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The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Liberals unable to rally supporters in Northern Saskatchewan

by Joe Friesen and Campbell Clark

PRINCE ALBERT, SASK. and OTTAWA — Conservative Rob Clarke stormed to an upset victory in Northern Saskatchewan thanks to a strong, grassroots organization and abysmal voter turnout in traditional Liberal strongholds, party officials said yesterday.

Mr. Clarke, an RCMP sergeant who was on unpaid leave during the campaign, will now have to resign from the police force in order to take his seat in the House of Commons.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who played an active role in Mr. Clarke's campaign, said it was an impressive ground operation - citing the 40,000 kilometres on Mr. Clarke's vehicle - that got supporters to the polls and led to the Conservative win.

"He met and worked with everybody he could and got the vote out," Mr. Ritz said.

Liberal campaign officials were left shaking their heads Monday night, wondering where their support had gone. In the 2006 election, they won a narrow victory with slightly more than 10,000 votes. As turnout plummeted to 25 per cent in the riding, they took only 3,287 votes, compared with 4,996 for Mr. Clarke. They blamed their poor numbers partly on complacency among supporters who thought their candidate, former NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty, had the riding sewn up, and on new election regulations that complicated the voting process for people on reserves. They say hundreds of people may have been prevented from voting because they didn't have photo ID and couldn't present proof of a civic address.

Poll-by-poll results won't be available until tomorrow , but organizers with the Liberals and NDP say the numbers will show Mr. Clarke's base in southern agricultural communities cast their ballots, while Liberal and NDP supporters in Indian and Métis communities stayed home.

The by-election loss was a blow for Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, but inside the party, it has also damaged the reputation of the senior Grit in the province, Ralph Goodale.

It was Mr. Goodale who pressed Mr. Dion to cut short a nomination race in the riding to appoint Ms. Beatty. Mr. Dion overruled his own senior campaign managers, David Smith and Mark Marissen, to take Mr. Goodale's advice.

That ended a nomination race that was expected to hand the Liberal banner in the riding to farmer and trade activist David Orchard, a key supporter of Mr. Dion in the Liberal leadership race.

Although often dismissed as a political oddball, Mr. Orchard was one of the few potential candidates with his own campaign machine capable of organizing a get-out-the-vote effort that might have won a poorly attended by-election.

Mr. Orchard said yesterday he didn't campaign for the Liberals this time, nor did he turn his organization against the party. But he believes the decision to appoint Ms. Beatty hurt the Liberal cause.

"Many people told me across the riding that they wanted their right to participate in the democratic process respected," Mr. Orchard said.

He wouldn't say whether he plans to run against Ms. Beatty for the nomination next time, but he will to listen to the people, he said.

"One of the prominent Métis leaders from the north told me today, 'David, if you abandon us now we'll shoot you when you step out of your home,' " Mr. Orchard said.

Marcel Head, chief of Shoal Lake First Nation and an Orchard supporter, said many aboriginal people stayed home because they weren't encouraged to vote by their band leadership, many of whom were upset with Mr. Dion for bypassing the nomination process.

Mr. Goodale was said to be dead-set against Mr. Orchard because of his political views, particularly his opposition to free trade. However, many in the party believe Mr. Goodale did not want to see another Saskatchewan MP gain influence with Mr. Dion.

Some senior Liberals question whether Mr. Goodale gave the leader advice that would help the party, or blocked Mr. Orchard's nomination to preserve his own influence.

"He just didn't want somebody else with a pipeline direct to the leader," one Liberal close to the discussions said about the appointment. "If the leader isn't questioning what the hell happened here, I'd be really worried."

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