Higgs says he will seek to govern as party overcomes challenges
Progressive Conservative leader puts own interpretation on election results
Blaine Higgs, who sought to return New Brunswick's Progressive Conservatives to power after four years in opposition, says he plans to meet with the lieutenant-governor and intends to form the next government.
The party secured 22 seats in the 49-seat legislature, short of the 25 needed for a majority government.
But the party eked out one more seat than the Liberals, the party that governed for the past four years. The Green Party and People's Alliance won three seats each.
"The one who wins the most seats forms government," Higgs said Monday evening in an interview with CBC.
Philippe Lagassé, an expert on the Westminster system of government at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that's not the case.
Reminder: The current Premier gets to test the confidence of the legislature first because they’re the Premier until they resign or are dismissed. It’s not a convention but a legal reality.—@PhilippeLagasse
Higgs said he'll need support from the other parties to govern.
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant told supporters he intends to meet with Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy Vienneau about working with other parties to pass legislation on a vote-by-vote, issue-by-issue basis.
Higgs took a shot at Gallant, saying he was "in denial about the election results."
The PC leader said he's looking forward to working with the leaders of the Green and People's Alliance parties.
"We've got to put priorities of the province ahead of politics," Higgs said. "I've said that for eight years."
Green Party Leader David Coon wouldn't say whether modifications of the PC platform would earn his support.
"We're getting into the weeds now, it's all premature," Coon said as results were still coming in Monday evening.
The 64-year-old PC leader won his Quispamsis riding, taking almost 57 per cent of the vote. The PCs finished the campaign with one more seat than when the legislature dissolved.
Vote split worries
The PCs openly warned in the final days of the campaign against splitting the vote, suggesting people vote for a party that has better chance to win.
"Why would we take a chance on splitting the vote and having another four years of Brian Gallant?" Higgs said last week. "Because that is the real risk for New Brunswick."
He got into some trouble with francophones after the party leaders were asked during a TV debate what they would do if the election resulted in a minority government.
"I will work with anyone who has the best interest of putting our province first and politics second," Higgs said.
The suggestion the PCs would be open to working with the People's Alliance, which campaigned on ending language duality, drew criticism from the francophone community on social media.
Language issues dogged Higgs — who isn't bilingual — and the PC campaign. The last unilingual premier was Richard Hatfield, who left office more than three decades ago.
A proposed Radio-Canada leaders' debate did not go ahead after Higgs said he couldn't take part, prompting Liberal Leader Brian Gallant to say no as well.
The PC leader did take part in a Rogers/Brunswick News debate using translation equipment.
Higgs sought to distance himself from his past with the Confederation of Regions party, which campaigned on repealing official bilingualism.
"I have a different perspective on things today," Higgs said in August. "I believe that all New Brunswickers, French and English, have the opportunity to speak their own language and to learn another one. My opinion has changed over the last 30 years."
Higgs was first elected in 2010 and served as finance minister under premier David Alward.
In that role, he oversaw cuts to public spending, though he was not able to eliminate the deficit.
Higgs was re-elected in 2014 when the Liberals took power.
The Liberals in this election repeatedly attacked Higgs over his record as finance minister, suggesting he would make further cuts to health and education if the PCs won. Higgs was vague on the cost of some promises, saying he didn't have the financial details necessary to make accurate predictions.
In one of the more bizarre moments of the campaign, Higgs pulled an affidavit from his jacket near the end of the CBC leaders' debate.
In the document, he claimed the Liberals offered him a position as finance minister or deputy minister in the government shortly after the Tories were defeated in 2014.
Higgs secured the PC party leadership in October 2016, leading every ballot against six other candidates.
His plain-spoken message: He would do politics differently as leader.
The party entered the election year with a financial disadvantage.
Reports filed with Elections NB show the Liberals had $1.8 million in the bank as of Dec. 31 compared to $13,000 for the PCs.
The party fielded candidates who previously ran or supported other parties.
That included former NDP leader Dominic Cardy in Fredericton West-Hanwell and former Liberal supporter Moira Murphy in Moncton South.
At several points, PC candidates took positions that differed or contradicted Higgs, including positions on schools in Moncton and changes to a controversial law on relocating judges.
Born in Forest City in western New Brunswick, Higgs studied mechanical engineering at the University of New Brunswick.
He was hired at Irving Oil Ltd. and rose through the ranks before entering politics.
Higgs and his wife, Marcia, have four daughters and three grandchildren.
With files from Radio-Canada