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The StarPhoenix, Monday. April 5, 2004

Orchard wins fight against Tories

by Darren Bernhardt

Saskatchewan farmer David Orchard has struck a major blow against his Goliath, dodging a $200,000 lawsuit by the Conservative Party of Canada.

"It lifts a great weight off our shoulders, this threat of huge costs," said Orchard, the former Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful. "It's a significant victory for us. I can tell you our people all across the country are happy."

The Conservative Party launched the suit to stem Orchard's public outbursts against the party. He insisted on calling the merger of the PC party and Canadian Alliance illegal and the leaders of the new Conservative Party claim to have been defamed by "hearsay, misrepresentations, speculation, irrelevant political rhetoric and alleged personal bias," according to the wording of the Ontario Superior Court judgment by Justice Juriansz.

Orchard went so far as to file his own court actions to challenge the authority of the leaders of both parties to merge without unanimity among their party members.

The newly created Conservative Party offered to withdraw its suit if Orchard retracted his comments and gave up pursuing the PC name. He wants his former party's title so he can revive it and turn it into a viable alternative on the federal political stage.

When the pressure came from the Conservatives, Orchard refused to back down.

"They wanted me to sign documents saying I take back everything I had said about the merger and that I had no interest or claim on the words progressive or conservative or the initials PC," Orchard said. "I said, 'Not a chance.' I felt that was blackmail."

When the parties merged, their Alliance and PC names were dissolved by Canada's chief electoral officer. Orchard has an appeal case April 27 in which he and several others are challenging the electoral officer's decision.

Had Orchard been forced to pay the $200,000 sum, his plans to pursue the PC name in court would have taken a serious financial hit.

"It was of course, a great worry having that amount of money hanging over my head. So it was a great relief to read this judgment," Orchard said. "It supports our right to speak in this democracy without being punished for talking to (media). It could have been a real blow against freedom of expression."

Although the ruling was dated March 23, Orchard just received it Friday. In the ruling, Justice Juriansz, stated that Orchard's comments regarding the Conservative Party and the provisions under the Election Act relating to party mergers were "of national significance to the politics of the nation.

"I was not persuaded that I should make a costs award that would sanction or inhibit free discussion of political issues," Juriansz stated.

Conservative Party Leader (and former Alliance leader) Stephen Harper could not be reached for comment on the weekend, nor could newly-appointed deputy leader Peter MacKay, the former PC party leader.

On a smaller scale, Orchard was victorious a second time Friday when a judge in the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the Conservative Party to finalize its case for the April 27 appeal against Orchard's claim regarding the dissolution of the PC name.

"They've been trying to bring various motions forward to run up the (legal) bills so high that they would break us just in terms of having us responding to the motions," said Orchard. "But they're not going to be able to do that anymore.

"The combination of this and the other ruling made Friday a very good day for us."

MacKay secured the PC leadership at a convention in May 2003 after promising Orchard, a rival candidate, he would steer clear of merger talks with the Alliance. In return, Orchard lent his support to MacKay, who won on a fourth ballot. MacKay later reneged on the promise, saying he realized the parties had no choice but to unite if they hope to put an end to conservative vote splitting.

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