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Maharaj wants to empower grit party members

Maharaj would be different from anyone who has ever held the presidency


by F. Abbas Rana
10 November 2003


OTTAWA - Akaash Maharaj, who touts himself as the "democratic" candidate and would be the first visible minority president of the Liberal Party of Canada if elected, says if elected he will tell the next Prime Minister the way it really is and plans to be a straight shooter.

"I believe that the greatest disservice a party president can do to a party leader is to tell that leader merely what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know and if the party is to be a true support to our government, if the party president is to be a true ally to the party leader then the two individuals must be independent of one another."

Mr. Maharaj, who was born in Toronto and raised by his grandparents from Trinidad, was educated at Oxford University in Oxford, England. He has an MA in philosophy, politics, and economics and served for a year as president of the Oxford University Student Union. Mr. Maharaj is currently chair of Liberal Party's Policy Development Committee. He makes a living by being president and CEO of Concordis, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to international peace and armed conflict resolution.

Mr. Maharaj also promises to publicly release his travel and hospitality expenses.

Hill Times: Why are you running and what do you want to accomplish as president of the Liberal Party of Canada?

Akaash Maharaj: "I believe that the Liberal Party can and therefore must be the most effective national vehicle for public participation in political affairs. I should like to transform the Liberal Party into an organization that Canadians would want to join and want to remain members of because they would believe and rightfully believe that through the Liberal Party, they could exercise meaningful responsibility in the course of national affairs.

"If it is to be real, democracy has to be about more than just a way of electing leaders. It has to be about a way of guiding those leaders and holding those leaders to account and I believe the Liberal Party is ideally placed to do so."

HT: What is the job description for the president of the Liberal Party?

"Well, in part, much of the job of president is fairly prosaic, ensuring the organizational health and stability of the Liberal Party that the finances are in order that we are running efficiently and effectively and are capable of winning elections. But what makes me unique as a candidate is that I believe that all of these things, while vital, are means towards an end. In other words, it is of course vital that the Liberal Party win elections, but it is no less vital that once we have won those elections, members of our party are empowered to play a meaningful ongoing role in the political process."

HT: Do you think the party president should work independently from the party leader and how does that relationship work right now?

"I think the party president must enjoy a collaborative relationship with the party leader, but I do not believe that either the party president or the party itself should be controlled from the Prime Minister's Office.

"Over the past 20 years, we have seen a tremendously unhealthy centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office, one that has spread a great deal of public and party cynicism about politics and about the health of our democracy. I believe that the greatest disservice a party president can do to a party leader is to tell that leader merely what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know. If the party is to be a true support to our government, if the party president is to be a true ally to the party leader, then the two individuals must be independent of one another."

HT: How many hours a week will you have to work at being president of the party and do you think it should be a paid position?

"For the past six years, I have served as the party's national policy chair and I intend to make the most of being party president. I believe it is a unique opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the national interest and I would therefore commit a very, very substantial amount of my time to the presidency. Do I think it should be a paid position? No, I do not. The party president must speak on behalf of the ordinary members of the party. I believe that by remaining a volunteer, the party president remains directly in touch with the members whom he represents and also best able to maintain his independence."

HT: If you're elected party president, will you release your travel and hospitality expense accounts quarterly or annually?

"I made that commitment two years ago and it's on my website."

HT: The 2003 Liberal Convention is not an official policy convention, but don't you think there should be some sort of policy discussions since the party is poised to head into a general election very soon?

"Absolutely. Right now, the tentative schedule calls for a series of issues workshops to be held on Saturday. I am also working very hard to persuade my colleagues on the convention organizing committee to include policy workshops on Friday.

"Although this is not a policy convention, it is the last national gathering of Liberals before a general election and it is the first convention in nearly four years. For us to go into a general convention after four years without having given our members an opportunity to discuss ideas and ideals would be to appear to the people of Canada as a party that is more interested in the acquisition of power than in what it intends to do with that power."

HT: Fill in the blank. You are the _________ candidate?


HT: What's your opinion about high-profile and outgoing party president Stephen LeDrew's approach to his job as party president and will you be quoted in national newspapers, for instance, saying the Prime Minister's legislation is "dumb as a bag of hammers"?

"Stephen and I have two very different styles. Indeed, it is fair to say that I am not merely different from Stephen but different from anyone who has ever held the position of president of Liberal Party of Canada. I intend to be an entirely different kind of president from Stephen."

HT: But if you have any differences with the leader of the party, how will you express them?

"I'll express them in the first instance confidentially, and where it is necessary to speak publicly, I'll do so constructively rather than destructively."

HT: How worried are Liberals about the Tory-Alliance merger?

"At this point, I think, Liberals, like Canadians, at large, are intrigued. I don't think that even the Tories and the Alliance yet know what this new Conservative Party will be like. Until they make the decision about whether they are going to proceed, until they make a decision about what social policies they will embrace, until they make the critical decision of who will lead this new party, it will be difficult for anyone to say whether they will be a greater or lesser threat to the Liberal Party.

"What I will say though is that both the democratic process and the Liberal Party itself have been ill-served by two right-wing parties that have confounded themselves with their own politics of division. I hope that if they do create a new Conservative Party, it will be more mature than either of the two parties going into them and it will stand prepared to play a meaningful role to advance the public interest."

HT: Prime Minister-in-Waiting Paul Martin wants to tackle the democratic deficit in Parliament. How do you think this problem should be fixed?

"If we wish to change the government, the Liberal Party must begin by changing itself. There is certainly a democratic deficit in Parliament, and there is no less of a democratic deficit within the Liberal Party itself.

"Speaking as party president, my contribution to Paul Martin's drive to relieve the democratic deficit will be to try to reinvigorate the Liberal Party, to keep the party in a constructive relationship with our government but independent of our government, to ensure that the party does not seek to embarrass or control the government but equally to ensure that the government does not control or suppress the party."

HT: Can you give me an example that will prove that there is democratic deficit in the party?

"The fact that we have allowed four years to pass between conventions, although our constitution [requires a convention] to be held once after every two years. The fact that the manner in which the Prime Minister's departure has been managed has flown in the face of our own constitution. Those are two key examples of where the interests of the few have triumphed over the will of the many.

"To be a Liberal is to believe that the rule of law must always take precedent over the interests of individuals and that the law that binds the weak and powerless must no less bind the great and the powerful."

HT: Do you think Mr. Chrétien should quit right after the November convention?

"I think, speaking as potential party president, whether Mr. Chrétien leaves right after the convention or whether he stays on until February, the party will have to work very hard to make sure that the transition actually works. As you know, this is a situation that has few precedents in Canadian, or indeed in parliamentary, history. I think that we have to be vigilant to ensure that it doesn't set a precedent for future transitions of power, but we also have an obligation to make sure that the transition, however long or short, is a transition that works.

"I don't think we will be able to go to Canadians in a general election and ask them to entrust us with the government of the country if we demonstrate an inability to govern ourselves during the transition."

HT: What does politics need in this country?

"It needs two things: First of all, it needs more democracy. It needs greater participation of ordinary people, greater accountability to ordinary people and greater relevance to ordinary people.

"Second, it needs to be more representative. There is no denying that Canada is now changing faster than at any time in our country's history and that the institutions of government have simply failed to show themselves equal to that change. Indeed, I should argue that at no time in our country's history has there been a greater disassociation between those who do the governing and those who are governed.

"If we as a party do not rise to the challenge of rectifying this , then we risk allowing politics to slip into disrepute, or perhaps even worse, become illegitimate in the eyes of Canadians."

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