New Brunswick

8 things you need to know about New Brunswick's next premier, Blaine Higgs

Blaine Higgs will be sworn in as the province’s new Progressive Conservative premier on Friday. Here are eight things you need to know about him.

Several factors make Higgs one of the more unusual politicians to hold the office in recent memory

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs answers questions from the news media after defeating the Liberal government in the New Brunswick Legislature on Nov. 2. (James West/Canadian Press)

He's going to be the next premier of New Brunswick — and he'll also be one of the more unusual politicians to hold the office in recent memory.

Blaine Higgs will be sworn in as the province's new Progressive Conservative premier on Friday, an unconventional choice for the job after an unconventional election.

Here are eight things you need to know about Blaine Higgs.

1. He'll be the oldest premier of New Brunswick, ever

Higgs will be the first New Brunswick premier from the Saint John area in 83 years.

Six of the last seven premiers who won power through elections were in their 30s. The exception, David Alward, was 50.

Higgs is 64.

But that's more than just a break from the recent pattern. Higgs will be the oldest premier to take office ever — since the advent of responsible government in 1854. (Leonard Tilley, sworn in at age 63 in 1933, is the current record-holder.)

Higgs made a virtue of his age when the Liberals attacked him for having run for the leadership of the Confederation of Regions Party in 1989. Higgs was 35 at the time, the same age as Premier Brian Gallant when the negative ads were launched last year.

"I've been attacked about decisions I might have made when I was premier's age," Higgs said, "and that's why I can understand some of the decisions the premier's been making now."

2. He's from the smallest 'city' in the province

Higgs, a former finance minister, speaks to the leadership convention in Fredericton in 2016. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Higgs grew up in Forest City. The name is a bit of a misnomer: the remote community on a lake on the New Brunswick-Maine border is the farthest thing you can imagine from an actual city.

Last year Higgs estimated the year-round population of Forest City at seven people. "It survives because of the summer activity, not because of any industry or economic development," he said.

That gives him a perspective on small-town life, he said. "There are a lot of rural communities that are challenged, and kids are leaving. Let's not pretend otherwise. Let's lay it all out there and say, 'What collectively are we going to do?'"

3. He worked for the Irvings

Higgs spent 33 years of his career working for Irving Oil ltd. (CBC)

Critics of the Irvings joke that every premier "works" for the billionaire family, but Higgs actually did. He spent 33 years with Irving Oil.

When the Liberals used that to attack him as a pawn of big business, Higgs responded that working for Irving Oil allowed him to do what many New Brunswickers dream of.

"I would like that opportunity for anyone coming out of university, or coming out of high school … to have an opportunity to find a job and have a career right here," he said.

He has also said the Irving ethos — cost efficiency and measurable targets — would help him as premier. "I learned a lot working for that company," he said.

"It's ironic to me that someone would say because I have had broad experience throughout my career, that's not a plus to being in the middle of an $8 billion expenditure of taxpayer money."

4. He ran for the leadership of another party

Higgs also ran for the leadership of the COR party. This photo was taken in 1989. (CBC Archives )

There's a long history of party-switching and floor-crossing among New Brunswick politicians, but Higgs may be the first person to run for the leadership of one party and then become premier as the leader of another.

Although he moved from a protest party to a mainstream one, he seems to like that the Greens and the People's Alliance are shaking up the traditional way of doing politics, a system he says he disdains.

For example, he ruled out a PC-Liberal coalition, he said, because voters "have elected two other parties that cannot and should not be shut out of this process."

5. … and not just any other party

The party Higgs wanted to lead in 1989, the Confederation of Regions, was anti-bilingualism, while the PC party he now leads lists official bilingualism as one of its key principles.

Higgs says he no longer subscribes to the COR worldview. "I believe that all New Brunswickers, French and English, have the opportunity to speak their own language and to learn another one," he said in August. "My opinion has changed over the last 30 years."

Even so, many Acadian organizations are wary about what his COR past means for his approach to language rights.

6. He's the first unilingual premier elected since 1970

Higgs's ability to overcome suspicions about his COR past will be hampered by his inability to speak French well.

The PC leader started taking lessons after he won the PC leadership and has gamely made small talk with francophones. He has also delivered two major speeches entirely in French.

Blaine Higgs will be sworn in as the province’s new Progressive Conservative premier on Friday. Here are eight things you need to know about him. 1:40

But he remains unable to do substantial interviews in the language, making it harder for him to address francophone concerns in his own words. He said this week that he didn't have time for his lessons during the busy campaign but will restart them soon.

7. He won the party leadership despite his fellow MLAs, not because of them

Higgs signals to the gallery prior to the closure of the throne speech debate. (James West/Canadian Press)

In the 2016 leadership race, most PC MLAs, including former ministers who had worked closely with him in the Alward cabinet, chose to support candidates other than Higgs. Only two current MLAs backed him.

Portland-Simonds MLA Trevor Holder, who supported Mel Norton, said at the time that Higgs's vocal dislike of politics was misplaced, because elected officials should respond to their constituents and communities. "When it's done right … politics is what makes things happen."

And Rothesay MLA Ted Flemming, who supported Monica Barley, took an apparent swipe at Higgs's focus on the deficit.

"New Brunswick isn't just a balance sheet," he said. "I'm from the Progressive Conservative Party. That word means something to me. That word has history."

8. He's in a hurry, but he may not be able to hurry

Higgs says the campaign kept him busy, but he plans to start up his French lessons again soon. (Radio-Canada)

Higgs promised quick action to tackle the province's problems if he became premier.

He's asking that proposals to address a shortage of paramedics be on his desk next week, he plans to join a legal challenge of the federal climate plan by the end of this month, and PC MLA Bruce Northrup says a moratorium on fracking could be lifted in the Sussex area before the end of the year.

But Higgs has acknowledged he'll be forced to scale back some of his ambitions in the first legislature since 1920 in which no party won a majority.

The People's Alliance has promised to support him on confidence votes for 18 months, but will decide how to vote on other legislation one bill at a time.

That may make it difficult for Higgs to do all the things he feels are necessary — making him the first premier to take office in that position in a century.