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Manitoba Liberal leader emerges from convention with a united party

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Provincial Liberal leader Rana Bokari speaks at the party's annual general meeting in Winnipeg on Saturday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Provincial Liberal leader Rana Bokari speaks at the party's annual general meeting in Winnipeg on Saturday.

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari has emerged from her party's annual general meeting firmly in control, with her internal critics sidelined for the first time since she took over the helm last October.

Gone are members of the board of directors such as Val Thompson, who helped circulate an email critical of Bokhari last month, and Erena Donovan, who opposed many of the actions taken by Bokhari and her inner circle. They did not seek reelection.

In their place are strong Bokhari supporters who were elected over the weekend — Lisa Tjaden and Dave Shorr. They join 11 other new board members elected since April 1. The board has 25 positions in total, including Bokhari.

Also gone is Shane Nestruck, who had talked openly about fighting Bokhari and her team and accused them of ignoring the grassroots and the party constitution. He resigned as a constituency association president on the weekend after failing to make any headway.

Bokhari's senior adviser, Corey Shefman, said the new board is united and ready to turn its focus to building the party.

"The new board is in a position where ... we're interested in moving the party forward as a more mobile and professional machine," Shefman said after Bokhari's weekend speech, where she received a standing ovation from almost all of the 200 Liberals in attendance. Only a handful remained seated.

Jim Kane, who managed the leadership campaign last fall of second-place finisher Dougald Lamont, had said after the race that he was mulling over his future in the party. On the weekend, Kane said he was fully supporting Bokhari.

"I'm behind Rana Bokhari. I think those issues are behind us and we have to move forward," he said.

With internal squabbling seemingly over, the Liberals are now working on helping the party recover from a disastrous 2011 election, which saw them capture 7.5 per cent of the vote and only one legislature seat. Recent opinion polls suggest Liberal support has risen to above 20 per cent and stayed there since the leadership race's final weeks.

Liberals support has jumped before, between elections, only to fall again as voters prepare to cast ballots. But the party hopes things may be different this time, partly because voter anger over the NDP government's sales tax increase last year does not appear to be subsiding.

With the next election expected in the spring of 2016, Bokhari is now turning to policy development. The political neophyte was a full-time lawyer until she ran for the leadership and has offered few specifics of where she stands on key issues.

She has kept a fairly low public profile, focusing much of her efforts on rebuilding the party's constituency associations, membership levels and bank account. With no seat in the legislature, most Manitobans have not seen her debating skills tested.

Bokhari announced in her weekend speech the party will ask for policy input from all Manitobans, regardless of political stripe, in public hearings across the province.

"Because we're growing, it's very important to reach out not only to our members but to the larger public. Some people may not be involved but we want to bring them in."

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