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Contender for Liberal presidency sees importance of future policies


by Wayne Thibodeau
10 September 2002


CHARLOTTETOWN - The race to replace Prime Minister Jean Chretien isn't the only leadership race facing the federal Liberal party.

Liberals are also preparing to elect a new party president and one of the contenders for the post was on the Island recently.

Akaash Maharaj, a 32-year-old Toronto-born descendent from Trinidad, is no stranger to Liberal party insiders. He has served as the Liberal party's national policy chairman for the past four years and has been endorsed for the party's top post by people like Allan Rock, Paul Martin and former Ontario premier David Peterson.

Maharaj will be going up against the well-connected Patrick Gagnon, a lobbyist from eastern Quebec, and Francoise Patry, a secretary at Power Corp. and the wife of a Quebec MP.

Maharaj contends that the bitter leadership battle between Chretien and Martin is not only stealing the limelight away from his race, it is also steering most Liberals' interest away from important issues like party policies.

"Certainly, the coming leadership race has absorbed the Liberal Party of Canada and has indeed occupied most of the space on the entire political spectrum in Canada," Maharaj said in an interview with The Guardian.

"However, my own belief and I believe the belief of the vast majority of Liberals is that if a change in leadership is to be meaningful, if the leadership race itself is to be a meaningful exercise, it must be less about a contest between individuals and more about a choice between competing visions of the public interest."

Liberals will be meeting in February for their first policy convention in six years. It is at that time that the party's delegates will chose a new president.

However, many Liberals want that policy convention put on hold until a new leader is chosen. They fear that holding a policy convention during a leadership race will only prove to be more divisive for the party.

Maharaj disagrees. He said it's important that a policy convention be held in February.

"Were we to cancel the February 2003 biannual convention, the Liberal party would have gone some six years without a policy convention and for any political party, let alone the governing political party, to allow six years to elapse without discussing ideas and ideals would be to bring itself into pubic disrepute."

Maharaj does expect a hotly contested and divisive race for the leader's post and ultimately the right to sit in the prime minister's office. However, the Oxford University graduate said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Maharaj said democracy at best is noisy, unkempt and vigorous and he added that Canadians should take comfort that it cannot be controlled by any one person.

"I think this will be a vigorous race because the stakes are so much higher for the Liberal party than any other political party," said Maharaj, who won't say who he is supporting so as to remain impartial.

"The victor will not simply become party leader, he or she will also become prime minister. We can expect to see this race conducted both with greater energy and under greater scrutiny than any of the other party leadership races."

Maharaj, like many Liberals, would like to see Liberals choose a new leader in the fall of 2003.

The prime minister has said that he wants to remain in office until February 2004 but Maharaj said both could be accomplished.

"Were we to hold a leadership convention in, for example, November 2003, it would nevertheless be possible for the prime minister to remain in office until February during the transition period which would after all stretch over the Christmas holidays."

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