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The Determined Mr. Maharaj

The Liberal national policy chairman wants to see the party talking less about leadership, more about issues


Susan Delacourt
19 October 2002


OTTAWA - It's all about logistics, as top officials in the federal Liberal party meet in Montreal this weekend to sort out the how, where and when of the coming leadership contest.

But amid all this talk about dates and locations, the Liberals will also be confronting the nagging question of where ideas fit in the fray -- is the party even capable of policy debate any more? After nine years of managerial rule by Jean Chrétien, the retiring Prime Minister, pressure is building within grassroots Liberal ranks for the party to put on its thinking cap again.

One of the key Liberals behind that push is a young man who will be getting more attention over the next year -- in part because he's organizing a series of cross-country policy debates during the leadership race; in part because he's running for the party president's job.

He is Akaash Maharaj, the Liberal national policy chairman, who is fast becoming a poster boy for partisan frustration with the dearth of ideas in 2002 liberalism. His growing profile mirrors his responsibility in Liberal ranks -- we have not heard much about policy or Mr. Maharaj up to now, but both are demanding a bigger place for themselves in the spotlight.

Everywhere you look right now, there are Liberals suddenly anxious to reconnect brains to the body politic. Mr. Chrétien promises he will leave office in 2004 as a born-again policy activist, while Paul Martin, the likely successor to Mr. Chrétien, is at large somewhere in Canada on any given week, trying to hoover up any and all policy ideas floating out there.

Mr. Maharaj stands out in this crowd as a not-so-usual suspect. Just 32 years of age, he's a first-generation Indo-Canadian; the child of impoverished, Trinidadian parents who relinquished him to his Toronto grandparents' care when he was just two weeks old. Though his grandparents themselves were factory workers of modest circumstances, without the financial or legal resources to officially adopt him, they somehow managed to raise a polished, bilingual, Oxford-educated man with a silver tongue and an abundance -- some would say overabundance -- of ambition.

He was the first non-Briton ever to head the Oxford Students' Union in 1994-95. This was no small feat: Mr. Maharaj's rivals for the job were hand-picked Labour and Conservative candidates, vying for a position that often opens the door to a life of high rank and privilege in Britain. The young Canadian won this lofty position by blanketing the conservative campus with posters and wowing crowds with eloquence honed through 17 candidates' debates.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Maharaj is using the same blend of campaign techniques to pursue the Liberal party presidency. These days, his poster campaign is electronic -- he boasts an e-mail mailing list of thousands of addresses, which he uses to give Liberals regular updates on what he sees as the big issues of our time. Meanwhile, the old Oxford debater has become arguably the best public speaker in Liberal ranks. A minute or two in his company and you know this guy has his sights set on the prime minister's job.

Ask him why politics matters, for instance, and he delivers an answer that some would find remarkably corny. Politics is religion for the non-religious, he says. "Each of us yearns to be part of something greater than ourselves, to realize the pursuit of ideals more noble than the mere satisfaction of personal appetites," Mr. Maharaj said in an interview this week. "I've always believed that politics is the only secular reply to that yearning."

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In political outlook and interests, Mr. Maharaj is often linked to Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, the medical doctor and fervent policy wonk who has a bit of her own reputation for overachieving and idealism. Some Liberals even believed she had a hand in drafting Mr. Maharaj's announcement of his candidacy for the party presidency. (She didn't, but she described it as "excellent.")

Ms. Bennett says simply of the party's national policy chairman: "Akaash is an articulate, small-L liberal... He seems determined to make a difference."

Her St. Paul's riding association is also firmly on the thinkers' side of the party struggle between ideas and organization, too. It has sent a resolution to this weekend's national executive meeting, pressing hard to get some kind of policy debates taking place during the leadership race, even if it's on the Internet.

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When Mr. Maharaj is not busy trying to find the Liberals' missing brain, he spends his time at his day job -- trying to find Middle East peace. Really. Mr. Maharaj is president and CEO of an organization called Concordis, a non-profit organization that declares on its Web site that it is working on conflict-resolution strategies through consultations with Jewish- and Arab-Canadians.

