New Brunswick

Jeannot Volpé not shy to rain criticism as PC hopeful mounts return to politics

Former cabinet minister Jeannot Volpé did not go quietly, and it looks like he’s not going to come back quietly, either

PC Leader Blaine Higgs said he welcomes former cabinet minister Jeannot Volpé's outspokenness

Progressive Conservative hopeful Jeannot Volpé is, once again, not shy of doling out criticism against decisions made by the PCs.

Former cabinet minister Jeannot Volpé did not go quietly, and it looks like he's not going to come back quietly, either.

The one-time Progressive Conservative MLA who retired from politics in 2010, and became an outspoken critic of Premier David Alward's PC government, is now back in the fold.

He wants to be the party's candidate in Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston in the Sept. 24 election — despite his objections to key decisions made when current PC Leader Blaine Higgs was the finance minister.

"Somebody needs to get involved and if Blaine Higgs needs some help, I'll do whatever I can to help him fix the problems we have now and put the province back on track," Volpé said Wednesday.

The highway toll issue

Volpé was first elected in 1995 and was a cabinet minister in the Lord government from 1999 to 2006. He did not run in 2010 and later criticized decisions by his party, including a 2014 forestry plan and a reform of the pension plan for members of the legislature.

Higgs in turn has lumped in the Lord government with other previous administrations who he says made short-sighted, costly, politically motivated decisions. Higgs said last year Lord's decision to eliminate tolls on the Moncton-Fredericton highway was one such move.

Volpé said he has straightened out Higgs on that issue.

Volpé was Natural Resources Minister in the Bernard Lord government.

"I asked him what he knew about it," he said. "So he told me what he knew about it. I said 'OK, now I'll tell you what I know about it,' and when I was done, he said, 'Well, Jeannot, to be fair, I was not aware of that part.'"

He also pointed out that the Lord government left office with the province's net debt lower than when it took power, despite the toll debt being added to the books.

'I'm looking for people to contribute'

Higgs, meanwhile, said he welcomes Volpé's straight talk.

"No question about it, Jeannot is well known for speaking his mind," the PC leader said. "I'm looking for people to contribute, not be silent."

When asked about Volpé's outspokenness, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said he wants PC members to speak up. (Radio-Canada)

Volpé fiercely criticized the 2014 PC reform to MLA pensions plans, saying the retroactive changes to the benefits amounted to an illegal breaking of the contract he agreed to when he ran for office.

He went as far as to launch a human rights complaint. He said Wednesday he had abandoned that because the legal bills would have been too high.

He said Wednesday he tried to warn Alward that the reform legislation was flawed and would cost long-time MLAs like him more than intended, with retroactive provisions going back to when they were first elected.

Volpé blamed what he called "a few dummies" on Alward's staff for the mistake.

"By being with Mr. Higgs, if elected, I would do my best so that people who make decisions know what they're talking about when they're making a decision. I believe David Alward made quite a few decisions without knowing fully what he was doing."

Higgs declared the question closed Tuesday. "The pension stuff is over," he said. "We're not going to be reopening that issue."

The Alward forestry plan

Volpé also denounced the Alward government's 2014 forestry plan, which he says further entrenched the dominance of large companies on Crown lands at the expense of small woodlot owners like himself.

He repeated those criticisms Tuesday, saying the province is losing money on the land it leases to major forest companies and New Brunswick has the fewest jobs per thousand cubic metres of wood of any jurisdiction in North America.

He said he didn't begrudge forestry companies like J.D. Irving trying to get access to more Crown wood.

"For companies in this province to keep on asking, to me it was always very normal. It's the decisions I would criticize, the ones who said 'yes.'"

Volpé, who owns a small woodlot, denounced the previous PC government's forestry plan. (CBC)

Higgs said last year he was open to changes to the regime, especially now that the U.S. government has ended a New Brunswick exemption from softwood tariffs.

The Americans have argued that wood from Crown land, which they consider subsidized, is making up a greater and greater share of the province's wood output.

Volpé said he and Higgs have had long discussions about modernizing the law governing Crown land.

"I said, 'If you want me to work on it, I'd be happy to work with some other people and at least have a good discussion with the people of this province, who are the shareholders, to see what it is we're doing wrong here,'" he said.

Higgs confirmed that he is willing to "completely open this up" if that will end the U.S. tariffs on New Brunswick mills, though he said he made no promises to Volpé.

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