Higgs backs Alward, refuses to endorse Blaney's job

Blaine Higgs appeared alongside Premier David Alward on Thursday afternoon but the finance minister still would not say whether he supports the government decision to appoint Margaret-Ann Blaney as president of Efficiency New Brunswick.

Premier and finance minister held a joint media scrum on Thursday

Premier David Alward and Finance Minister Blaine Higgs held a joint media scrum on Thursday to discuss the appointment of Margaret-Ann Blaney to Efficiency New Brunswick. (CBC)

Blaine Higgs appeared alongside Premier David Alward on Thursday afternoon but the finance minister still would not say whether he supports the government's decision to appoint Margaret-Ann Blaney as president of Efficiency New Brunswick.

Higgs has repeatedly said he respects Alward’s role in making the appointment of Blaney, but he has not said whether he supports the decision.

Higgs was asked repeatedly in question period on Wednesday — when Alward was out of the province attending a Council of Atlantic Premiers meeting — about Blaney's appointment.

The finance minister’s consistently said he supported Alward's authority to make the decision, but he did not say whether he supported it.

That response prompted a joint appearance with he and Alward on Thursday afternoon.

The premier and his finance minister were intending to show there is little daylight between the two politicians.

"I can tell you minister Higgs has my full support in the work he does as finance minister," Alward said.

But even with Alward standing inches from him, Higgs still would not enthusiastically endorse the choice of Blaney for the high-paying job.

"It's certainly incumbent on me, and it's incumbent on my colleagues, to respect the decision that the premier makes, and to recognize that he has an obligation to make decisions in the best interests of the province," he said.

The controversy was ignited last month when Blaney resigned suddenly as the province's energy minister and Progressive Conservative MLA for Rothesay to take over the top job at Efficiency New Brunswick.

Denis Caron, the province's deputy minister of environment and local government, had served as the president of the conservation agency for two months, filling the position, at no cost, as part of his overall duties.

Blaney, however, will be paid a deputy minister's salary of between $150,000 and $175,000 a year.

During the media appearance, the finance minister used very careful language to describe his feelings about the Blaney appointment.

Higgs used the traditional political code to suggest that ministers were not united about the Blaney decision.

"I feel very proud to be part of a team that encourages open, frank discussion and dialogue. We have that in cabinet and we have that in caucus," he said.

"When we have discussions in cabinet, fortunately the premier doesn't expect us to all be there just kind of raising the flag and saying, 'This is good.' He expects to hear from each one of us independently and I think he gets that," Higgs added.

Others concerned about Blaney

Higgs is not the only Progressive Conservative who will not fully endorse the appointment of Blaney.

Hugh John (Ted) Flemming III, the Tory candidate in the upcoming Rothesay byelection to replace Blaney, would not say earlier this week what he thinks of the controversial decision.

"I wasn't there," he told CBC News this week.

"I support the merit system. That's what I support. That's the only business I know. That's the only system I know."

The Liberals and the NDP are hoping to turn the patronage appointment into the key ballot box question in the June 25 Rothesay byelection.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy is running in the Rothesay byelection in the hope of landing the party’s first seat in the legislature since 2005.

Cardy unveiled his so-called Rothesay charter on Thursday, which would ban hiring based on political affiliation, except for political staff.

Cardy’s plan, which would need to be endorsed by the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, would also lay out a new hiring procedure for chief executive officers of Crown corporations.

The latest political poll in the province, which was released on Thursday, suggested Alward’s PCs are still enjoying a high level of political support.

Corporate Research Associates said its latest quarterly survey showed 44 per cent of respondents were supporting the Tories compared to 32 per cent for the Liberals and 19 per cent for the NDP.

Alward’s personal popularity moved up six percentage points between February and May. Alward is now picked by 37 per cent as the person they would prefer as premier, according to the poll.

The next leader of the Liberals was selected by 17 per cent as the best premier, followed by 12 per cent who chose Cardy.

However, the poll shows the number of people who are completely or mostly satisfied with the Alward government is tied with the number of people who are completely or mostly dissatisfied at 45 per cent.

CRA conducted the poll between May 14 and 30 and polled 419 New Brunswickers. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.