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The StarPhoenix, Friday, January 11, 2008

Beatty's move to join Grits not hard to fathom

by Doug Cuthand

Joan Beatty was elected in November in the Cumberland constituency while running on the NDP ticket provincially. Now she has announced that she will run in the March 17 federal byelection for the Liberals in the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding.

The reaction has been swift and negative.

The pundits poured scorn on her decision, stating it was a slap in the face to the constituents who recently elected her as a NDP member of the provincial legislature.

It's not as if this hasn't happened before. Former NDP cabinet minister and provincial MLA Buckley Belanger switched from Liberals to NDP and Rick Laliberte served two terms federally, as an NDP member in 1997 and a Liberal in 2000.

It doesn't really matter, because Beatty's fate will be decided by her constituents. History has shown that a change in party isn't fatal with aboriginal voters. In the provincial election, Beatty received the largest percentage of votes among all the NDP candidates. You can bet that was because of her personal appeal and not any overwhelming endorsement for the NDP.

It's not unusual for First Nations and aboriginal people to switch parties. Political issues in Indian country generally are local, or centre on the recognition of aboriginal and treaty rights.

Issues that relate to basic services such as clean water, improved infrastructure and employment often take centre stage in election campaigns. Issues such as rights and land claims are very important to aboriginal people, but may not make a blip on the radar screen in other constituencies or may be viewed negatively.

The loyalty in Indian country is to the individual who can deliver. Partisan politics are seen as a vehicle to make change for your community. Few aboriginal people are so close to a party that they will support a candidate based on party affiliation alone.

The federal NDP is much different from its provincial counterpart in Saskatchewan.

Federally, the NDP is seen as the flaky left that will never have to live up to its political promises. The jump from the provincial NDP to the federal Liberals isn't much of a leap. Provincially, the NDP has decades of experience with running competent governments. In the past 60 years it has been in power two-thirds of the time. The NDP is Saskatchewan's natural governing party, as the Liberals have been at the federal level.

History shows that in Saskatchewan, parties are likely to spend two terms in Opposition. The Thatcher and Devine governments both were two-term governments. Barring a scandal or political disaster, it's quite likely that the Brad Wall government, too, will serve two terms. This is not a welcome prospect for a sitting NDP member.

Beatty was facing a bleak future of political purgatory on the opposition benches, playing legislative parlour games and not being in any position to make meaningful change for her constituents. It's not a welcome way to spend one's political career.

The second issue swarming around Beatty is her unilateral appointment by Liberal Leader Stephane Dion. Metis activist John Dorion and David Orchard, a Dion supporter during the leadership race, both were campaigning for the Liberal nomination until the rug was pulled out from under them.

This has raised questions about how welcome Orchard really was in the Liberal party. If he wants to run in another constituency, the pickings are pretty slim. The Conservatives own the rest of the constituencies in Saskatchewan, with the exception of the seat held by Ralph Goodale.

This is the second time Orchard has been stabbed in the back politically. Previously he threw his support behind Peter MacKay for the leadership of the Conservative Party, providing that MacKay promised not to join forces with the Canadian Alliance. MacKay reneged on the deal and the rest is history.

This is a controversial decision by Dion, who has stated he wants one-third of the Liberal candidates to be women. It's a noble principle, but forcing it has the potential to backfire.

So, what are Beatty's chances of securing a federal seat? If the dissatisfied Liberals vote with their feet or if the NDP or Conservatives run a popular candidate, she could be dust. If her supporters come along, she has a chance. She speaks fluent Cree, is a hard worker and remains highly popular among northerners.

She could win the byelection just in time to join the House of Commons and participate in a no-confidence vote on the budget or some other contentious issue and end up back on the campaign trail. It would be hard to avoid a nomination vote twice.

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