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Will this Man be the Next President of the Liberal Party of Canada?


July 2002


TORONTO - Thirty-two-year-old Akaash Maharaj is, at first glance, an unlikely candidate for the President of the Liberal Party of Canada.

“I am, for a wide variety of reasons, out of mould. Age and ethnicity, are two obvious ones, but also the fact that I aim to make it an activist position,” says Maharaj, Who has been the National Policy Chair of the Liberal Party for four years.

At the heart of Liberalism is the belief that liberty is the highest political good. The core value of Liberalism is that liberty is essential for the promotion of human rights and human welfare. That is the intellectual reason for the Liberal Party being the party of his choice. On an emotional level, Maharaj says he has always thought of himself as a child of Pierre Trudeau and has thus been drawn to his policies and his party.

Maharaj chose to run for leadership of the party rather than contest for provincial legislature or federal parliament because he feels that in a democracy, it is vital that people of conviction speak freely. That they neither seek a favour nor fear the wrath of the powerful.

“In the voluntary side of the party, one can have the absolute freedom to represent the interests of many rather than those of a few. My ability to give a voice to the views of ordinary Canadians is important.”

How does he plan to deal with carious special interest groups and lobbies within the party?

Maharaj feels as National Policy Chair he has been reasonably successful in dealing with people who have held very strong views.

“The key is in recognizing that in a complex, pluralistic society, views will conflict. One has to broker a resolution on all important public policies, stand up for the right thing, specially when it is unpopular. One must be willing to be judged by history and not by the next election.”

How is he viewed within the party? As too young? Too different?

“The President of the Party is elected by delegates from across the country at the National Convention in February 2003. Because I’ve been National Policy Chair, I’m well known nationally. My position and thinking are recognized.”

Maharaj describes himself as a practical idealist and would rather lose as an idealist than win as a cynic.

“Both those who support me and those who may have misgivings about me can see I’m an idealist. My supporters see the higher qualities I seek to bring to the position. My critics say politics is no place for an idealist! I disagree. One has to hold on to one’s ideals even when being stripped of illusions.

“I hope there is a positive response to someone who wishes to change politics rather than be changed by it.”

In an interview with Desi News in 1999, Maharaj had stated that though he was born in Toronto, He traveled a path well trodden by immigrants when he went to study at Oxford.

Would he say he identifies more with immigrants because of the experience? Does he see himself as someone representing the immigrant community?

“My objective is to represent all Canadians. But certainly, both my experience in England and as a first-generation Canadian have shaped my perspective.”

What impact does he think he would have on the ongoing changes to immigration laws?”

“The same as on a full range of public affairs.”

Maharaj wants to see decisions reflecting the needs of the people and not of Ottawa. “The Liberal belief is that government should not be by a group of elite but by the governed themselves.”

Maharaj had told Desi News in 1999 that his main domestic policy would be eradication of child poverty.

As the National Policy Chair, he has been working on that front for the past four years and is proud of the fact that the stated centerpiece of the last speech of the throne was eradication of child poverty. However, he admits enough progress has not been made.

“In 1999, one in five children lived in poverty. We’ve halted that figure. But there is no reason we should not have been more successful.”

He sees the resistance of child poverty to eradication measures as a rebuke and attributes it to a failure to eradicate family and parental poverty.

“There are the age-old political issues of the relationship between the federal and provincial governments. We have to institute more results – driven programmes. There has to be more mutual accountability. Not so much a case of ‘Where did you spend the funds?’ but ‘Did you achieve the results?’”

If elected President of the Liberal Party, what would be Maharaj’s single-most important task?

“To transform the Liberal Party into a more robust organization. To make it the first port of call for all Canadians who want to make a difference. To involve Canadians in the political process not only at elections but also between elections. To make the Liberal Party the most effective national organization in rallying together ordinary people of conscience to advance the public good.”

What’s his position on the whole Chrétien-Martin debate?

“I think the breakdown of the relationship between the two is a huge loss to the nation. They made a fabulous team precisely because they had such contrasting styles. Regrettably, it doesn’t look like there will be a reconciliation and one side will prevail. The party will decide which one and as Party President, it will be my role to enforce the will of the Party. At this point, I can’t prejudice the result by coming out for one side or the other.”

Maharaj is also President and CEO of Concordis, a Canadian not-for-profit group that works on international peace and conflict resolution.
Their main areas of focus are the Arab-Israeli conflict, Kashmir and Sri Lanka.

“Right now, we are busy with the Arab-Israeli conflict. We try to bring together Arab Canadians and Jewish Canadians to foster mutual understanding. These people have direct insight as they are from the regions. They also, as Canadians, have the benefit of a different perspective. We work with that to promote a better understanding,” he says.

Maharaj grew up with his grandparents in Toronto.

“They taught me more by example than by rote. One of the main things I got from them was the belief that each of us is nothing if not living memorial to all the men and women who have come before us. We have to justify their struggle.”

What does being Canadian mean to Maharaj?

“The Canadian identity is perhaps the most debated. No nation has more angst over its identity than we do. I see that as a good thing. We should be proud of what we have achieved. Being Canadian means having the freedom to be who I am. I can be Canadian and who I am at the same time. I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s vision of a Canadian.

“Canada was created not by accidents of history or the determinism of geography but by ordinary people with extraordinary vision united by the single article of faith that we could be stronger together not in spite of our differences, but precisely because of them.”

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