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The StarPhoenix, Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Liberal policies at odds with province

By Randy Burton

Here's my question for Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.

Standing on the brink of a federal election, which face of the Liberal party should Saskatchewan voters recognize?

Is it that of Dion, whose climate change plan is too radical even for Jack Layton and the NDP? Is it that of Ralph Goodale, the stolid workhorse who has laboured under a number of distinctly different Liberal leaders? Or is it that of David Orchard, the political maverick and anti-nuke who is the party's newest candidate in Saskatchewan?

Based on the reception the various players got at a Liberal town hall meeting here Sunday, the answer is Orchard. He received easily the loudest ovation of any of the half dozen or so candidates presented, even Goodale.

This, of course, is a reflection of the fact that the meeting was held close to the We Are Many festival, so the green contingent was out in full force.

Still, the Liberal identity is no idle question, given the Liberals' latest political positioning. The party will live or die in the next election based largely on its so-called Green Shift, a carbon tax that is going to present major challenges for the Saskatchewan economy both in the energy sector and in agriculture.

So when Dion asked to meet with The StarPhoenix editorial board to promote a carbon tax, I took the opportunity to delve into the area. Given that we're home to 20 per cent of the world's uranium and given that our provincial government is leaning toward building a nuclear power plant, would the federal leader support that idea, particularly since nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases?

Well, power production is a provincial responsibility, Dion replied. The feds merely regulate the industry.

True, but Cameco Corp. CEO Gerry Grandey argues the approval process for nuclear power plants is overly long and cumbersome. Would Dion move to streamline the process?

As a matter of fact, he would. If he becomes prime minister Dion would gather the various regulatory parties under one roof to improve communications and speed up the environmental approval process. That doesn't mean less rigorous scrutiny, but it does mean a more efficient approach, he said.

"I want them all in the same building and working every day, effectively. It's as simple as that."

Interesting. So then how does Dion square that with the fact his latest star candidate in Saskatchewan is actually in favour of shutting down Canada's nuclear power industry? Orchard has yet to clarify his position on nuclear power, let alone uranium mining.

Well, says Dion, the Liberals have a big tent. "I'm the leader. We have a policy. I have expressed this policy to you and this is the policy we will implement once we will be the government. Mr. Orchard has strong views about a lot of things. I will not always agree with him but I think he will be a very valuable candidate in the north of Saskatchewan."

In the grand scheme of things, whether Orchard is a Liberal candidate matters little to Liberal fortunes, but it illustrates a key problem Dion faces.

Political veterans will tell you when you're explaining, you're losing. And right now, Stephane Dion is doing a lot of explaining.

For example, he's explaining why a carbon tax on diesel fuel will actually be a good thing for farmers.

The world price of oil is going to continue to rise and so will the price of fuel. If we change now to various biofuels, not only will the environment be better off but farmers will be better able to deal with rising input costs.

Dion said: "When I read in the paper that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is considering to cut taxes on diesel this is the worst thing you may do because then the country is less and less able to distance its dependence on fossil fuels." Good luck selling that at the farm gate.

Dion is also explaining a rather novel theory of taxation. He argues smart tax policy is to tax "the things we don't want," such as carbon emissions. Yet his carbon tax will hit the price of electricity, fertilizer and diesel fuel in Saskatchewan but not the price of gas at the pumps in Toronto.

This is going to be difficult to explain in a Saskatchewan federal campaign, in which words like "crazy" and phrases like "screw the West" are likely to predominate.

Dion finds such low-road politics appalling, of course, and rightly so. He is a sincere gentleman in a ruffian's game. But you don't take a knife to a gunfight and trying to explain a confusing and very likely damaging tax in the midst of a national campaign is going to be very difficult.

The last fellow to try it was a guy named Joe Clark. Whatever happened to him?


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