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The StarPhoenix, Sunday, Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Northern Sask. fiasco highlights Dion's weakness

It is somewhat ironic that at the very moment Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion became dangerously trapped in an uncharted Saskatchewan minefield, he was in fact half a world away -- in a war zone.

Over the last year, the federal Liberals have complained repeatedly of the bully campaign by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to paint Dion as a weak, bumbling and indecisive leader.

Dion's inability to lead his way out of a constituency leadership contest over the past weekend was just one more stumble from a man who has set off more mines than a Second World War mine-flail tank.

After imposing his will on the clearly unwilling Liberals of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Dion appears determined to do to this one-time Grit stronghold what he did to the sure Liberal Quebec riding of Outremont, which is now run by New Democratic MP Thomas Mulcair.

Even a political neophyte could not have helped but notice Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River was a delicate situation. Once a bastion of Liberal strength, over the last decade it has swung through all three major national parties -- even having the same candidate represent different parties in two consecutive elections and run as an independent the next time out.

In 1997, Rick Laliberte took the riding for the NDP, only to cross the floor to the Liberals whose banner he successfully carried in 2000 before he was tossed from the party. He then ran as an independent, but only served to split the vote enough to allow Jeremy Harrison to win for the Conservatives. Harrison lost to Liberal Gary Merasty by a mere 67 votes in 2006.

Under these tricky circumstances, Dion opted to pull from his bag of tricks the option to deny Liberal members their democratic right to choose their own candidate and appoint former provincial NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty as his chosen candidate.

Although Dion's people are arguing the appointment was made at the behest of Saskatchewan Liberal strongman Ralph Goodale, it makes little difference when one considers what it means to the perception it creates about Dion's leadership. A weak leader is particularly prone to taking bad advice -- a particularly weak leader then hopes to buy forgiveness by blaming the adviser.

Still, there is some beautiful symmetry in how the wheels were blown off the candidate selection process in this particular case.

Dion's leadership would never come into question if it wasn't for David Orchard, who was elbowed out with Beatty's appointment. The two-time Tory leadership candidate made a spectacular switch to the Liberals and brought more than 100 Dion delegates to the party's leadership convention, where the former political scientist rose through the pack to steal the show.

Orchard used his 39,000-name Rolodex to secure enough votes to turn Dion from a footnote to the leader who is now demonstrating just how bad that decision was for the Liberals. It can't but bring smiles to the faces of those in Orchard's former party.

But the symmetry doesn't stop there.

Last year, Goodale made a good deal of hay in knocking the Conservatives for trying to get Bill C-31(on improving voter identification) through the House. The process, as he pointed out, created "the potential loss of vote for nearly a million Canadians, especially rural Canadians."

It was imperative, the Regina MP insisted, that the law be fixed soon so that the good people of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River didn't lose their democratic say.

It would be nice to conclude that Dion's decision to ignore the basic democratic right of the people of Northern Saskatchewan to choose their own representative had some redeeming qualities -- such as the claim that by doing so the Liberal party could pick a woman, who is Native and a good communicator in order to raise this constituency's profile in Canadian politics.

But Beatty is not so rare as all that. The Liberals already have Tina Keeper, a Cree who used to star in the hit CBC show North of 60, sitting so far back on their benches that she's almost closer to her Manitoba riding of Churchill than to the Liberal leader's chair.

If Dion wanted to promote Beatty's chances in Northern Saskatchewan, he should have shown up personally to endorse her and lent his experience as an educator to help the party's riding executive more firmly establish itself, rather than take away the rights of the people.

But perhaps Northern Saskatchewan was just too dangerous a location for Dion to visit. That might explain his foray into Afghanistan on the very weekend the mines were going off in this province.

"Democracy cannot be maintained without its foundation: free public opinion and free discussion throughout the nation of all matters affecting the state within the limits set by the criminal code and the common law."

The Supreme Court of Canada, 1938

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