Tory leadership hopefuls strut their stuff at first forum

The Progressive Conservative Party hosted its first public forum on Sunday that allowed six of the leadership contestants to outline their visions for the province and how they plan to defeat Brian Gallant's Liberals in the next election.

Progressive Conservatives have been without a permanent leader for 2 years since David Alward stepped down

The first public forum for Progressive Conservative leadership candidates took place Sunday evening in Riverview. (Matthew Bingley / CBC)

The Progressive Conservative Party hosted its first public forum on Sunday that allowed six of the leadership contestants to outline their visions for the province and how they plan to defeat Brian Gallant's Liberals in the next election.

The leadership forum saw roughly 130 people turnout in Riverview to hear from contestants on hot topics, such as the economy, health care and restoring faith in the legislature.

Former Saint John mayor Mel Norton, former Tobique-Mactaquac MP Mike Allen, current PC MLAs Blaine Higgs, Jake Stewart and Brian Macdonald and former federal crown prosecutor Monica Barley all showed up to take questions.

Former PC MP and MLA Jean Dubé has said he was joining the race, but hasn't filed the required paperwork so he wasn't at the event.

Norton said people across New Brunswick are "concerned that we are more often than not the under-performers of Canada," that the province's problems are being intensified by lack of government leadership, and the province is "more divided than ever."

"I can't recall a time when our province has had less hope," said Norton.

Norton referenced his track record as mayor of Saint John, where he said he "fixed a bankrupt pension in six months, built the biggest city infrastructure in the history of New Brunswick, kept taxes stable, [and] ran surplus budgets." 

He called for increased emphasis on making "New Brunswick the most business-friendly jurisdiction." He also called for an end to moratoriums on natural resources.

While noting his successes as finance minister, Higgs stated he needs the party leadership to "get the job done."

After urging a "province first, politics, second" approach, Higgs said accountability, consultation, and public engagement, rather than "goals [...] set by a small room and designed to keep perpetuating the obvious" are key.

Higgs stated while Norton often talks about his track record on pension reform in Saint John, it was the province that changed the rules to enable municipalities across the province to enact those reforms.

Increased transparency demanded

Interim PC leader Bruce Fitch will be replaced on Oct. 22 when his party elects a permanent leader. (CBC)
Allen, citing his 30-plus years of experience in the public and private sectors, said he would bring "thoughtful, common-sense solutions" to address the dearth of jobs for young people, provide security for seniors, and harness power of small and medium-sized businesses.

"We can't continue to put moratoriums on companies who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in New Brunswick," said Allen. 

"Businesses don't like uncertainty."

He emphasized the importance of smart tax relief and creating an educated workforce.

As a young father of four, Stewart said he sees the province through a unique lens of the "three E's: ethics, equality, and economy."

Stewart said the province needs to discontinue funding for "major projects that are going nowhere," as well as "get rid of all the economic agencies, because they haven't worked."

Stewart also said the Official Languages Act of 1969 "never intended for people to have to become bilingual," and in fact disadvantages rural New Brunswickers who don't have access to French immersion.

"I'm the guy my own party hates half of the time because they don't like my ideas," said Stewart.

Retaining young people

About 130 people heard from Tory contestants on hot topics including economy, health and restoring faith in the legislature. (Matthew Bingley / CBC)
Macdonald emphasized the importance of both "our young people, and our old people" as the key to the province's future. 

The two-term Fredericton West-Hanwell MLA said he would create opportunities for the province by creating jobs, cutting taxes and red tape and helping businesses access world markets.

"That's how we're going to keep our young people here," Macdonald said.

He added that, the province has to "transform our healthcare system and our system of nursing homes so that [seniors] get the care that they need in their homes in their communities, and they can continue to contribute."

Defeating Gallant

Premier Brian Gallant and his government were repeated targets of criticism during the Tory leadership forum. (CBC)
Barley says she's "tired of watching New Brunswickers leave because they don't think they have opportunities here at home," emphasizing a tax system that attracts investment and keeps wealth in the province.

"It is investment and wealth that creates jobs, not government," Barley said.

"We cannot be one of the highest taxed provinces in this country and expect people or businesses to come here our stay here. That does not make sense."

Barley acknowledged while her stance on the issues isn't "fundamentally any different" than her rivals.

What she said she brings is "a matter of leadership" and a style she described as "inclusive and decisive."

"I can beat Brian Gallant in the next election, and I believe by working together, we can change the future of this province," she said.

The PCs have been without a permanent leader since David Alward vacated the post two years ago.

The leadership vote is scheduled for Oct. 22 at Fredericton's Aitken Centre.

with files from Matthew Bingley

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