Mr. Maharaj burst into the news in full outrage in late August, protesting against how the Liberals' never-ending leadership struggle had once again forced the party to postpone its big policy convention until 2005 at the earliest. So angry was Mr. Maharaj that he fired off a letter to Liberal party president Stephen LeDrew, then made it public. He was all over the newspapers, condemning his own party for putting politics ahead of policy.

Now, in part because of Mr. Maharaj's insistence, the Liberal party has come up with a compromise of sorts. Plans are underway to organize Liberal policy conferences in the lead-up to the leadership convention to be held at the end of next year. The full roster of gatherings -- places and times -- will be finalized in early December, Mr. Maharaj says…

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Mr. Maharaj, in person, reminds you of all those straight-A classmates most of us simultaneously admired and resented; the kind parents always want their kids to emulate. He radiates earnest overachievement. With his perfect enunciation and his mid-Atlantic accent, Mr. Maharaj will never be accused of speaking down to the masses or glad-handing. Plunge him into the dog's-body work of door-to-door campaigning and his idea of small talk will be: "May I have your surname, please?"

But there's no mistaking the eloquence. At the recent Toronto conference, titled "Searching for the New Liberalism," Mr. Maharaj glided to the podium and immediately seized the attention of some people who have heard more than a few clever turns of phrase in their lives.

"The party itself, in our elected wing and in our civil wing, must exercise meaningful political leadership to quash what I feel has been a disease galloping through our ranks for the better part of a political generation --and that is a fundamentally illiberal impulse to equate dissent with disloyalty," Mr. Maharaj said. "I believe everyone in this room will agree that meaningful dissent is not merely the right of every person; it is the responsibility of every thinking person to expect that. A system that does not recognize that truth is simply today a system which will inevitably and rightfully collapse in on itself. Our loyalty as Liberals is to one another, but our loyalty as Liberals is first and foremost to the ideals that we represent."

One person clearly impressed with that performance was Mr. Martin, who nudged and winked his approval when Mr. Maharaj spoke. Later, the former finance minister told aides Mr. Maharaj had particularly impressed him.

No one should connect the dots, though, between the two men's different leadership campaigns: Mr. Maharaj wants to be seen as an independent candidate for the party presidency; Mr. Martin doesn't want to attach himself to any one presidential hopeful either.

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Tom Axworthy, organizer of the conference, said he was struck by the anger simmering under Mr. Maharaj's remarks.

"He's amazingly articulate," Mr. Axworthy said. "It just surprised me that someone who was in that kind of position -- I mean, he has an official position -- would be voicing the same disquiet with the overall direction as everybody else."

"I've always had a great love of words, the beauty of words and the power of words to rally ordinary people to extraordinary objectives," Mr. Maharaj says. As for why he finds himself lamenting a condition he might have helped to fix, he explains the Liberals' policy vacuum is deep, systemic, and in no small way directly related to the style of politics and governance the party has mastered over the past decade.

"All members of the party bear some responsibility," he says. "But if I were to trace a single reason that the party is in the state it's in now, it is because we are labouring under the tyranny of low expectations."

The party has become so accustomed to erring on the side of modest goals, he says, that it has forgotten how to reach, intellectually and otherwise…

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Mobina Jaffer, a Liberal senator, serves on the party's national executive with Mr. Maharaj. She's the head of the Liberal women's commission, a Muslim and, like Mr. Maharaj, considers herself part of the new wave of ethnic "outsiders" within the Liberal party.

People who come to the party from outside the inner circle, women or ethnic representatives, often don't know how to tactfully negotiate or get their way quietly behind the scenes, Ms. Jaffer says.

"He's a very hard worker and he's built a very strong base across the country," she said.

"But he's in too much of a hurry. I would love to say to Akaash: 'Slow down and enjoy the journey.' "

Mr. Maharaj agrees he's not too skilled at masking his arguments with the party insiders. But it's also a skill he doesn't want to develop.

"There are people who would rather have the party settle its issues behind closed doors in a veil of cigar smoke. But I think it's those tactics that have fed into the modern cynicism about politics." Nor is he particularly interested in cultivating his capacity for patience. As always, the Liberals' policy chairman has a gold-plated phrase at the ready: "Patience is a virtue," Mr. Maharaj says. "But excessive patience is a cousin to complacency."

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