POLITICS

Manitoba Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari faces more internal turmoil

04/21/2014 04:57 EDT | Updated 06/21/2014 05:59 EDT
WINNIPEG - This should be a celebratory time for the Manitoba Liberals — they're riding at a near record-high level in opinion polls under new leader Rana Bokhari heading into next month's annual general meeting.

But the party is dealing with another public eruption of internal criticism accusing Bokhari and her leadership team of stomping on the rights of grassroots members and, despite the improved popularity, of hurting the party.

"If this leadership group were trying to destroy the party, it could not be doing a better job," Shane Nestruck, president of the party's constituency association in Fort Garry-Riverview, told The Canadian Press on Monday.

"The only reason I am not resigning is that I hope for a complete change of leadership at the coming annual general meeting."

Nestruck's criticism echoes comments in February from Bob Axworthy, who ran against Bokhari for the leadership last October and who accused her and Liberal executives of "purging" some longtime members in an attempt to control the party.

Nestruck came forward after an anonymous blog surfaced online last week that was severely critical of Bokhari. The blog has since been taken down.

Nestruck points to recent moves by new members of the party brass.

The party issued letters in February to a half-dozen members, including Nestruck, telling them their membership was under review and offering no explanation. More recently, party president Robert Young decided not to call any more board of directors gatherings until after the annual general meeting.

The party brass has put forward several constitutional amendments for the upcoming meeting, including a plan to shrink the board of directors and reduce the minimum number of board meetings each year to six from eight. Another proposed amendment would formalize the party's code of conduct and make it an offence to do anything to bring the party, its candidates or its leader "into disrepute."

Nestruck said Bokhari's leadership team is trying to centralize power which he feels belongs with the grassroots and the board of directors.

"It's basically grabbing a very weak party, at a time when it should be rebuilding, and taking over the party."

Liberal officials deny the accusations.

Some of the membership reviews were for people who had made controversial statements on social media during and after last year's heated leadership race, which saw Bokhari beat Dougald Lamont and Axworthy, said executive director Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe.

Those same statements are part of the reason for the reworked code of conduct.

"There was some sniping back and forth during the leadership (race) on Facebook with some people, and they were spoken to," he said.

"When people may be saying things that could be construed as racist or sexist or defamatory, as a party we have to take actions like that seriously."

Board meetings are not being held because the party has been focused on preparing for the annual general meeting and there are no pressing issues to discuss, Young added.

As for the constitutional amendments, Kovalik-Plouffe said many are aimed at bringing the provincial party in line with the federal Liberals. There's also a recognition that the party brass doesn't need to meet every month.

"Having monthly meetings sometimes isn't productive, because sometimes in a month, nothing really happens."

The Liberals have one seat in the legislature and captured 7.5 per cent of the vote in the 2011 provincial election. Recent opinion polls suggest their support now tops 20 per cent, as approval for the governing New Democrats sinks.

But the party continues to have challenges.

Membership is down to about 700 from 2,100 during last fall's leadership race, Kovalik-Plouffe said. Provincial memberships expire every December, and the Liberals are still working on renewals.

The party has had to get approval for a $70,000 overdraft to cover expenses in the short term. The Liberals spent a fair bit of money on two byelections in January and are waiting for a 50 per cent rebate from Elections Manitoba.

Minutes of a March 3 board of directors meeting, obtained by The Canadian Press, show the party "did not raise as much as was originally expected" from two major events last year — a tribute dinner for former leader Jon Gerrard and a Thinker's Conference organized by Axworthy.

"We have roughly $11,000 in our bank account," the minutes read.

"At this time, we are spending approximately $10,600 a month."

Minutes of the previous month's board meeting show there was some tension between Bokhari and the board of directors over support in the two byelections.

"Rana continues and states not one board member showed up to help on the byelections and she states that was disturbing; would have hoped board members would attend," the documents states.

Nestruck said he expects some Liberals will challenge Bokhari at the annual general meeting to be held May 2 and 3 in Winnipeg. He said he doesn't plan to go and may quit the party.

"If things are not righted at the AGM, I'm just walking away."