Blaine Higgs, outsider — again?
New Brunswick’s premier is returning to the original argument he used to launch his pursuit of the job: that he’s not part of the establishment but rather an anti-politician tackling an entrenched status quo.
It’s a curious approach for someone now in his sixth year governing the province, shaping policies from the top and having a direct impact on the daily life of the province.
Yet that’s the message underlying a strongly worded fundraising appeal he send out to members of the Progressive Conservative Party last week.
“Over the past few months, I have been attacked by Justin Trudeau, opposition politicians, and big union bosses for my common sense position,” Higgs said in the Nov. 15 email sent to party members.
“In the weeks and months to come, I expect the attacks against me — and our Progressive Conservative government — will only become more dishonest, more frequent, and, frankly, more disgusting.”
In 2016, Higgs portrayed himself as a political outsider when he ran for the party leadership.
“I did not come from deep roots politically,” he said, calling for “a movement” to save New Brunswick from old-style politics.
According to a 2021 letter that cabinet minister Dorothy Shephard sent to Higgs criticizing his leadership style, Higgs won the leadership with the support of people who “had never supported the PCNB or had any connection to anyone in the party.”
Most of them “are nowhere to be found now,” she wrote at the time.
If that’s true, the tone and content of Higgs’s letter indicates he may be trying to bring those people back on board.
In his email, the premier casts himself as standing up against “the forces of big government” to defend parental rights, his phrase of choice for his revisions to Policy 713.
In June, Higgs changed the policy, adopted by his own government in 2020, to require principals and teachers to get parents’ consent if a student wants to informally adopt a new name or pronoun at school to reflect their gender identity.
That change attracted widespread criticism and was the catalyst for a revolt against the premier’s leadership within the party and within his own caucus at the legislature.
“As I’m sure you’ve seen, standing up for parental rights this year hasn’t always been easy,” Higgs says in the email..
You and I both know these political attacks are preposterous.
“But, sadly, I believe they’re only a preview of what’s to come in 2024, which will be an election year here in New Brunswick.”
He then asks party members to help him “fight back, correct the record” by donating to the party’s campaign war chest.
Liberal Leader Susan Holt says Higgs is “playing the victim again,” turning a blind eye to concerns that the Policy 713 changes could leave some trans students vulnerable to abuse.
She calls it the latest example of the premier “picking fights” with a range of groups, including teachers, nurses, francophones and Indigenous people.
The New Brunswick Teachers Association complained recently that teachers have faced online attacks after Higgs’s September comment that “children are being taught to lie to their parents.”
Publicly, Higgs has focused on affordability issues this fall, attacking the federal Liberal carbon tax and hinting at new measures to help people cope with high prices.
The fundraising letter aimed at party members, Holt said, uses “the classic tactics we’ve seen imported from the west, and maybe his campaign manager, to try and squeeze out money and support from the people he can manipulate on this issue.”
Higgs recently confirmed that Steve Outhouse, a veteran organizer and social conservative, will run his re-election campaign next year.
Outhouse managed Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s election campaign this year and also ran two federal Conservative leadership campaigns by MP Leslyn Lewis.
Those campaigns harnessed the anger of social conservative voters, something Holt believes Higgs is now trying to duplicate.
“We have to assume it’ll look more right-wing, more negative, more wedge issues, that it’ll stoke more fear and hate like we’ve seen over this last little bit, and I don’t think it’s who New Brunswickers are or what they want.”
Indeed, the revolt Higgs faced within the PC party suggests a large bloc of party members may not be mobilized by such appeals.
But other elements of the party definitely are — because, they say, Higgs is tapping into a sentiment that is real and widespread.
“There is no doubt the premier is representing the majority of New Brunswick parents. I hear it regularly,” said Faytene Grasseschi, a Christian conservative activist running for the PC nomination in the riding of Hampton-Fundy-St. Martin’s.
“Premier Higgs’s principled stance took courage and cost him last summer — but it was the right thing to do,” she said in an email. “People respect that.”
The next election is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2024, and its outcome may hinge on whether she is right.
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