FREDERICTON – Blaine Higgs, who will take the oath of office Friday to become the 34th premier of New Brunswick, says his government will act more like a service organization — and treat taxpayers like customers.
The Progressive Conservative leader will lead a minority government as the province faces challenges around language rights, finances and health care.
“I’ve said it in the campaign a lot, for government to be a service organization. For all of us working for government are working for taxpayers and we should be treating taxpayers like customers,” Higgs said Thursday.
The Tories have just a single seat more than the Liberals they ousted and Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, said Higgs needs to set a tone of conciliation right from the start.
“He’s got a very fractured, very precarious legislature. He’s got to strike the right notes. It won’t be easy but it will be possible. I think New Brunswickers expect these men and women to lay down their swords and work together,” Wright said.
Wright said everyone will be watching closely to see what the new Tory government does about carbon pricing and the French-English dynamic in the province.
Higgs has vowed to fix the shortage of paramedics in which the failure to meet language requirements has left some ambulances unstaffed.
Wright said Higgs needs to walk a fine line and not exacerbate the language tensions.
September’s election left the province divided, with most of the Liberal support in the north, and Tory support in the south.
Higgs said that presented some challenges as he selected his list of cabinet ministers that will be unveiled Friday.
“The way we’re structured, there are areas of the province where we don’t have elected officials in, but certainly we will be endeavouring to represent those areas in a meaningful way even though we don’t have elected members. But that’s our job as government, no matter what the case,” he said.
The outgoing Liberal premier, Brian Gallant, said Thursday that language is one issue he should have addressed better.
“Over the last four years as premier, I should have talked more about bilingualism. I should have spoken more about the benefits of bilingualism to our economic fabric. I should have also acknowledged more often some of the concerns that people have with regards to how they feel bilingualism has had a negative impact on their lives. And I should have spent more time as well at busting some of the myths around bilingualism,” he said.
Gallant said he was most proud of his free tuition and childcare programs, and hopes they won’t be scrapped or downgraded by a Tory government.
Higgs said Thursday he wants to engage New Brunswickers, get their opinions, and make them part of the solution as he takes power.
And he said that starts with consulting the civil service.
“I don’t come ready-made with a list of solutions, but I very much enjoy discussions where you start asking questions like, ‘What do you think we should do?’ And it’s almost like people say ‘I’m surprised you’d ask.’ We should always be asking,” he said.
“We shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers. We should be looking for solutions from people in their particular areas of expertise to help us improve.”
The lieutenant-governor asked Higgs to form a government after Gallant’s Liberals were defeated on a confidence vote on their throne speech last week.
Standings in the 49-seat legislature are 22 Tories, 21 Liberals, three Green party members and three People’s Alliance MLAs. The Tories can stay in office with the support of the three Alliance members, which gives them the 25 votes needed for a majority.
Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance, has said the party will support the Tories on confidence votes for at least 18 months.
The Tory throne speech is expected Nov. 20, and Higgs said he’ll meet with the other parties next week to get their input.
Higgs said his throne speech will focus on a short list of priorities, unlike the many promises made in the Liberal speech.
“It won’t be a shopping list,” he said.