The turmoil within New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative Party was deepening Friday morning as another minister quit Premier Blaine Higgs’s cabinet and four former top party officials demanded the premier resign.
Portland-Simonds MLA Trevor Holder, the longest-serving MLA in the legislature, announced in an open letter he was quitting as minister of post-secondary education, training and labour.
“Under the leadership of Premier Higgs, caucus has been less about consensus and more about him getting his own way,” Holder wrote.
Holder said he has tried many times to explain to the premier the importance of working more collaboratively but to no avail.
“While I have tried my best to continue to work to maintain the integrity of the caucus system, I have finally come to the conclusion that this is no longer possible.”
He also rapped the premier for “his lack of empathy as well as his inability to listen to valid concerns from all members of his caucus.”
Holder was first elected in the 1999 election and has been a minister under three different PC premiers.
He said he plans to stay on as MLA for Portland-Simonds and called on party members to “build a thoughtful conservative movement in this province that brings people together rather than divide them.”
Holder’s letter was sent out just one hour after four past presidents of the party called on Higgs to resign immediately.
They wrote in their statement that Higgs has achieved a lot during his more than four years as premier but also lacks the ability to achieve “the delicate balance” required to govern New Brunswick.
“We ask that you avoid a disruptive, public battle that could tear the party apart. We ask that you leave graciously,” the letter says.
“You have had some important successes as Premier of New Brunswick. But the moment now demands that you pass the baton and the PCNB reorient itself to face the future and move forward.”
The letter is signed by Claude Williams, Lester Young, Brian Harquail and Jason Stephen, all former presidents of the New Brunswick party.
The four former presidents accused Higgs of trying to make the internal fight about Policy 713, the policy on protections for LGBTQ students in provincial schools that the government recently revised.
But they said the problems run deeper and include the premier’s attempts to replace French immersion and weaken district education councils and to eliminate elected members of regional health authority boards.
“Policy 713 was just the tipping point in a long line of disrespect he has shown to our Party, its values and its traditions,” they wrote.
Stephen said in an interview that as a party volunteer for more than three decades, it was hard for him to sign the letter.
But he believes the party’s future is at stake, including in the next election in October 2024.
“This is going to turn into a very divisive program, I believe. That’s why I’m asking him to retire and pass the torch. He can leave a legacy of doing some very good things. But that legacy will be different if he tries to carry a fractured party into the election.”
Holder’s resignation follows that of his Saint John colleague Dorothy Shephard, who quit last week after she, Holder, two other ministers and two backbench PC MLAs defied Higgs during a vote in the legislature.
They joined with the opposition parties to pass a Liberal motion calling for more consultations on Policy 713.
Holder said in his letter he now has to do “some significant soul searching” after a 24-year career as a legislature.
Critics of Higgs within the party have collected 26 letters from presidents of party riding presidents calling for a leadership review.
That’s six more than the threshold under the party constitution for the PC provincial council to debate it at an upcoming meeting.
It also represents a majority of the 49 riding organizations in the province.
Earlier this week Higgs called the push for a review “a strategically planned political drama” that has been “a focus from a certain group for a few years now” and that was heightened by the Policy 713 debate.
On Thursday two PC caucus members, cabinet minister Réjean Savoie and backbench MLA Sherry Wilson, said they support Higgs staying on.
Wilson said PC MLAs who can’t support his leadership “need to go and just retire, just get out of politics, if that’s the way they think.”