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Movement to oust Blaine Higgs: Dissident PC members fail to trigger leadership review

FREDERICTON — After dissident members of New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative party failed to trigger a leadership review for Blaine Higgs, the premier is calling for unity.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is seen speaking to media outside Government House following a cabinet shuffle, in Fredericton, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative party members who wanted Higgs to step down say they did not meet the threshold to trigger the premier's leadership review. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

FREDERICTON — After dissident members of New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative party failed to trigger a leadership review for Blaine Higgs, the premier is calling for unity.

Aside from the ill-fated campaign to oust him as leader of the New Brunswick Tories, Higgs in recent months has faced a caucus revolt and high-profile resignations from cabinet. Ministers and members of the party have called out his leadership style, particularly over his government's decision to change the policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

On Tuesday, the premier released a statement following the latest attempt to get him to back down, saying "it is now time for our party to work together and continue our record of success."

"Unprecedented growth in our province has brought additional challenges," he said. "These challenges will require all of us to be diligent in finding solutions for all New Brunswickers."

Tom Bateman, chair of the political science department at St. Thomas University, said the dissidents' failure to get enough signatures to trigger a leadership review indicates that whatever groundswell of discontent erupted in June has either dissipated or never had a great deal of depth.

"This effort to get the local party to call for a review does not appear to have had a lot of legs," he said Tuesday in an interview. "It looks like there are some disgruntled riding association presidents, but they appear not to have a large following."

Andrea Johnson, the party's executive director, said the dissident members did not meet the criteria to force a vote on whether Higgs should step down as Tory leader. Party rules state a leadership review is triggered if it is requested by at least 50 party members, including 26 riding presidents. The deadline to collect the signatures was extended from Aug. 19 to Aug. 26, in an effort to give more time to members to get their letters in.

John Williston, a Moncton, N.B., member who called for a leadership review, said the party received 26 letters from riding presidents. But he accused the Tories of referring the letters to a lawyer who proceeded to find technical reasons to disqualify some of them.

"I would definitely say that there's a loss of trust on behalf of a lot of members who submitted letters in good faith," Williston said. 

"They were disqualified on technicalities. It may be a technical victory for Mr. Higgs today but in terms of ethics, I think that this is a dark day for the PC party."

Tory divisions came to the surface after the Higgs government in June changed the province's policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The main thrust of Policy 713 is that transgender and nonbinary students under 16 must get their parents' consent before teachers can use their preferred first names or pronouns at school.

Critics, including the province's child and youth advocate, have called the changes discriminatory and a violation of the Charter rights of children. Higgs and other ministers, however, have said parents have the right to know whether their children are questioning their gender identity.

In response to the policy, Higgs faced a caucus revolt. Eight members of the Tory caucus sat out question period in June in protest, and six members of his government voted with the Opposition to force a motion through the legislature asking the province's child and youth advocate to review the changes. Two ministers resigned, and in response, Higgs shuffled his cabinet to remove dissenters who hadn't quit.

Bateman says there certainly was "a lot of rancour" in the cabinet relating to Policy 713 and Higgs's leadership style. But the ill will, he said, was seemingly not shared by the larger membership in the local constituencies.

The rancour over Policy 713 appeared to catch the government "very" flat-footed when it was introduced in June, Bateman noted, adding that the changes made the government look "bigoted" and "maladroit." But he said that as time went on, Higgs's position has been shown to have support not just in the province but across the country.

An Angus Reid poll this week indicated that two in five Canadians — 43 per cent of respondents — were in favour of parents being informed and giving consent if a child wants to change how they identify. One in seven — 14 per cent — said parents should have no role in their children's decision.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick's Policy 713 was mirrored in Saskatchewan, where the government has said parental consent would be needed if children under 16 want to change their names or pronouns at school. 

While the process to trigger a leadership review in New Brunswick has been stifled, Williston said he believes there are a number of people who have remained quiet but have reservations about Higgs and his leadership style.

"I certainly hope that the members of caucus will now pick up the torch and, finish the job," he said. "We need to see some bravery from our (members of legislative assembly) to represent the voice of the party." 

Bateman said it's possible that Higgs has fallen into a trap that most leaders in his position fall into, where they come to depend on a circle of advisers, ignoring caucus and cabinet.

"Maybe he'll change, maybe he'll not change. Maybe the boisterous troublemakers in cabinet now are gone and the rest are quite happy to carry on as before." 

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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