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Regina Leader Post, Saturday, January 19, 2008

Liberals still giving each other the rocket

by Murray Mandryk

What's curious about the Liberal fireworks in the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding is how long they're lasting.

Such nasty nomination fights in the normally tranquil night skies of politics are very much like fireworks -- bright and noisy enough to make us "ooh" and "ahh" and not want to look away for a few moments, but over so quickly that you barely recall the next day exactly what it was that you found so enthralling.

Well, the fireworks are still exploding and there are several reasons why -- not the least of which is the eagerness of some Liberals to use this fight to take out leader Stephane Dion and Ralph Goodale in Saskatchewan.

Had the controversy surrounding Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River followed the usual pattern, it would have fizzled in a day or two. By now, one would think, overtures would have been made to aggrieved nomination candidates John Dorion and David Orchard, who would be now be singing Dion's praises for insisting on running an aboriginal woman in what is still (amazingly enough) a winnable seat for the Liberals.

One might even think that Marcel Head -- the push behind setting up an entirely new Liberal riding association and perhaps Orchard's conduit in this affair -- would have by now found a reason to fully endorse Joan Beatty's candidacy as a sign of party unity and loyalty.

Well, that hasn't happened, largely because of some external -- and a lot of internal -- Liberal politics both in Saskatchewan and far beyond.

The first problem is that fence-mending would have to begin with Beatty herself. While rumours suggest that Dion has sent emissaries to make overtures, some Liberals suggest that Beatty hasn't bothered to do so. (And if she has, she certainly hasn't been successful.) While Dion supporters keep spinning the notion of what a coup it's been to attract this star candidate, the fact that the northern politician concerned doesn't appear to be contributing to a resolution to this uproar may say something about her political skill set.

The second problem is Orchard, who is less of a firecracker in politics than he is an improvised explosive device.

Having failed to impose his anti-free-trade view of the world by working outside the political system, Orchard and his followers have turned their attention to imposing their views on the world from within the political system. What should be as evident to Dion and the Liberals, as it was to the old Progressive Conservatives when Orchard sought that party's leadership, is that imposing his views is really Orchard's only interest.

That said, what normally would happen is that Orchard's vested interests would be isolated by the party and exposed as such. Instead, the candidacy of this one-time Tory and anti-free trade advocate (who also happened to be one of Dion's key leadership organizers) has the support of some pretty credible Liberal big guns like Doug Richardson (a key Michael Ignatieff organizer in Saskatchewan). Some Liberals say Orchard may even have the support of the Merchant clan, which also supported Ignatieff.

It's about here where we begin to see that Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River affair is more than squabbling northern politics. This pyrotechnic display may be fueled by Liberals themselves.

Certainly, there are any number of Liberals frustrated by Dion's decisions -- like appointing candidates. In fact, after losing all three Quebec byelections (including the Montreal Liberal fortress of Outremont, where Dion's hand-picked candidate lost the riding for the party for the first time since the 1930s), Dion has faced mounting pressure.

Another byelection loss in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River -- a seat that's changed hands four times in the last four elections -- may not be fatal, but it won't help Dion's cause. (Especially if it's accompanied by completely unexpected losses in the Toronto byelections.)

But the other person likely to wear a Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River byelection loss is Ralph Goodale. Having been at the helm of the Saskatchewan Liberal party for as long as he has, Goodale may have more enemies within his party than outside it.

Bet that some of them will point to another downturn in Liberal fortunes as an argument for a changing of the guard.

Bet that you'll see fireworks for a while yet.

- Mandryk is the political columnist for the Leader-Post.

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