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The StarPhoenix, Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Dion defaults on debt to Orchard

by Randy Burton

Say what you will about Brian Mulroney, he knew how politics works.

One of his many expressions was "ya dance with the one what brung ya," a reference to the importance of loyalty in politics.

No one should know that better than Saskatchewan Liberals. Theirs is a history rife with deposed leaders and backroom deals that put personal gain above party loyalty. As a result, they remain mired in the political cellar, living at 10 per cent in the provincial polls and unable to regain much of a foothold on the federal scene.

It's perfectly in keeping with that history for federal leader Stephane Dion to appoint former provincial NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty to become the Liberal candidate in Desnethe-Missinnippi-Churchill River.

He's following another unwritten rule of politics that suggests the ends justifies the means. However, it's by no means clear that this gamble will pay off.

On paper, the idea of an appointment is eminently defensible as a principled gesture aimed at getting qualified women into Parliament. In this case, Beatty has the additional advantage of having First Nations heritage, so the Liberals can also claim they're standing up for minorities in the democratic process.

In practice however, going over the heads of local party members is extremely divisive and undermines the party's strength at the grassroots level, where they need it most.

If Beatty can actually win the March 17 byelection to replace former Liberal MP Gary Merasty, then the Liberals can claim they were right to "bite the bullet," as Senator David Smith calls it.

If she fails, Dion will not only have reduced his seat count, but he will have alienated one of his most important supporters for nothing. Free trade critic and former Tory leadership candidate David Orchard delivered 150 votes to Dion's leadership campaign in 2006, but apparently that wasn't enough.

He's now in the humiliating position of being shunted aside for a hand-picked candidate with absolutely no base of support within the Liberal party. What she shares with Dion is a disregard for the concept of loyalty.

Former premier Lorne Calvert plucked her from obscurity and made her a cabinet minister, even though she had no visibile qualifications for the job. What's more, he stuck with her, in spite of the fact she was regarded as a lacklustre minister.

As for her constituents, she was re-elected as an MLA just two months ago. You could say she had a contract with the voters who signed on with her in the expectation that she would stay for four years. She didn't last two months.

Her justification is that it's impossible to get anything done in Opposition, which is an interesting comment on the value of the role her erstwhile colleagues are now playing, to say nothing of the entire federal NDP caucus.

But the real story here is Orchard, who has built a national base that will follow wherever he chooses to lead. What does he do next?

He's still not ready to say, but none of his options are particularly appetizing. He could quit the Liberals and take his followers somewhere else, but he's running out of parties. He could play the loyal soldier and run in some other riding, but his image as a man with influence over Dion is now badly damaged, which thus hobbles his electability.

Finally, his supporters across the country could attempt to convince Dion to change his mind, something that is happening now. A number of people in the North are frustrated by the turn of events and talking about some public show of support for Orchard.

"When all's said and done, I feel it was an unfair process," says Duane Favel, the mayor of Ile-a-la-Crosse and an Orchard supporter.

"If they were considering appointing a candidate, they should have indicated that a lot sooner. We feel frustrated that this was pulled from underneath him the way it happened."

More than 500 people have bought Liberal memberships in the North in order to support either Orchard or his opponent John Dorion, only to learn they will have no say in the outcome of the nomination.

And ultimately, this may be the lasting legacy of this decision. People in the North are going to remember this appointment long after Joan Beatty is a footnote in Canadian political history. For proof, you need look no further than the riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt, where Jean Chretien appointed Georgette Sheridan as the Liberal nominee in 1993.

She won that year, but the internal divisions it created have never fully healed. Sheridan was defeated by Jim Pankiw in 1997 and the Reform-Alliance-Conservative metamorphosis has owned the riding every since.

There's no way to know if the same thing will happen in the North where the voting demographic is very different. But we know northern voters prize personal loyalties every bit as much as the rest of us.

That alone should have given Dion reason for pause.

Phone: 657-6212
E-mail: rburton@sp.canwest.com


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