A leader of the Progressive Conservative party in southeast Brunswick is trying to get Premier Blaine Higgs to overhaul the leadership of the province’s party.
In an email to party members, Maurice Arsenault, PC regional vice president for southeastern New Brunswick, accused Higgs of a “dictatorial approach.”
He hopes to gather enough PC members to sign letters to launch a debate on the premier’s leadership at the annual general meeting in Fredericton on November 4-5.
“Let me remind you that it was Blaine Higgs who embraced Dominic Cardy and Kris Austin without any consultation with our party,” Arsenault wrote.
Cardy, a former NDP leader, joined the PCs in 2017 but resigned from Higgs’ cabinet last week over the prime minister’s leadership style.
On the same day, Austin, the former People’s Alliance leader who defected to the Tories in March, was sworn in to the cabinet.
“There are a lot of people who are not satisfied, and everybody talks about it, and nobody does anything about it,” Arsenault told CBC News.
“Then Cardy jumped the boat, and she’s not the only one who’s frustrated, so I guess it’s about time I submitted my letter.”
Caucus backs Higgs
Moncton South PC MLA Greg Turner said he called a meeting of the PC caucus on Monday night after getting “wind” of the letter, and the support for Higgs was unanimous, with no dissents.
“Without exception, [it was] 100 per cent endorsement of the Premier and his leadership for our province, really,” he said.
“Everyone who wanted to talk about the issue had the opportunity to speak, and it was very, very positive. Ministers and MPs came together to support the Prime Minister and the work we’ve done and the work he’s done to lead us.”
Arsenault, who lives in Moncton Center, says in his letter that Austin “does not adhere to our party’s constitution,” referring to the Alliance party’s opposition to official bilingualism.
Among the principles of the PC constitution is a statement that party members agree to support and promote official bilingualism and “the diversity of our two linguistic communities”.
“It was enough that Kris Austin” was a PC MLA, but “being a minister, I can’t stand that,” Arsenault said.
Break down voting barriers
He said he has been told by someone in the party that if he gathers enough support fast enough, the leadership issue could be put on the agenda at the annual meeting.
But the hurdles to a vote to remove the PC leader are significant.
Reviews are automatic when the party loses an election, but when in power, 50 party members, including 20 riding association presidents, must ask the president’s council for a review vote at least 21 days before the next meeting.
The president’s council is made up of members of the party’s executive, his regional vice presidents, such as Arsenault, and all 49 PC riding association presidents.
A two-thirds majority must vote in favor of a leadership review. Only then would a vote by all members on removing the Higgs be envisaged within three months, either at the annual meeting or a special meeting.
PC party leader Claude Williams says the president’s council is unlikely to meet until December, which means it is impossible to put the leadership review on the agenda at the annual meeting.
The debate has been going on for “recent weeks”.
Williams, a former cabinet colleague of Higgs in the David Alward government, said as party president he cannot take a position in the prime minister’s leadership.
“The discussion has been going on for the last few weeks,” he said. “I have no opinion.”
Among Arsenault’s other complaints is that Higgs has done nothing to fix health care since firing two county health authority boards in July, and has yet to respond to a review of the Official Languages Act introduced 10 months ago.
He says he has heard “months” from supporters of the parties who want change at the top.
But Turner says Arsenault is an isolated voice.
“We cannot lose sight of the fact that this review call is from a member of the party. That’s how we see it. I’m sure there are always people who question the leadership of any organization for certain reasons.”
Higgs recently told the Brunswick News that he will announce in the State of the Province address in the new year whether he plans to retire or seek another term before the next election in 2024.
But Arsenault says Higgs is “playing with us” and that the timing is “disrespectful” for a new party leader who should set his own agenda ahead of the 2024 election.