Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has always seen his age and his three-decade career in the private sector as a virtue, not a political liability.
Now the 63-year-old former Irving Oil executive is doubling down in the new session of the New Brunswick legislature, the last before a provincial election in 2018.
‘I don’t have to pretend I did something else before I got into politics, because I did do something else. It was real, and I’m proud of it.’– Blaine Higgs, PC leader
In his recent official reply to the Liberal speech from the throne, Higgs made it clear he’s happy to offer voters a choice at the ballot box next September.
Liberal Premier Brian Gallant, in the midst of spending millions of new taxpayer dollars on infrastructure, daycares, and other programs, has labelled Higgs an ally of big business who is not attuned to the needs of ordinary New Brunswickers.
“This is a great example of the contrast between the leader of the opposition and our government,” Gallant said during one recent question period exchange.
“He thinks that you have to help big business.”
The Liberals have created a website called “Not For You” that spells out their line of attack. It includes a 2005 newspaper ad signed by Higgs and three other Irving Oil executives endorsing Irving’s Canaport LNG tax break in Saint John.
Higgs fought back in his Oct. 26 throne speech reply, rejecting the Liberals’ argument that hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending puts them on the side of Joe and Jane Average.
He argued the new spending is adding to an already crushing tax burden on families and on small businesses.
But he was at his most passionate when he signalled that, rather than running away from his career working for the province’s wealthiest family, he embraces it as an asset.
Defends Irving experience
“I worked with teams of people to get results,” he said. “I learned a lot. I travelled all over the world and met people and negotiated deals that made sense for the company I was working for.
“I want the opportunity to negotiate deals that make sense for the province of New Brunswick.”
The PC leader told reporters after the speech that running a company and a government are not the same.
“Things are so much more critical here,” he said. “It’s not about profit. … It’s about service delivery to every citizen in the province. This is such a higher game.”
Still, he argued his Irving experience outweighs Gallant’s brief time practising law before he ran for office.
“For me, it’s not about a career in politics, because unlike the current situation, I had a career,” Higgs said in the speech. “I don’t have to make up a story about my family. I don’t have to make up a story about my career.
“I don’t have to make up a story that I was employed for 33 years because it’s true. I don’t have to pretend I did something else before I got into politics, because I did do something else. It was real, and I’m proud of it.”
Higgs called Gallant “a young premier with old ideas.”
The Liberal premier ran for leader of the Liberals as a fresh, new face but was backed by many party insiders, including his mentor, MP Dominic LeBlanc. He was sworn in as premier at the age of 32.
Higgs will turn 64 before next year’s election. If he wins, he’ll be the oldest person to become premier in the province’s history.
The PC leader believes that’s an asset, too. He raised four daughters on an Irving salary, he said in his throne speech reply.
“That’s why I can relate to every family in this province. That’s why I know what it takes to work for a living.”
Higgs even used the age gap with Gallant to deflect criticism about his run for the leadership of the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party in 1989.
“I’ve been attacked for decisions I might have made when I was premier’s age,” he said, “and that’s why I can understand some of the decisions the premier’s making now.”
Despite four years as Premier David Alward’s finance minister, Higgs ran for PC leader last year as an outsider, with little support from fellow MLAs or the party establishment.
As opposition leader, he often steers away from conventional political tactics.
Last week, he said he will not commit to tearing up the controversial Medavie contract, because he doesn’t know whether the agreement will allow it, or what the cost would be.
He criticized his own party for its 1999 election promise to eliminate tolls on the Fredericton-Moncton highway. Keeping the promise forced taxpayers to make up the shortfall.
“That’s not strategic thinking,” Higgs said.
But his most striking break with conventional strategy is his explicit defence of the role big businesses, including the Irving companies, play in the economy.
‘A great clip’
During an especially scrappy Nov. 8 question period exchange with Gallant, Higgs argued most of the economic growth in 2015 that the premier brags about came from the export-driven forestry industry and the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
“Do you know what fuelled that?” Higgs asked. “Big business.”
Gallant treated it as a gotcha moment.
“There it is,” he said. “He thinks it is big business. He just said it. It is a great clip. We will make sure that all of New Brunswickers see it.”
But in Higgs’s view he was stating the obvious — that the private sector, not government, generates economic growth.
The exchange again highlighted the contrast between two different leaders and their sharply different world views, a clear choice for New Brunswick voters in next year’s election.
Both leaders seem to be saying: bring it on.