In late October 2018, Blaine Higgs was on the cusp of power, and he was ticked off.
Days before a confidence vote that would topple the Liberal government of Brian Gallant, a debate erupted in the legislature about the legal requirement that one paramedic on every ambulance crew be bilingual.
Higgs, impatient to address a staffing shortage at Ambulance New Brunswick, was insisting the province fix that problem first and deal with the right to bilingual service later.
He grew testy when reporters asked what he'd do if, as premier, he was told that he couldn't bypass the Constitution and a binding court order on the issue.
"I'm not going to go down a hypothetical trail," he said. "It seems like repeatedly when I give an opinion, I get burned on that, so I'm not going to give an opinion."
A few days later the Progressive Conservative leader told reporters he had obtained a legal interpretation backing his view that a fix could be "prioritized" ahead of bilingualism.
"We can provide that so you can read it," he said, though he never did.
A similar scene played out Monday on the first day of the provincial election campaign.
Higgs said the government would have the power, under its pandemic emergency order, to halt the campaign if there were a major COVID-19 outbreak.
That contradicted chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth, who said through a spokesperson she "is not sure under what authority the premier would be able to suspend an election."
Two days later the PC campaign said Higgs had received legal advice backing his view, but it was confidential.
'Little value in us arguing'
Higgs said Monday he "would guess" he had the power under the province's pandemic state of emergency but "did not go asking" for confirmation before calling the election.
And in an echo of his 2018 exasperation when facing questions on bilingual paramedics, he told reporters there was no point in discussing it any further.
"We can kind of hypothesize on all kinds of things happening. … I see little value in us arguing about how we protect individuals if we need to."
The two episodes are notable because they're examples of a premier with a reputation for strong management skills and attention to detail making confusing comments about legal and constitutional realities.
There are many other examples of the PC leader saying things that are wrong, or at odds with expert interpretation.
It never seems deliberate and often seems more like a political leader trying to wish certain facts into existence — or impatient with legalities that slow him down.
"No one is right all of the time, despite best efforts," campaign spokesperson Nicolle Carlin responded in an email. "The premier would never intentionally mislead the public."
Gallant's right to try to govern
The night of the 2018 election, when Higgs's PCs won 22 seats compared to 21 for the Liberals, he declared, "The one who has the most numbers wins."
That wasn't correct: under parliamentary convention, Liberal premier Brian Gallant had the right to recall the legislature and try to hold power by winning support from other parties.
After Gallant tried and failed and Higgs got the chance to become premier, he said he had been "impatient" with parliamentary tradition but finally accepted its legitimacy.
"The system worked," he said.
Pointing out the PCs did win more seats, Carlin said: "To be fair, the premier did get advice from a constitutional expert on election night.
"The premier assumed Brian Gallant would do the honourable thing and concede. He was surprised when that didn't happen but you are right, there was a mechanism that allowed the Liberals to try and hold on to power."
Bilingual requirements for paramedics
Once he was premier, Higgs continued to insist there was a way to fill those vacant paramedic positions by weakening bilingualism requirements. His government announced such a plan in December 2018.
He was leaning on a labour board ruling by arbitrator John McEvoy that suggested waiving the requirement in some regions.
He brushed off the existence of a binding consent order the province had agreed to in 2017, which made clear the legal obligation existed everywhere.
Eventually the government had to comply with that consent order and devised a system of "floater" positions to address the gaps while remaining within the law.
And in a judicial review hearing on the McEvoy ruling, government lawyers argued it was unconstitutional and should be struck down. The judge agreed.
In January of this year, Higgs mused about reducing the number of MLAs in the legislature to allow for faster decision-making.
When he was pressed on the idea, he said the independent electoral boundaries commission would determine the number the next time it revised riding boundaries.
In fact, the number of ridings, 49 at the moment, is set in the Electoral Boundaries and Representation Act, so it would be up to the Higgs government to change it, not the commission.
Emissions in China
Around the same time, Higgs said the proposed Maritime Iron processing plant in Belledune could go ahead because of expected greenhouse gas reductions in China.
The Belledune plan would have exceeded New Brunswick's emissions reduction targets, but Higgs accepted the company's argument that a plant here would displace iron processing in China, reducing global emissions overall.
He stated, wrongly, that the federal government had already given a liquefied natural gas plant in British Columbia an exemption from emissions caps based on overseas reductions.
He later conceded such exemptions aren't possible without an international treaty, which doesn't yet exist.
Higgs is a mechanical engineer, and Mohamed Elmasry, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Waterloo, says people in the profession are well suited to manage challenges like COVID-19.
"You identify the problem exactly, you have to articulate it … and then you have to do your homework, come up with the constraints, how to solve it, the time to solve it, and how much it takes to solve it. Politics as we know it doesn't play into your role."
But he says a "disadvantage" of being an engineer can be an unfamiliarity with legal, constitutional and political nuances.
"He should know the limits and also the law," Elmasry says. "This is part of the constraints he has to work with."
Even if it can delay a decision, Higgs has to consult and listen to legal advice, Elmasry added, "in order to simplify things for him, in order for him to understand the legal constraints he has to work within. But he can overcome that."
In her email, Carlin said Higgs has done that.
"It speaks to his character that he is willing to admit when he is wrong and change course when doing so is in the best interest of New Brunswick."
One more wrinkle
There's one more wrinkle to Higgs's claim this week about the legal power to stop an election.
Carlin said Wednesday a legal opinion Higgs received confirmed "there is the ability via the Emergency Measures Act" to cancel it. She would not say who exactly would have that ability.
It's true that act gives the government sweeping powers through the COVID-19 emergency order.
But Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart must renew and sign the order every two weeks — and Higgs also said on Monday ministers "step down" during an election campaign.
If that were correct, there would be no public safety minister when the current order expires Sept. 3 and therefore no emergency powers to respond to an outbreak
Fortunately for Higgs, ministers do in fact stay in their positions during a campaign.