Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberals gather to plan for future

Bokhari fends off potential problems

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Manitoba Liberals will focus on election readiness as the party holds its annual general meeting in Winnipeg this weekend.

In an interview, provincial Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari played down recent reports of internal bickering, saying the number of disgruntled members is "very, very small."

She also fended off accusations the law firm that employed her before she took over as Liberal leader in October charged exorbitant rates to residential school survivors.

"I am confident that Liberals are going to come out of this weekend more motivated, confident to reach out to their neighbours, to their friends -- inviting them to support a new progressive alternative for Manitoba," said Bokhari, as 175 party delegates gathered for the AGM Friday.

'I am confident that Liberals are going to come out of this weekend more motivated, confident to reach out to their neighbours, to their friends -- inviting them to support a new progressive alternative for Manitoba'

Bokhari does not yet hold a seat in the Manitoba legislature, nor has she indicated where she will run.

The provincial Liberals, however, have climbed considerably in the polls since she assumed the top job. According to a recent Free Press/Probe Research poll, the Grits have the support of 23 per cent of decided voters in Manitoba, compared with less than eight per cent on election day.

The federal and provincial wings of the Liberal party are holding their AGMs at the same time. The next federal election is expected in October 2015, with the provincial election scheduled for the following spring.

The provincial Liberal AGM kicked off Friday night with a business meeting and a reception. Today, there will be sessions on "building a platform from the ground up," "fundraising 101," "politics at the local level," and "winning outside the Perimeter."

Bokhari won't formally address the meeting until its concluding event this evening, when she will share top billing at the party dinner with Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux.

The party is also putting off discussion of an election platform until later this year when a committee will travel the province seeking local input.

Bokhari said she is committed to laying a solid foundation for the party before it deliberates policy issues. She said Liberal grassroots organizing is taking place in some regions for the first time in several years.

"We're focusing on the organizational (as opposed to the policy) side of election readiness," she said. "We will have teams who will know what to do and how to run modern campaigns."

A handful of party dissidents has complained Bokhari has not devoted enough time to raising her profile. They've also accused her of "purging" some longtime members in order to control the party.

Veteran Liberal Bob Axworthy, who ran unsuccessfully against Bokhari for the party leadership, was removed from the party's board of directors after he moved out of the South Winnipeg region he represented. Axworthy had hoped for a temporary exemption, The Canadian Press reported, but didn't receive it.

Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe, the party's executive director, said Friday Axworthy tendered his resignation from the party by email but has since renewed it and is a member in good standing -- as is a second leadership challenger, author and businessman Dougald Lamont.

Bokhari said Friday she was a "junior" lawyer in a local law firm that has been accused of mishandling residential school claims. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported the law firm and a second company that helped claimants with paperwork together charged survivors 30 per cent of the compensation they were awarded. A senior lawyer in the firm had a financial stake in the second company.

Bokhari said as a first-year lawyer -- she served seven months before her election as leader -- she had no say in how much the law firm billed clients. She said she has broken ties with the firm and is now full-time leader of the Liberal party. Her only contact with Carroll Law Office since October has been to complete client commitments made much earlier.

"In the past two or three months I've been there maybe two or three times a month," Bokhari said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 A10

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