Higgs says Liberals asked him to be finance minister 4 years ago
PC leader makes surprise claim near the end of the first debate of the election campaign
The first leaders' debate of the New Brunswick election campaign began with heated exchanges on language and social services but took a turn when the Progressive Conservative leader claimed the Liberals asked him to join the government as finance minister.
Blaine Higgs pulled a piece of paper from his jacket he described as a sworn affidavit stating the Liberals sought to recruit him as minister or deputy minister after the 2014 election.
Higgs served as finance minister in the Progressive Conservative government that lost the election.
He signed the affidavit, sent to the news media after the debate, on Wednesday in Moncton.
During the debate, Higgs suggested he rejected the Liberals' bid for his help.
"I chose not to do it because the government was so irresponsible in promising more and making more irresponsible promises that they couldn't get out of," he said.
"Blaine Higgs is not invited to be the finance minister of our government," Gallant responded.
"This is ridiculous," NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie said of the exchange.
In a statement after the debate, Gallant said he met with Higgs four years ago to talk about cuts the previous government had made.
"At no point did I want Blaine Higgs to be finance minister, at no point did I offer him finance minister, nor did I authorize anyone to offer him finance minister," Gallant said.
After pulling out the affidavit and a brief back-and-forth about it, Higgs dropped the issue and the debate continued.
The televised debate at the Riverview Arts Centre was hosted by CBC.
It also included Green Party Leader David Coon and People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin.
It was, at times, chaotic as all five party leaders spoke at once.
The wide-ranging discussion covered everything from rural and Indigenous issues to child protection and education.
"I have a sworn affidavit that I was thoroughly entertained," said Jamie Gillies, an associate professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University and CBC post-debate panellist.
"I'm not sure anybody landed a knockout punch."
Some of the most pointed comments came when the leaders talked about language.
The first question, on rural issues, saw the People's Alliance leader point to delays with ambulance services and promise his party would improve response times by getting rid of a requirement that paramedics be bilingual.
Ambulances and language
The NDP leader called Austin's position on language "irresponsible."
In a response to a later question about language issues, Austin repeated a pledge to "end duality" and said average New Brunswickers, no matter their native language, get along.
"I think it's problematic to use language as a wedge issue when it's mismanagement that's the issue," Coon said.
Higgs said that when ambulances are parked, it's clear that better decisions have to be made.
Gallant said 42 paramedic positions have been added in recent years and that positions to educate more paramedics have been added.
Responding to a question about how parties would ensure pay equity for women in the private sector, the Liberal leader said the party would introduce legislation to make it a requirement.
The NDP leader pointed out Gallant didn't live up to a previous pay equity commitment.
During a section of the debate about the environment, Coon accused McKenzie of lifting her campaign proposals from the Green Party's platform.
"I did not," McKenzie said.
How to protect children
CBC reporter Karissa Donkin asked the leaders how they would improve the protection of children in the province.
The People's Alliance leader said social workers are overloaded with "hundreds" of cases and his party would boost spending on social services.
"This has been a problem for decades," Gallant said, adding the Liberals have worked with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate to address issues.
The Green Party leader called for a complete restructuring of the Department of Social Development, which is responsible for child protection in the province.
"The red and blue teams have had years to get this right, and they've failed for years," Coon said a few minutes later of the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, adding the government has to be more open about what's occurred.
McKenzie interrupted to say this would only address what happens after children have died, adding the government must do more to improve social services before children die.
CBC's live blog of the debate: