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The StarPhoenix, Thursday, August 07, 2008

Orchard must reconcile position

By Randy Burton

The nomination battle now unfolding in the sprawling northern riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River is about more than just choosing the Liberal party's candidate for the next federal election.

It's also about who calls the shots amongst Saskatchewan Liberals and a measure of just how far the party's "big tent" can stretch.

On the first question, there is no doubt federal MP Ralph Goodale is the single most influential Liberal in the province. Few significant decisions are made without his involvement and approval. Goodale is a big part of the reason leader Stephane Dion chose to appoint Joan Beatty as the party's candidate in its failed attempt to hang on to the riding in a March byelection.

That decision was seen as an effort to prevent David Orchard from becoming a Liberal candidate and possibly an MP, where his outspoken opinions could cause problems for caucus.

Beatty's loss destroyed that strategy and strengthened the hand of those Liberals who argue that whatever Orchard's negatives might be, he also brings some important attributes to the party.

Chief among these is his huge network of supporters. Just as he was instrumental in the election of Dion as party leader, he could potentially affect the outcome in a number of ridings across the country.

This time the party has opted to give democracy a chance, which means party members have the choice to vote for either Beatty or Orchard on Aug. 14. There is still an outstanding question of whether the party is trying to make it difficult for Orchard by its selection of the locations for polling stations, but at least the candidate is not hand-picked this time.

This raises the question of where Orchard stands on issues critical to the riding, such as the future of the uranium industry.

Among the myriad of other topics that Orchard holds unwavering opinions on, he has been strongly opposed to any suggestion that Saskatchewan should ever be considered as a site for the long-term storage of nuclear waste.

He has spelled this out on several occasions, including during hearings into waste storage conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency back in 1996.

Appearing before a panel examining the topic at the time, Orchard painted a scenario in which Canada could wind up as a nuclear dump site for the entire world. The only answer to the waste problem is to stop producing nuclear power throughout Canada, Orchard said at the time.

"You have to shut down those reactors that are producing this waste every day. They have got to stop producing more of it. We have lots of power in Canada. We have no need for nuclear power at all in this country; we have got ample other ways of creating power. Canada is not a little, tiny country that has no resources. Even if some countries do need reactors, we don't need them at all."

As a statement from an anti-nuclear activist, there is nothing too surprising about it. But it would be a different story if this argument were to come from a Liberal MP, particularly one who is supposed to be close to the federal leader.

Would Orchard carry this message into the federal Liberal caucus, or perhaps even Dion's cabinet? Such a prospect would not only send shivers down the spine of the Ontario nuclear industry, but it would also raise eyebrows in Saskatchewan.

Our provincial government is now actively investigating nuclear power for Saskatchewan, not to mention other uranium processing opportunities, all of which are federally licensed and regulated. Would Orchard seek to derail that activity?

Perhaps more significantly, if nuclear power is a blight on the planet, then what of uranium mining? The federal riding Orchard seeks to represent produces 22 per cent of the world's uranium, and fuels the industry he would like to shutter. No one in northern Saskatchewan needs to be reminded that the uranium industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the province, including $58 million a year in northern salaries alone.

Having a federal MP advocating the end of nuclear power in Canada could hardly be good for those communities that depend on mining.

Orchard is busy campaigning in the Far North this week and could not be reached to discuss his current views on these issues, but his record to date suggests he's no friend to the uranium industry.

A man can always change his mind, of course, and, in fact, Orchard's views on free trade have mellowed somewhat. Perhaps the same thing has happened with his thinking on the nuclear issue.

If so, it would be nice for the voters to hear that before he becomes the Liberal candidate for the only uranium-producing region in the country.

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