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Top Grit questions authority of Liberal Party's national executive


by Paco Francoli
16 September 2002


WINNIPEG - The national executive's authority could easily be challenged should it decide to bring in rules and regulations for the next leadership convention that appear to favour one leadership contender over another, says a top Liberal running for the presidency of the party.

Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Grit executive and the party's policy chair, said that as the executive prepares to set an early leadership convention for the fall of 2003, it could be setting itself up for criticism because its mandate has been extended beyond its constitutionally-mandated two-year term.

The move by the 60-member body, which is dominated by supporters of Paul Martin, is expected to boost the former finance minister's chances of becoming the next leader given his large organizational advantage and the fact he is no longer in Cabinet and free to campaign openly.

Mr. Martin is not under the same constraints as the other contenders who are in Cabinet -- Industry Minister Allan Rock (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.), Deputy Prime Minister John Manley (Ottawa South, Ont.), and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps (Hamilton East, Ont.) -- who are not allowed to raise money for their leadership campaigns. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (Saint Maurice, Que.) has indicated he will give his ministers the green light in the new year.

Mr. Maharaj said unsuccessful leadership camps may take issue with the legitimacy of the executive if they don't like the way it is handling the transition of the party's leadership.

"Different decisions will be perceived rightly or wrongly as favouring different candidates," he said. "For that reason it is crucial that if we expect people to accept the legitimacy of those decisions, that it is vital that the national executive be perceived as being legitimate. My fear is that by doubling our terms in office we might call that legitimacy into question."

The party's executive was last elected in March of 2000 at a policy convention held in Ottawa. It was supposed to face an election in February 2003, after Mr. Martin's and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's camps agreed to delay by one year the proceedings which include a review of the party's leadership. But that convention has been rendered moot given Mr. Chrétien's recent announcement that he will step down in February 2004.

Now, party members face the prospects of waiting yet another year to debate policy issues and elect a new executive because the current executive, headed by outgoing president Stephen LeDrew, is expected to roll the policy convention into a leadership convention slated for the fall of 2003.

The executive will meet in mid-October in Montreal to set the date which will likely be between Nov. 4, 2003 and Dec. 7, 2003.

"My concern is that the party's constitution lays down terms of two years for all members of the national executive and by canceling the [February 2003] biennial convention the terms in office of the executive members will have been effectively doubled from two to four years," added Mr. Maharaj.

"We [the executive] will be governing the party through a leadership race. We will be called upon to make some fundamental decisions of our leadership rules, timing of conventions, cutoff dates and the like. These decisions are not merely fundamental, they will inevitably be controversial"…

Mr. Maharaj said he will accept whatever decision the executive takes, adding that should the leadership convention be set for the fall of 2003 he would support canceling next February's policy convention given the costs and impracticality of holding two conventions within a year.

Should this scenario materialize, he said will seek approval from the executive to hold interim policy meetings next year across the country so that members can discuss "ideas and ideals" ranging from Parliamentary reform to health care to Canada-U.S. relations.

"What I have in mind right now is a series of regional policy meetings, held over the early winter and spring of 2003," he said, adding he is confident the executive will agree to release funds for the meetings.

"My sense from my colleagues on the executive is that they understand the need for the party to discuss ideas, why we seek power."

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