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Former Manitoba Liberal leadership candidate says party is purging members

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WINNIPEG - A high-profile Manitoba Liberal who finished a distant third in the last leadership race said he was quitting the party Wednesday and accused the new executive of purging some longtime members.

But Bob Axworthy, brother of former federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, appeared to be on his own, as both party brass and some veteran members said his claims were simply not true.

"I wouldn't call it a purge," party president Robert Young said.

"We as a party have a constitution and a code of conduct we have to abide by."

The dissent comes as the Liberals have risen in opinion polls. The party has one of 57 legislature seats, but polls have suggested its popularity has grown sharply since Rana Bokhari was elected leader in October over Axworthy and second-place finisher Dougald Lamont.

Axworthy said he became upset when he was accused by one party official of plotting a "palace coup" against Bokhari.

Later, he was removed from the party's board of directors because he had recently moved out of the South Winnipeg region he represented. The party's constitution requires regional representatives to live in their designated area, but Axworthy had hoped for an exemption at least until the next board election this spring.

He also said other party members have recently resigned, been forced out or have had their memberships reviewed.

"I certainly seem to have been a bit of a target lately ... but there are certainly other people I know of that have been purged or asked to resign or that type of thing," Axworthy said.

"There's a form of politics going on that I'm not comfortable with and I don't want to be part of."

Former party president Gerard Allard was one of the recent resignations, but he said Wednesday he only quit to start a new agency that helps foster children and had no problems with the Liberal party.

"I'm a Liberal, deep as can be," Allard said.

Shane Nestruck, a grassroots member who has been vocal in the past about issues within the party, said Wednesday he's not siding with Axworthy.

"I really like Bob ... and I think he's quite disappointed right now, but I am remaining positive and optimistic (about the party)."

Several Liberals are having their memberships reviewed, Young said — some because of the party's code of conduct. He would not go into detail.

"There were, I guess, some bad feelings since the leadership convention."

The code of conduct includes a ban on negative comments about the party on social media, of which there were several examples after the October leadership race. Some supporters of the failed candidates lashed out on Facebook at Bokhari, who was viewed as an outsider who won by signing up new members.

The party's new executive director, Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe, hinted that the membership reviews are linked to the leadership race fallout. He said the Liberals are working to put an end to the dissension and to previous years of turmoil that kept the party out of contention.

"Any time that you're going to have people competing for something and there's a clear winner, you're going to run the risk of hard feelings existing," he said.

"There's been some disunity for a long time and there's been infighting and we're trying to clean that up."

The Liberals have been in Manitoba's political wilderness for two decades and battled internal turmoil that resulted in former leader Jon Gerrard facing an ultimatum to quit after a disastrous 2011 election.

The Liberals can have a big impact, however. Traditionally, when they have attracted 20 per cent or more of the vote, they drain enough urban support away from the NDP to allow the Progressive Conservatives to form power.

The next election is slated for the spring of 2016.

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