Higgs gives no hints about his future in the state speech
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs defended his big moves on health and education but gave no indication of how long he will stay to push them through in his annual State of the Province address Thursday night.
He barely mentioned his most controversial initiatives while arguing that his four-year reign was responsible for the province’s record population growth, low unemployment and growing exports.
“We knew we could do better,” Higgs said in front of around 800 people at the Fredericton Convention Centre.
“I’m proud to say that New Brunswick has come back in a big way. We are no longer on the edge of the cliff. We are now on the cusp of greatness.”
At one point last year, Higgs said he would use the state of the province speech to announce whether he would stay to seek another mandate in next year’s election.
However, he later revised that commitment, saying he could wait until early 2024 to unveil his plans.
Higgs made no reference to that Thursday night, although he did tell his Progressive Conservative MLAs caucus that “you ran with me as Team Higgs” and thanked them for sticking by him “as we continue to move forward together.”
“Sometimes it’s a little exhausting, but we’re building a better New Brunswick.”
His only other allusion to the speculation about his future was at the end of the speech, when he referred to “a question you might have expected me to answer tonight,” and left the stage to the tune of The Clash Should I stay or should I go?
Economic data in the spotlight
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Higgs gleefully brushed away several questions aimed at pinning him on when he might feel safe enough in the provincial direction to hand the job over to a successor.
His wife Marcia Higgs was also shy about what she expected of him.
“I won’t say it, but as long as he’s thrilled and excited, I’ll be by his side.”
Higgs devoted much of the speech to touting economic data such as strong growth in weekly earnings, the fastest population growth since the Confederacy, and the province’s first reduction in median age since 1961.
The province’s population is now estimated at over 824,000, Higgs said.
“I could go on to talk about the momentum we’re building together in our economy,” he said, adding, “You all know by now that I like data.”
That was a joking reference to his now infamous “data, my ass” comment to education officials, which Dominic Cardy revealed when he resigned as education secretary in October.
The triumphant tone came at a time when Higgs is facing low approval in public opinion polls, dissatisfaction with the quality of healthcare and strong opposition to his proposal to phase out immersion in France this fall.
Controversial health movements are paying off, Premier says
He described taking “what some might call extreme measures” in healthcare, a reference to the reshuffle of his health secretary, the firing of Horizon Health’s CEO, and the replacement of the two partially elected health boards with appointed trustees last summer.
But he said a bold move has seen improvements including shorter waits in walk-in clinics, a reduction in the number of people waiting for a GP or nurse from 74,000 to 52,000 and more hip and knee surgeries.
Regarding the immersion, the prime minister has been non-committal on a reform he said as recently as last October was imperative to implement in September.
He described a recent round of vocal public meetings – at which people were almost unanimous in opposing the changes – as “a conversation” that needed to happen.
“I’m not claiming to have all the solutions and we may not all agree on the way forward,” he said.
But, he said, it’s clear that some students are disadvantaged because their schools don’t offer immersion, and students in both immersion and English-prime programs are failing to meet their achievement goals while being streamed into a two-tier education system.
He also suggested that the immersion controversy uncovered other issues — “the need for us to better equip our students in math, ensure early literacy through second grade, and … better address the needs of children who require targeted interventions, often.” by trained professionals.
“We can’t do better if we’re not willing to talk about it – to find solutions,” he said.
“Please continue to give us your input. … Having these talks is the only way to move forward.”
Higgs also spoke about how his government is expected to reduce the province’s net debt by $2 billion, freeing up $69 million a year that would be spent on interest payments to fund provincial services.
Repeating a common theme, the prime minister said he wanted to “modernize energy policies” to develop a provincial natural gas sector “in partnership with First Nations”.
Higgs should go, Liberal and Green Party leaders say
Higgs’ relationship with Indigenous peoples was strained because he had canceled retail tax-sharing agreements with band governments.
But on Thursday he said a partnership for natural gas “would reflect a new type of economic partnership with First Nations, and hopefully the first of many, as we strive to create development opportunities together – nation to nation.”
Higgs also said his government will announce new mental health and addiction treatment initiatives in the coming weeks and will release a housing strategy in June.
Both Liberal leader Susan Holt and Green leader David Coon said the speech contained nothing new to address the province’s challenges, and both said Higgs should step down.
“I think at this point he’s out of touch,” Holt said, noting Cardy’s resignation last fall and PC MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason urging the government to slow down the replacement of French Immersion.
“I think it would be in the best interest of New Brunswickers if he resigned,” she said.
Coon told reporters, “He ended up asking the question, ‘Do you want him to stay or go?’ He should go.”