New Brunswick’s next premier is a fiscal hawk and former Irving Oil executive

By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

The man poised to become New Brunswick’s next premier has a well-earned reputation as a tight-fisted fiscal manager whose resume includes 33 years as a senior executive working for one of Canada’s richest families: the Irving clan.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs, a 64-year-old engineer and former finance minister, was hired by Irving Oil a week after he graduated from the University of New Brunswick. He was eventually promoted to director of distribution, overseeing oil transportation across eastern Canada and New England.

His extensive big business experience has informed his approach to politics. Higgs refers to citizens as customers, and his campaign for the Sept. 24 election was replete with references to getting results.

“I came from a company where you had to deliver results in order to survive,” Higgs said when he released the Progressive Conservative platform.

“(New Brunswickers) are paying the bills but they’re not getting the service to reflect the amount of money being spent.”

Higgs had promised to cut government waste and balance the province’s budget in two years — a year earlier than his outgoing rival, Liberal Premier Brian Gallant.

And like other right-of-centre politicians, he also promised not to raise taxes, while offering a modest spending plan.

“We will set lofty goals and achieve them. We don’t need more taxes, we need results,” Higgs said Friday after Gallant’s government fell on a confidence vote.

“We ran a principled campaign and ran on the belief that New Brunswick needs better service from the political leaders.”

Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says as a former Irving executive, Higgs will face scrutiny when weighing just about any government decision.

“There is an imbalance that would create that perception with any government,” he said. “Mr. Higgs would be well aware of that perception and would want to disabuse people of the idea that he was a cipher for the Irving companies.”

The company is one of the province’s largest employers, with interests in forestry, pulp and paper, transportation, oil refining and distribution, retail, media outlets and shipbuilding. Canadian Business magazine says the privately owned empire was thought to be worth $7.8 billion, making the Irving family the eighth richest in Canada.

“The interactions between public policy and the Irvings are multitudinous,” Bateman said. “It’s a very large and influential group of companies in a province that is very small and short on alternative means of economic development.”

Before the election campaign began, the Liberals took aim at Higgs’ business background, saying he has opposed minimum-wage increases, income tax increases for the richest New Brunswickers and a plan to make tuition free for some post-secondary students.

“He wants to help the wealthy and large corporations,” Gallant said at the time. “And he’s demonstrated that in his voting record as leader of the Opposition.”

The Liberals also produced a series of attack ads, which included the slogan: “Blaine Higgs puts big business first.”

However, no one in the province was surprised when the Liberal cabinet ministers who unveiled the negative ads made a point of not mentioning the Irving brand.

Bad-mouthing the Irvings is bad politics in New Brunswick.

And it’s been that way since Higgs was growing up in Forest City, N.B., near the Canada-U.S. border. The son of a customs officer, he married his high school sweetheart, Marcia, and settled down in Saint John, where they had four daughters: Lindsey, Laura, Sarah and Rachel.

The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this summer and now have three grandchildren.

First elected to the New Brunswick legislature in 2010 — four months after he retired from Irving — he served as finance minister for four years. He was elected as Tory leader in October 2016.

On the national stage, Higgs isn’t expected to ruffle too many feathers. Unlike Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Higgs is no populist.

“His message isn’t that different from previous premiers,” said J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. “He’s more like a traditional Progressive Conservative. He’s like a Harper-era cabinet minister.”

Still, Higgs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to clash over how to deal with climate change.

Higgs has said he will join with his counterparts in Ontario and Saskatchewan in rejecting Ottawa’s bid to get the provinces to impose a carbon tax on their citizens.

Last month, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said his province would also scrap plans for a carbon tax. As well, Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s Opposition, has promised to repeal the province’s carbon tax if his party wins the 2019 spring election.

“Based on (Higgs’) rhetoric, he could become another thorn in the side of Trudeau, especially when it comes to natural resources,” Lewis said.

Higgs also faces a daunting task in turning around the province’s economy, which some economists have said is headed for a “fiscal cliff.” Carrying a $14 billion debt, it could be pushed over the edge if there’s a sharp rise in interest rates or a credit-rating downgrade.

The province has the nation’s lowest median household income, and was the only province that recorded a population decline between 2011 and 2016. As well, its tax base is shrinking and the province has suffered through consecutive deficit budgets.

Economic growth — forecasted by the Conference Board to be about 1.3 per cent this year — is expected to remain sluggish as the province struggles to increase its population.

“We can fix this,” Higgs said before the election campaign. “We have to be straight with each other and talk about real issues, not pretend all is well.”

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