- 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
(Part of the battle under way between Jean Chrétien forces
and Paul Martin forces is an unseemly arm-wrestle between Ottawa
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,”
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,”
“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
“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
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.