Rick Laliberte was re-elected as a Liberal after crossing the floor from the NDP.

Beatty took the largest percentage of the vote of any NDP candidate in the provincial election that saw the party reduced to 20 seats.

A former journalist, she had served as culture, youth and recreation minister and northern affairs minister in Lorne Calvert's government.

A provincial byelection must be held within six months of Beatty's resignation of her legislature seat.

Calvert said he wished Beatty well but that she is making a mistake by jumping ship. It's questionable that Beatty can win the federal seat, especially given the circumstances involved.

However, the Opposition leader said he didn't think her departure would hurt his party either in Cumberland or the province.

"We have a very strong presence in that constituency. I know there are a number of people already looking at that nomination," Calvert said in a telephone interview.

"I think this reflects more on Joan's position than the party's," he added.

But the Saskatchewan Party was quick to make hay over Beatty's move, with the government caucus issuing a press release saying the NDP should pay for the provincial byelection given Beatty's hasty departure.

Premier Brad Wall said the situation was disappointing for the local constituents and at the least raises a number of questions

"Did the NDP know this was a possibility? Did the local campaign team know? . . . Did Mr. Calvert know? And if they did, they just went ahead with it anyway maybe because she was the best chance to win the riding?" he said.

Beatty said she was approached federally only after she had committed to run provincially. She said she told Calvert during the provincial election campaign that she was considering running federally.

Calvert said a provincial byelection should be called as quickly as possible so an MLA can be in place by the time of the spring sitting of the legislature in March.

Wall appeared to throw cold water over the idea of a quick byelection, however, ruling out a byelection during the federal byelection campaign.

The Cumberland constituency has been an NDP stronghold for some time. Wall acknowledged it's an area that has been a political challenge for his party but said the recent circumstance and his party's status in government may make voters give the Sask. Party a second look.

The federal Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River byelection, meanwhile, definitely has the potential to be exciting.

In 2006, Merasty beat incumbent Conservative MP Jeremy Harrison by a scant 67 votes. In 2004, Harrison knocked off Laliberte, who was running as an independent after a falling-out with the Liberals. Ironically, Harrison was elected as a Sask. Party MLA in November.

The Conservatives have nominated RCMP officer Rob Clarke, a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation, as their candidate in the riding. The NDP have yet to nominate a candidate.

The byelection could be upended by a possible general election, if the minority Conservatives are defeated in the House of Commons on a confidence vote.

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