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Tough rhetoric from presidential race

Maharaj speaks with an eloquence the Liberal Party hasn't heard since Pierre Trudeau's day


Hubert Bauch
15 November 2003


TORONTO - While there's no suspense over the leadership selection at this week's federal Liberal convention, there is a tight contest for the next biggest job up for grabs.

Liberal delegates are also picking a new party president from a field of three strong contenders, none of whom was counted out before the convention began, as was the case with Paul Martin's only challenger, Sheila Copps.

Here the suspense will hold until today's convention closing session, where the winner will be announced.

While none of the contenders - Greg Ashley, Mike Eizenga and Akaash Maharaj - are household names, the race for the party's highest executive position is a classic contest between competitive candidates and features tougher rhetoric than anything heard from the leadership podiums.

You could call it a race between the mechanic, the warhorse and the prodigy.

Eizenga, who confesses to the nickname Zinger, is the mechanic. He is now the party's secretary-treasurer, and during yesterday's session, where the candidates displayed their wares, he promised to invest the party with "a comprehensive organizational and business plan" - including a five-month timetable to pay off the party's current $2-million overdraft.

The warhorse, and the oldest of the three candidates at 51, is Ashley, a Newfoundlander who now lives in Winnipeg, but who still has the island lilt in his voice and a folksy sense of humour. In the middle of his speech, he paused to salute his mother back on The Rock, saying: "This smile's for you, Mom, and I know anyone will forgive me for that."

Maharaj is the prodigy. At 33, the Oxford-educated writer, CEO and political activist has headed the party's policy committee and speaks with an eloquence the party hasn't heard since Pierre Trudeau's day.

"I've been drawn by the conviction that public service is the only secular reply to the yearning each of us feels to be part of something greater than ourselves," he said yesterday.

He also rapped the party for its sloppy finances and deficit of democratic spirit.

He drew enthusiastic cheers when he said the new Martin government should not be "imprisoned in a bubble of backroom cigar smoke."

On the strength of audience response, Ashley was clearly the weakest candidate of the three. Both Eizenga and Maharaj had substantial cheering sections on hand, with a slight edge to Maharaj, whose backers came armed with placards.

But in this case it will take a vote count to declare the winner.

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