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Mba Liberals avoid internal showdown over proposed changes to party constitution

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WINNIPEG - Manitoba Liberals avoided an internal showdown Saturday by shelving controversial changes to the party's constitution.

Corey Shefman, senior adviser to leader Rana Bokhari, withdrew proposed changes at the party's annual general meeting that critics said would have concentrated power in the party's inner circle.

"It was a recognition that there are different people in the party with different interests and different opinions, and it was a respect for those different opinions," Shefman said afterward.

One change would have reduced the size of the party's board of directors, which includes representatives from all areas of the province and makes decisions alongside the party's executive. Another change would have reduced the minimum number of board meetings each year, to six from eight.

The Liberals, who have just one legislature seat but have shot up in recent opinion polls, are trying to present a united front in the wake of open criticism of Bokhari from a small but very vocal group of members. Bokhari was elected leader last October in a three-way race that left some of her opponents' troops bitter.

An email sent by one board member last week to hundreds of Liberals said Bokhari and her team had stopped listening to the party's grassroots and were violating the party's constitution — accusations Bokhari has denied. The president of one constituency association, Shane Nestruck, made similar accusations and said he is resigning.

Open dissent is nothing new for the Manitoba Liberals. During the 2011 election campaign, one candidate questioned the party's strategy and told reporters the Liberals were in danger of being wiped off the electoral map.

Because of that, some members of the Liberal executive proposed a constitutional amendment Saturday that would forbid members from doing anything to bring the party, the leader or a candidate "into disrepute."

The proposal was narrowly defeated. Some Liberals thought the move would be heavy-handed.

"This may be a chill on free speech. We ought to have the opportunity to say what we really honestly believe," said one member.

The annual meeting wrapped up Saturday night with a speech from Bokhari, who has steadily been winning a battle with dissenters for a majority on the board of governors.

Board elections on Friday saw strong Bokhari supporters elected to several positions, including the director of organization and head of the women's association.

Bokhari was given a standing ovation as she started her speech. Only a handful of her critics remained seated among the 200 people in attendance.

Bokhari called on the party to unite and prepare for the next election, expected in 2016.

"We must put aside any internal politics that we Liberals are unfortunately so well known for and instead push forward together," Bokhari said.

"It is time for us to re-establish ourselves as a genuine force in Manitoba politics."

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