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Blaine Higgs once warned of ‘too much power’ in N.B. premier’s office. His critics now agree

Blaine Higgs began his term as premier promising not to run his government from the top down like he accused his predecessor Brian Gallant of doing.

Former ministers express common concern about power wielded by premier

A man with grey hair speaking at a podium with others gathered behind him

Blaine Higgs began his term as New Brunswick premier promising not to run his government from the top down like he accused his predecessor, Brian Gallant, of doing.

"Today there is too much power in the premier's office," he wrote in a personal letter to voters during the 2018 election campaign.

"The Premier's office ends up making all the decisions. The voices of citizens and elected officials are not allowed to be as strong as they could and should be. I want to be the Premier who says 'No we don't do it that way anymore.'"

Five years later, with his government roiled by a series of cabinet resignations and firings and mounting accusations of his own tendency toward centralized rule, Higgs still maintains he is a leader who values different points of view and is open to learning from those who do not agree with him.

"I'm never happy when someone quits and walks away because the way we find balance — and the way we respect each other's views in doing so — is how we improve democracy," Higgs told CBC News last week.

But a growing list of government MLAs and ex-ministers claim that is not the Blaine Higgs they know.

Simmering frustration

Three weeks ago, former social development minister Dorothy Shephard resigned from cabinet in opposition to the government changing Policy 713, which provides guidance for the treatment of LGBTQ students in schools.

In interviews about the decision, Shephard expressed specific concerns about the policy change but also a long simmering frustration about Higgs making decisions on his own and bypassing ministers by running departments directly from his office.

"There's no conversation with the premier's office. It's all a direct line from the premier's office to the deputy minister," she said.

The criticism was nearly identical to one made nine months ago by former education minister Dominic Cardy in his resignation letter from cabinet.

Cardy claimed major government policy shifts, such as the ill-fated attempt to overhaul French immersion in schools or to disband elected representation on health boards, were increasingly personal decisions being made directly by the premier.

"Your order to abolish the democratically elected Regional Health Authorities without informing Cabinet represents a steady consolidation of power in your own hands," Cardy wrote in the letter.

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The New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party had told voters in 2018 that with Higgs as leader it would delegate power and "move decisions closer to communities," but Cardy described the opposite happening, especially, he said, after the party went from a minority to a majority government in 2020.

At the time, Cardy's letter was viewed as incendiary and disloyal. It triggered his expulsion from the government caucus and forced him to sit in the legislature as an independent.

But in the last month, a number of Cardy's former cabinet colleagues have been making nearly identical points as they either resigned, like he did, or were fired by Higgs.

'More about him getting his own way'

Trevor Holder, the most senior government MLA in the New Brunswick legislature, gave up his cabinet position two weeks ago and, like Cardy and Shephard before him, cited a concentration of power and decision-making in the hands of one.

"Under the leadership of Premier Higgs caucus has been less about consensus and more about him getting his own way," wrote Holder in an open letter explaining his departure.

Jeff Carr was fired by Higgs as transportation minister last week following his public opposition to the changes to Policy 713 regarding the treatment of LGBTQ students. He issued his own letter describing a "continuous lack of transparency and consultation" under the premier.

Carr said Higgs had largely abandoned consultation after winning a majority government and adopted a "my way or the highway" position on issues like French immersion changes that did not "include others in decision-making."

In a remark aimed personally at Higgs, Carr also endorsed the criticisms other departing cabinet ministers were levelling about the premier not valuing opinions different from his own.

"Thank you … for removing me from a situation that I feel I can no longer contribute to as some of my colleagues have previously described," he wrote in a publicly released letter.

Lori Turnbull, the director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, told Information Morning on Monday that it is not unusual for premiers or prime ministers in parliamentary systems to be accused of wielding too much power.

But she said what is happening in New Brunswick appears to be something beyond those standard complaints.

"This is not just a Blaine Higgs thing," said Turnbull. "However, it seems like this particular situation has gone too far for some of the people around him."

Higgs no longer references his 2018 commitment to voters to curtail unilateral decision-making in the premier's office, but he does acknowledge some blame for internal problems in his government and said he "has to be part of the solution."

However, last week he also said he finds some of the complaints about him "a bit over dramatic" and appeared to misstate or misunderstand that the concerns ex-ministers express about him cover multiple policies that stretch back several months.

Instead he views it as a recent problem.

"It really kind of started with the policy around 713," he said.

And on that matter, although Higgs said he hopes he and dissatisfied MLAs "will find paths together" on Policy 713, he also says he expects the solution will not involve compromise, but rather their position bending to fit his.

"I think the public are very much behind what we're doing, and I think that will play a big role in everyone's riding as they speak to members and their constituents and say 'OK well, you know, I may have a different view but I understand I am here to represent my constituents," said Higgs.

"I feel that we're feeling that broad-based support throughout the province and I'm hopeful that will carry over into caucus."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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