New Brunswick·Analysis

Will Blaine Higgs's affidavit gambit change the direction of the election campaign?

Despite a few famous exceptions, most election debates don't actually offer a so-called "defining moment" that suddenly shifts the campaign in a new direction.ion.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant says he met with Higgs in 2014 but did not offer him a cabinet post

Here's who won the political party leaders' debate and why, according to our panelists. 1:41

Despite a few famous exceptions, most election debates don't actually offer a so-called "defining moment" that suddenly shifts the campaign in a new direction.

Usually party leaders restate their existing positions, get into some heated exchanges with their opponents and the campaign continues with essentially the same dynamic.

That's how Wednesday night's CBC debate was looking until the final minutes — when Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs injected a new twist.

Higgs said that Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, shortly after taking power in 2014, offered him two positions in his new government — finance minister, the same position Higgs held in David Alward's PC government, or deputy minister of finance, the top civil servant in the department.

Gallant literally laughed out loud, but Higgs produced a sworn affidavit in which he laid out the accusation in detail.

"You can laugh, Mr. Gallant, but it is what happened," Higgs said.

"Oh come on," NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie declared in the middle of the drama.

"What is this?"

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs pulls out an affidavit from his jacket saying he was offered a cabinet position in 2014 in Brian Gallant's Liberal government. (CBC)

What it was was a startling accusation that allowed Higgs to recapture the initiative, at least for the moment, in a campaign narrative that might otherwise have slipped away from the PC leader.

On Tuesday, the Liberals upended the release of the PC campaign platform by releasing a document detailing cuts that had been proposed to Higgs by external consultants in 2013. They included axing 545 teacher positions and 79 schools.

When the broad brushstrokes of those proposed cuts were leaked to CBC News last year, Higgs explained that his efforts to shrink government had been blocked by his PC colleagues in cabinet for political reasons.

He said if Tories had been re-elected in 2014, he'd have revived the proposals.

"Absolutely, they'd have come back," he said.

Tuesday, however, a visibly angry Higgs adopted a different version — accusing Gallant of "outright lies" and taking credit for the fact the cuts never happened, then vowing they won't see the light of day if he wins the election.

"I didn't make those cuts then, when I was in government as a minister, and I'm not making them now," he said.

"They want you to believe I'll cut schools, I'll cut hospitals, I'll cut schools. And none of this is true. Absolutely none of it."

The CBC leaders' debate summarized in a 90-second recap video. 1:36

It sounded like the words of a conventional politician — and worse, it sounded defensive.

Higgs was talking about what the Liberals wanted him to talk about: the notion of cuts.

All that may have changed with Wednesday's debate.

Higgs said he ended up turning down Gallant's purported 2014 offer "because the government was so irresponsible in promising more, in making more irresponsible promises they couldn't get out of."

And if Gallant didn't exactly sound defensive, his grammatical choices were certainly curious. By using the present tense, he wasn't even talking about 2014 but about today.

New Brunswick’s party leaders discuss provincial debt and deficit reduction during the leaders’ debate on Wednesday night. 9:32

"Blaine Higgs is not invited to be the finance minister of our government," Gallant said calmly.

Later, when Higgs challenged him to respond to the affidavit, Gallant again used the present tense.

"We have no interest in you being the finance minister of this government," he said.

New Brunswick's five political leaders traded barbs for 90 minutes on Wednesday night during the CBC leaders' debate. (Marc Grandmaison/The Canadian Press)

The PC campaign team soon sent the affidavit to journalists.

In the document, Higgs says he exchanged texts messages with a member of Gallant's transition team after the Liberal election win, and that person, whom he didn't name, arranged "several meetings" where the job offers were discussed.

Gallant later issued a statement acknowledging he met with Higgs in the fall of 2014. But he said after it became clear Higgs had been the architect of PC spending cuts and wanted to "cut deeper," he decided not to offer him the finance minister job.

It was an attempt to shift the dynamic back to the Liberal message — that Higgs would be a zealous slasher of programs.

So was Wednesday's debate a potential turning point in the campaign?

Former PC adviser David MacLaughlin tweeted that the PC leader's gambit may backfire on him.

"This serves to make Higgs the issue for voters," he wrote. "What Liberals want.

But one other aspect of Gallant's written statement is worth noting: while he explicitly says he never offered Higgs the finance portfolio in his cabinet, nowhere does he deny offering him the civil service post of deputy minister of finance.

That means there will be more questions for the Liberal leader to answer in the coming days.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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