Rana Bokari says Manitoba Liberals must bury their differences and build a "truly progressive and fiscally responsible alternative" to the NDP and Progressive Conservatives.
In a speech to the party’s annual general meeting Saturday evening, Bokari portrayed the Grits as the true centrists.
"It is commonly said that elections are won by gravitating to the centre and we have all seen that around election time as our opponents try to become Liberals," she told a banquet crowd of 200. "They try to occupy the centre. Well, my friends, we don’t have to gravitate or try to occupy the centre. We are the centre."
But she said a party that’s known for its internal bickering must stand united.
"We must set aside any internal politics that we Liberals are unfortunately so well-known for and instead push forward together — because this is a party that is strongest not in spite of our differences but because of our diversity."
Bokhari, a political neophyte, surprised some observers by winning the party leadership last October over two more established party members. She has since set about to modernize the party and rebuild it from the ground up.
A small faction within the party has accused her of attempting to centralize power and failing to pay enough attention to the grassroots. But Bokhari appeared to have emerged from the two-day convention in a stronger position.
Elections for board of director positions at the convention — as well as regionally in the past month — brought 13 new faces to the 25-member board.
"We have a party that’s motivated and united and there was never any doubt about that," Bokhari told reporters after the meeting.
Bokhari promised to hold a series of grassroots meetings across the province in the coming months to help the party build its policy platform for the next general election, expected in two years.
Apart from a promise to stake the middle ground in promoting financial accountability and social responsibility, Bokhari offered few specific policy ideas Saturday night.
She did promise, however, to "work to eliminate the regressive payroll tax" charged to larger businesses, and she promoted greater investment in "urgent care facilities" to take the pressure off of hospital emergency rooms.
She also criticized the NDP for mismanaging Manitoba Hydro and setting it down a "dangerous path of continuous rate increases" that will squeeze the middle class.
Earlier in the day, a potential showdown between Bokhari loyalists and some disgruntled members was averted when proposed constitutional amendments that would have reduced the size of the board of directors and cut the number of board meetings in a year to six from eight were withdrawn in a motion by one of her key advisors.
Another constitutional amendment, supported by Bokhari, that would have forbidden Manitoba Liberals from doing anything to bring an elected party official or nominated candidate "into disrepute" was voted down by the rank and file in a testy session riddled with disputes over procedure.
The motion had the backing of more than half of the members in attendance, but failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority to pass.
Corey Shefman, a Winnipeg lawyer and newly elected party director who moved the motion, said there were several instances during the 2011 provincial election in which party members spoke "very poorly about our candidates and our chances of election."
During the campaign, a then-party board member mused that the Liberals could be wiped off the political map and that the "writing may be on the wall" for then-leader Jon Gerrard. Two former Liberal MPs also made headlines for publicly supporting NDP incumbents over the party’s own candidates.
However, others at Saturday’s meeting opposed the motion, arguing it was unenforceable and violated free speech.