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Liberal party memberships still a hot simmering issue


by F. Abbas Rana
30 June 2003


OTTAWA - Two of the candidates running for the presidency of the Liberal Party of Canada say access to party membership forms is still "confusing" and that the party should review its controversial policy of selling and distributing forms in the future.

Liberal MP Mac Harb (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) and Greg Ashley, who are both running to replace current Grit Party President Stephen LeDrew, vowed that if they win the party presidency, they will set up a national executive committee to review the rules of access to membership forms.

Declared Mr. Ashley: "The Manitoba party can't be doing something different than the Newfoundland party. It's called the Liberal Party of Canada which speaks loudly that it's from coast to coast to coast."

Said Mr. Harb: "I do know that we really have to revisit the way we hand out forms, to revisit the way we collect forms, the way we tabulate forms, the way we distribute the cards to members. I do have this as part of my platform, a very important section that deals specifically with that. I think we need to make sure that the party apparatus meets the needs of its members. Whether or not it is at this point in time, different people have different opinions about that. Certainly, each one of us will have a story to tell about some of the challenges we face collectively as well as individually but that's something I would suppose that the next executive of the party will have to deal with."

But Akaash Maharaj, chair of the Liberal Party's policy development, and the third candidate running for the presidency of the Liberal Party, says he doesn't consider the distribution of membership forms in the party as restrictive or a big problem.

"My sense is that all the provinces have adopted eminently reasonable guidelines for the distribution of forms. To be a democrat is to accept the will of many and one cannot wish to lead a party while discounting the decisions of its members. There are many provinces where there is unrestricted access to forms.

"There are some provinces where one doesn't need a membership form. There are others where the distribution of forms are managed. Certain numbers are handed out and more are made available as candidates have returned them. The key issue, however, is that in every province and every territory, the candidates have access to unlimited forms. It simply is that in some cases, they must return some forms before obtaining others. I cannot see how that constitutes a restriction on access to forms."

The accusations had been flying over party memberships right up until June 20 when party forms sales ended. Candidates running to be the leader of the Liberal Party and, ultimately, Prime Minister, have been accusing supporters of former finance minister and front-runner Paul Martin (LaSalle-Émard, Que.) of controlling access to membership forms. Months ago, former industry minister Brian Tobin dropped out of the race citing "restrictions" on membership forms as one of the reasons and Industry Minister Allan Rock (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.) blamed supporters of Mr. Martin of controlling the distribution of membership forms before he dropped out of the race too. Now more recently, Finance Minister John Manley (Ottawa South, Ont.) raised the issue of inadequate access to membership forms for his campaign during leadership debates.

Supporters of Mr. Martin, however, have always vehemently denied the allegations.

And two weeks ago, Sheila Copps (Hamilton East, Ont.) team was accused of submitting bogus forms. But Ms. Copps dismissed the accusations, saying Mr. Martin's team is "running scared" and has resorted to a smear campaign.

Ms. Copps has said that her campaign has recruited 25,000 new Liberals across the country. Mr. Manley's team has said he sold 43,000 new membership forms, including 25,000 in Ontario. And Mr. Martin's team has said they have 82,5000 of the 110,000 Ontario members, of which 80,000 are new recruits. Mr. Martin's campaign recently told the National Post that it speculated Mr. Manley has about 15 per cent, or 16,500, and Ms. Copps has about 10 per cent, about 11,000.

Meanwhile, the three candidates for the party's presidency told The Hill Times that they are not supporting any of the candidates running for the party's leadership and also said none of leadership candidates has endorsed any of the paarty presidential candidacies. They all said that one of the reasons for not seeking support of any of the leadership candidates is that as president of the party they would like to work with anyone who becomes leader of the party.

On the controversial and divisive issue of Bill C-24, the Prime Minister's Campaign Finance Bill, which was passed in the House of Commons before it adjourned, Mr. Maharaj said that although the objectives of the bill are "eminently laudable" he pointed out that more time should have been spent in building the consensus amongst Canadians, opposition parties and with those in the Liberal Party.

Declared Mr. Maharaj: "I think the objectives of the bill are eminently laudable and I believe that's a view shared by a vast majority of Canadians not simply the idea of greater transparency and accounting of funds raised, but also reducing the public fear about the co-mingling of money and power. My most serious concern about the bill, however, is that it's pursued with such unseemly haste that it risks undoing the good which it is to achieve. We can't forget that Bill C-24, in effect, strikes the foundations of the political system as it currently stands and that is something that should be done with the greatest of care."

He continued: "Moreover, as the governing political party, we have a duty, I believe to effect changes to the political system after having at least attempted to create a consensus amongst Canadians and other political parties. The fact that we have not engaged with other political parties in a meaningful way, the fact that we have not engaged with our own political party, I think is worrying."

Mr. Ashley, a former long-time Hill staffer and currently the vice-president of Craig Wireless Inc., an internet and cable company based in Winnipeg, Man., said that he opposes "most of the bill" but declined to go into details of what parts of the bill he endorses or opposes.

Long-time Chrétien loyalist, Mr. Harb, on the other hand, said he strongly favours the bill and said it should be implemented on its stated date which is in January, 2004.

Moreover, the candidates said they oppose the way Mr. LeDrew forcefully lobbied against the Campaign Finance Bill and criticized Mr. LeDrew for approaching the Progressive Conservative Party and NDP to seek their support against this bill.

For his part, Mr. Ashley, pointed out that he is a personal friend of Mr. LeDrew's, but said Mr. LeDrew should not have publicly opposed the bill considered part of the Prime Minister's legacy.

"He should have gone back to the Liberal Party of Canada, not to the Conservatives, and not to the Alliance," said Mr. Ashley.

It's now infamous, but Mr. LeDrew told the National Post that Bill C-24 is "dumb as a bag of hammers." The Prime Minister's Office was reportedly furious at Mr. LeDrew's opposition to this bill and last week the National Post reported that Eddie Goldenberg, the Prime Minister's long-time senior policy adviser and now his new chief of staff, sent "a vase of hammers with a sharply worded note" to the law offices of Mr. LeDrew.

"Now, that C-24 is the law of the land, we, in the PMO, thought you might be able to use this these to knock some sense into your head," read the hand-written note.

Mr. LeDrew found this gift "hilarious," but not "over the top."

Candidates for the presidency of the Liberal Party also had mixed views about Mr. Martin's opinion that there is too much power in the PMO.

Mr. Maharaj said that he agrees with the general notion that there is too much power in the PMO, while Mr. Ashley declined to comment on this issue saying that he's running for the position of party president and said the question is not related to the position he is running for.

Mr. Harb, however, said that he strongly disagrees with the idea that there is too much power in the PMO.

"Not at all. I would say that the power is evenly distributed in our democratic system. Caucus has a lot of power, prime minister has power, committees have powers. But we have got to do is to use that power both in the committees as well as in the House of Commons to better reflect the needs of our constituents."

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