FREDERICTON — Blaine Higgs is the new leader of New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative party — taking the majority of the votes on the third ballot Saturday at a leadership convention in Fredericton.
"We have a party to rebuild. We have a party to unite. But guess what? We're the party for the future of this province because we're uniting people across party lines," Higgs said during his acceptance speech.
By the time Higgs spoke, the number of party members in the hockey rink where the convention was held had dwindled significantly. Speeches from the seven candidates, and delays in the voting process dragged the convention out over 11 hours.
Still Higgs was upbeat in his victory speech, urging party members to unite as they work towards the next provincial election in two years.
"We're bringing a new message to politics. We stood our ground on a message that made sense for every citizen in this province — put the province first and put politics second," he said.
Higgs replaces David Alward who quit after the party lost the 2014 election to the Liberals.
He served as finance minister in the Alward government and is the current member of the legislature for the riding of Quispamsis.
There was some horse-trading of support when three of the seven candidates were eliminated after the first ballot and another two after the second ballot.
In the end, it came down to the two Saint John area candidates: Higgs and former Saint John mayor Mel Norton.
A unilingual anglophone, Higgs has committed to becoming bilingual by the next election.
Bilingualism is a big issue in the province, and the current government has asked the courts to determine if the province needs to provide separate school buses for English and French students.
Higgs said the French parents he has spoken with don't believe if makes sense to have buses in some communities that are almost full and others that are almost empty. He said he'll abide by any decision of the courts, but government must make decisions that make common sense.
Bruce Fitch has been the interim leader of the party for the last two years.
Fitch said "Listen to the people," when asked his advice for the new leader, who he said could become the province's next premier.
"People believe that this Brian Gallant government is going to be another one-term government," he said.
Fitch said the Liberals are running government of division that just falls in line with the policies of the federal Liberals.
Roughly 5,500 of the 7,400 eligible party members voted at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton and satellite locations around the province, but that dwindled to about 2,700 on the third ballot.
Voting took hours longer than expected — in some cases due to a shortage of volunteers.
Party president Jason Stephen said the large number of people voting, especially at the satellite locations, also contributed to delays.
"There were delays in the counting even here at the convention site. They are volunteers that are doing their very best," he said.
He said having so many satellite locations may have delayed the counting, but prompted more people to register.
Higgs will have little time to get comfortable in the new job. The next session of the legislature is set to begin Nov. 2.