FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is dangling the prospect that he could send the province to the polls this fall, a year ahead of schedule, citing the risk of "instability and stagnation" if the legislature resumes sitting next month.
Higgs said in an emailed statement Wednesday that he is worried "political drama" could overshadow elected officials' job of helping New Brunswickers when the new session of the legislature opens Oct. 17.
"I know there is a lot of speculation about a possible fall election," he said in the statement. "As with all of the decisions I make as premier, my focus is always on doing what is best for New Brunswick."
The Progressive Conservative government has faced internal revolt in recent months, following changes made to the province's policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The main thrust of the changes to Policy 713 is that students under 16 who are exploring their gender identity must get their parents' consent before teachers can use their preferred first names or pronouns at school.
Two ministers — Trevor Holder who held the labour portfolio and Dorothy Shephard in social development — quit earlier this year, citing Higgs' leadership style and the changes made to the gender identity policy.
After six Tory members of the legislative assembly voted with the Opposition in June to call for an external review of the policy, the premier dropped dissenters from cabinet and named five new ministers.
But Higgs' troubles began before he introduced changes to the policy in June. Dominic Cardy, who was education minister, resigned from cabinet last October, calling out the premier's leadership style and values. The premier has also faced criticism on his now-stalled French immersion policy reform, where the government said their goal was that all graduates in the anglophone sector have at least a “conversational level” of the language. The proposed reform was dropped.
Some Progressive Conservative party members have called for Higgs to step down, but after months of speculation they failed to trigger a leadership review and dropped the call in August.
Looking ahead to the next session of the legislature, Higgs said in his statement: "The question we face is will the focus be on delivering results for New Brunswickers or will it be 12 months of political drama causing instability and stagnation in government?"
J.P. Lewis, political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, said speculation about an election has been swirling for months, but there might be more reason now for Higgs to want to strengthen his position and call an election ahead of the October 2024 date specified in provincial law.
Higgs was facing pressure from the outside where the Progressive Conservatives were down in the polls earlier this year and from the inside with turmoil in the cabinet and the party, he said.
"He might look at all this pressure … (and say) if this is real, then we're going to test it at the polls," Lewis said. "He can look at it and say, 'The way for me to strengthen myself within the party is to lead the party to another majority government. I'm not going to wait around. I'm going to do it now.'"
While the Tories remain strong in the southern part of the province, he said the Liberals are formidable in the north. But an election this year would be nothing like 2020, when Higgs was riding high on his handling of the pandemic.
"This is completely different. There's different issues that are top of mind," Lewis said. He listed the housing crisis, a shortage of health-care staff and the soaring cost of living as issues likely to be prominent in a campaign.
"Then you have something like Policy 713. I don't think anyone would have predicted that would be what would take up most of the political energy in the province for the last two or three months. But it has," Lewis said.
Green Leader David Coon said it is rich that Higgs is saying he can't function in the midst of so much political drama, "when he's the one who was the instigator of all the political drama."
Liberal Leader Susan Holt said Higgs should come clean about whether the election will be this this fall or next.
"I think one of the reasons the premier is hesitant to return to the legislature is, as he said, he's lost the leadership of his team," she said. "He no longer has the ability to lead his caucus and cabinet and so he's considering an election to try and fix that."
On Wednesday evening, as the premier arrived at a $500-a-head fundraiser in Fredericton billed as "An Evening With Premier Higgs," a small group of LGBTQ+ people gathered on the sidewalk holding signs protesting Policy 713. Higgs had a 15-minute conversation with the group, answering questions and defending his government's position.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press