Unrest within New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative Party intensified Friday morning when another minister left Prime Minister Blaine Higgs’ cabinet and four former top party officials demanded the prime minister’s resignation.
Portland-Simonds MLA Trevor Holder, the longest-serving MLA in the legislature, announced in an open letter that he is stepping down as minister of post-secondary education, training and labor.
“Under Prime Minister Higgs’ leadership, the caucus was less about consensus and more about getting its own way,” Holder wrote.
Holder said he has tried many times to explain to the prime minister the importance of working more together, but to no avail.
“While I have done my best to continue working to maintain the integrity of the caucus system, I have finally come to the conclusion that this is no longer possible.”
He also slammed the prime minister for “his lack of empathy and his inability to listen to valid concerns from all members of his caucus.”
Holder was first elected in the 1999 election and served as a minister under three different PC prime ministers.
He said he intends to stay on as MLA for Portland-Simonds and called on party members to “build a thoughtful conservative movement in this county that brings people together rather than divides them”.
Holder’s letter was sent just an hour after four former party chairmen called for Higgs to resign immediately.
They wrote in their statement that Higgs has accomplished a lot during his more than four years as prime minister, but is also unable to achieve “the delicate balance” needed to run New Brunswick.
“We ask that you avoid a disruptive, public struggle that could tear the party apart. We kindly ask that you leave,” the letter reads.
“You have achieved some significant successes as Prime Minister of New Brunswick. But the moment now demands that you pass the baton and refocus the PCNB to face the future and move forward.”
The letter is signed by Claude Williams, Lester Young, Brian Harquail and Jason Stephen, all former New Brunswick party chairmen.
The four former presidents accused Higgs of trying to fight internally over Policy 713, the government’s recently revised policy on protecting LGBTQ students in provincial schools.
But they said the problems run deeper and include the prime minister’s attempts to replace French immersion and weaken district education councils and to eliminate elected members of regional health authorities.
“Policy 713 was just the tipping point in a long string 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 difficult 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 be a very divisive program, I think. That’s why I’m asking him to retire and pass the torch. He can leave a legacy by doing some very good things. But that legacy will be different if he it tries.” to carry a broken 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 the opposition parties in passing a Liberal motion calling for more consultation on Policy 713.
Holder said in his letter that after a 24-year career as a legislator, he now has to do “quite a soul search.”
Critics of Higgs within the party have collected 26 letters from party-going presidents calling for a leadership review.
That is six more than the threshold according to the party statutes for the provincial council of the PC to debate it at an upcoming meeting.
It also represents a majority of the county’s 49 equestrian organizations.
Earlier this week, Higgs called the push for a review “a strategically planned political drama” that “has been a focus of a certain group for a few years now” and was amplified 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 “should go and just retire, just get out of politics, if that’s the way they think.”