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An Exercise in Ratifying the Will of the Leader


by Graham Fraser
April 2000


TORONTO - So why join a political party?…

Parliamentary democracy in Canada has become increasingly centralized; leaders have few limitations on their powers. And if members of Parliament sometimes wonder about their usefulness, party members have fewer illusions.

The centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office has coincided with the hollowing out of the policy – making capacity from government departments and the privatization of ideas from the public service to the private sector.
(Part of the battle under way between Jean Chrétien forces and Paul Martin forces is an unseemly arm-wrestle between Ottawa consulting firms).

In this context, for someone who wants to change society, interest groups seem to have been more effective in promoting policy than political parties.

Politely, Akaash Maharaj challenges that view.

Remember that name. Maharaj is a federal Liberal from Toronto who was previously involved as a volunteer with UNICEF in international development in the area of famine relief.

He is an Oxford-educated management consultant [at the time of writing of this article]; he is eloquent and attractive, with a commitment to advancing the public good.

Maharaj concedes he wondered for a long time about joining a political party. He was idealistic, and very protective of his own independence.

“It occurred to me that, if I were to join a political party, I would be giving up part of that independence,” he said.

What made him decide was the conclusion that some of that personal independence was sterile and slightly self-indulgent.

“It’s one thing to call out for change, but I think we all have a responsibility to implement change – and the only way to do that is through the political process,” he said.

“I didn’t just want to be an advocate calling for solutions; I wanted to be part of the solutions.”

He concedes there is a purity in pushing a single issue, like the environment or foreign aid, through an advocacy group.

“But society is a complex beast, and moving forward the public good is necessarily about making choices and striking balances,” he said.

“While it could be enormously satisfying, and it was enormously satisfying for me to be a part of NGOs which didn’t have to think about the other consequences, I knew that, if I really held to my principles, I necessarily would have to engage in the trade-offs that would be necessary to implement those principles.”

As Preston Manning discovered, managing trade-offs is the key to being a national party.

So while reporters – and many delegates – were obsessed with leadership at the Liberal convention last Sunday morning, Akaash Maharaj was presiding over the plenary session on party policies. Senior Liberals were impressed; more than one made a note that this is a young man with a future.

Few of the policy resolutions were controversial, few attracted attention, but Maharaj points out that about 80 per cent of Liberal convention resolutions get implemented by the government.

This year, he feels that the most important resolutions reflected a consensus that the government has to act on child poverty.

In the past, party resolutions have sometimes slid seamlessly into the government’s agenda. Former Ontario policy chair Howard Brown points to the Registered Educational Savings Plan as an idea that originated with one of the Liberal party policy sessions, two years ago.

Hardly glamourous or revolutionary. But the strength of a democracy is often better reflected in the nitty-gritty of the policy-making process than in leadership struggles and referendums.

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