FREDERICTON – Five weeks after New Brunswickers went to the polls, Tory Leader Blaine Higgs has become the premier-designate — and is promising to move quickly.
“People of the province should feel comfortable that the system worked, it just took a little longer,” Higgs said after meeting with Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy Vienneau late Friday, hours after Brian Gallant’s Liberals fell on a confidence vote.
She asked if the Progressive Conservative leader had the confidence to form government, and Higgs said he told her that he did.
Afterward, Higgs struck an optimistic tone as he spoke to reporters.
“I guess the next step begins,” Higgs said.
“I believe our province can be in first place in all categories. And I believe that opportunity is right before us today.”
Gallant, whose government fell when the legislature voted against the throne speech, said he was unsure about his own political future, but he wished the Tories luck.
“Their success will be New Brunswick’s success,” he said.
Higgs said he wants the transition to occur as quickly as possible, with a cabinet by late next week and a throne speech before the end of the month.
“The throne speech won’t be a shopping list. It will be a priority list and it will be focused on some big items we can agree on,” Higgs said.
“We will set lofty goals and achieve them. We don’t need more taxes, we need results.”
The Tories won 22 seats in the September election — one more than the Liberals — while the Greens and People’s Alliance each won three seats.
Gallant sought to survive with a minority government by adding many of the opposition’s campaign promises to his party’s throne speech earlier this week, but his party’s fate was sealed Thursday when both the Tories and People’s Alliance said they’d vote to defeat it.
Higgs said he believes his minority government can survive four years by producing results.
Its success will depend on support from the opposition parties, and that has thrown the spotlight on language rights in Canada’s only official bilingual province.
Higgs said Friday his priority would be to address a shortage of paramedics, where the failure to meet language requirements has left some ambulances unstaffed.
He said francophones should not be concerned by his government’s approach.
“They shouldn’t be worried at all. They should be grateful that we’re going to provide the health care they demand all across the province as an interim measure to meet the language requirements that we have,” he said.
The People’s Alliance, which has agreed to prop up the Tories for at least 18 months, put bilingualism and service duality front and centre in their campaign.
Gallant said Friday it was important parties don’t use the issue as a “political weapon.”
He said it appeared the election results — which saw the Liberals dominate the largely francophone north and the Tories and People’s Alliance do better in the mostly anglophone south — suggested the province is divided along regional and linguistic lines.
But he said people should not be taken in by those apparent divisions.
“What binds us together is greater than what drives us apart … We’re all New Brunswickers.”
Gallant said he wished he had done more to promote unity and bilingualism.
“I will not pretend that we were a perfect government, but we were a good government.”
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said his party has agreed to support the Tories to provide some stability to the legislature.
However, he said his members will be free to vote their conscience on bills.
“We are in nobody’s back pocket, but in a minority government you do have to work together and we’ve agreed to do that with Mr. Higgs,” Austin said.
Austin said his first priority is to get the new Tory government to address the ambulance issue.
Green Leader David Coon and his two members voted to support the Liberal throne speech, which included many of his party’s campaign promises.
“Our message to the Conservatives is that it’s important that they include those things in their throne speech, and we’ll be working hard to make sure that happens,” Coon said.
Gallant said he and his wife are reflecting on what’s next — whether he serve as opposition leader or take a different path.
“I still have a burning desire to make a difference, there’s no question about that,” he told reporters.