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The Hill Times Q&A with Akaash Maharaj


by F. Abbas Rana
30 June 2003


Hill Times: If a member of the Liberal Party asks you why should he or she vote for you for the president of the party, what will you say?

Akaash Maharaj: Support me not merely because of my skills and experience, but more importantly, for things that I want to achieve in the party. As president, I am hoping to transform the Liberal Party into a more meaningful, more robust vehicle for civic engagement in public affairs between elections. I believe that membership in political parties is the best way to achieve that engagement.

Of course, as a Liberal, membership in the Liberal Party is the best way of advancing the national interest and I would hope to be able to earn the support of the Liberal Party members not only to help the Liberal Party win elections but also to keep it meaningful between elections.

HT: How is it different from the other two candidates?

AM: I don't like to presume upon the platform of my colleagues. The way in which my platform is different from perhaps a typical party president, shall we say, is that many party presidents have understood the virtue of winning elections and, of course, the litmus test of any political party is its ability to form government. But I think perhaps what makes me unique is that I believe that political parties have a vital role to play in a democracy between elections. As well, I believe passionately that there has to be a constructive separation between party and government, by which I mean that the Liberal Party cannot consign itself to being an apologist for the government. It must be the conscience of the government. As a supporter of the government, sometimes the greatest support that we can offer to our friends is a willingness to tell them not what they want to hear but what they need to know.

HT: Tell me something about how you are running your campaign?

AM: Vigorously and broadly. I've been campaigning now for more than a year and have been travelling the country quite extensively, have been from Whitehorse to St. John's and all points in between. In addition, I have been making heavy use of information technology. In addition to physically travelling the country, I have also maintained contact with Liberals in every province and territory in writing, by telephone, email and through my website.

HT: Have you declared your support for any of the leadership candidates?

AM: No.

HT: Has any leadership candidate declared support for you?

AM: No, I have not asked for that either.

HT: What is your position on the Prime Minister's Campaign Finance Bill C-24?

AM: 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.

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.

Moreover, there are other aspects of the bill, for example, the ability to deregister individual riding associations, the level of public subsidy which do worry me. Once again, I am strongly in support of the objectives of this bill and indeed to give you an example, I was one of the strongest supporters along with the Party's Women's commission in bringing in caps in nomination expenditures for some of the very principles that are embraced by the bill. It is far more important that we do this right than we do it quickly.

HT: Do you think the implementation of this bill should be delayed until January, 2005 or you think January, 2004 is good?

AM: I think January, 2004 is an extraordinarily ambitious implementation date. It's asking all political parties to fundamentally change the way they do business. From a purely Liberal perspective, our party will be entirely absorbed with the leadership race until November. We will be in an unusual state of political cohabitation until February. The idea that we can turn a century-old institution on a dime in the midst of all that, I think is unrealistic.

HT: So, you think January, 2005 is a better date than 2004?

AM: I think it's a preferable date to 2004. I think a compromise in between is possible.

HT: Mr. LeDrew's opposition to this bill is well-known. He recently sought support from Progressive Conservatives and NDP to amend this bill at the committee. Do you think it was appropriate for him, as Liberal Party President, to do that?

AM: It's not the means through which I would pursue the issue.

HT: In response to Mr. LeDrew's opposition to the bill, he has been accused of being "Martin's mouthpiece" among other things. What do you think about that?

AM: I would not have pursued this the way Stephen has. He and I are different people and if I become the president, I will be an entirely different president. In terms of less flattering things that he's been called by people within the party, I think that too is unfortunate. I think we should be able to disagree with one another without becoming disagreeable. I will say, however, that if one lowers the tone of the debate, one must expect the rebuttal to be lowered as well.

HT: Do you think there is too much power in the PMO?

AM: Absolutely.

HT: Can you explain this a bit more?

AM: Not just in Canada but in the Parliamentary world, over the past 25 years, there has been a worrying concentration of power in the hands of the executive, but from the party perspective, we must, ourselves, take some responsibility. The party has been complicit in its own emasculation. The beauty of democracy is that if the many say no, the few cannot possibly say yes. As party president, one of my duties will not simply be to give voice to the wishes of the party but to help the party rediscover its courage.

HT: Mr. Manley has raised the issue of inaccessibility of membership forms. Do you think this complaint has any validity?

AM: Membership forms and access to membership forms have undoubtedly been a most-heavily and most-vigorously discussed issue. 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 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. What it does constitute is a restriction on the ability of any one candidate to surreptitiously sign up large numbers of members, but as a Liberal, as a democrat, I don't think that greater transparency in membership recruitment is a bad thing.

HT: What is your opinion about the decriminalization of marijuana bill?

AM: As a policy chair, this was interesting because it came up at the last policy convention. The Liberal Party at the last policy convention clearly supported the decriminalization of marijuana. My job, as policy chair, is to champion the views of party members and I am pleased that the government has responded by introducing this legislation.

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