Members of New Brunswick's legislative assembly have elected former transportation minister Bill Oliver as the new Speaker of the House.
The Progressive Conservative member for Kings Centre was declared elected Wednesday afternoon after the only other candidate, Ross Wetmore, the PC MLA for Gagetown-Petitcodiac, withdrew his name at the last minute.
Oliver said he accepted the honour "with great humility and respect."
"I will rule with fairness, impartiality and respect for all, and ask for the same in return," he said.
The 60th legislature will begin its first session on Nov. 17 at 1 p.m.
All MLAs are on the ballot for Speaker by default until they withdraw.
Oliver and Wetmore were both ministers in Blaine Higgs's government after he first became premier but were dropped from cabinet after last month's election.
It would have been a rare contested election for the position.
Wetmore could not immediately be reached for comment, but according to Oliver, he had actually withdrawn his name on Tuesday, not Wednesday just moments before the vote was expected to be held by secret ballot.
"I'm not sure why his name didn't come off earlier … I think there was a technical difficulty with him getting the message through to the legislature," Oliver told reporters.
Although the newly elected Speaker is usually jokingly "dragged" to the chair, a tradition that dates back centuries to when British speakers risked execution if they shared displeasing parliamentary opinions with the king, Oliver was merely escorted by Premier Blaine Higgs and Interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson because of COVID-19.
Higgs and Melanson both kept their distance and wore masks.
When Oliver sat in the chair for the first time he said, "It's a little different," prompting laughter.
Melanson congratulated Oliver on his new post. Oliver has always been "very honourable," both as an MLA and as a cabinet minister, he told reporters.
"He always was there to listen to some of our riding issues when it came to transportation and infrastructure, and there's always many. And when he could, he did help."
Plans to improve his French
Melanson also remarked that he was "pleased" to hear Oliver speak both English and French during his short address to the legislature.
"I appreciate that," he said, noting New Brunswick is a bilingual province.
Oliver told reporters he can read French "fairly well" and has "a good command of the vocabulary."
"I intend to improve that and be able to speak in the House on occasion."
Asked for his thoughts on how his predecessor recently removed from the grounds of the legislature the tents of people protesting the imminent closure of Fredericton's Clinic 554, the only location in the province that offered surgical abortions outside of hospitals, Oliver said he hasn't yet had the opportunity to review the matter or discuss it with anyone.
"But I think it's important to note that the grounds of the legislature are very sort of hallowed grounds and so … we should respect those," he said.
"And I respect the right [of] people to assemble and to protest and to have their say in what goes on in government and how government acts," he added.
At the time, former Speaker Daniel Guitard said at he made the decision with the staff and advisory team after being told it was a longstanding practice not to permit tents on the property for security reasons.
Guitard, the member for Restigouche-Chaleur, had served as Speaker since 2018.
Clinic 554 "closed most care" last Wednesday due to a lack of government funding, according to Dr. Adrian Edgar, who ran the clinic. Medicare currently covers only abortions performed at three hospitals in the province, two in Moncton and one in Bathurst.
Started as Speaker's assistant
Oliver's political career began in 1999, when he served as executive assistant to Speaker Bev Harrison. He said he never imagined he would one day stand in his place.
He was first elected as MLA for Kings Centre in 2014. He was re-elected in 2018 and again on Sept. 14.
It has indeed been a journey. - Bill Oliver, Speaker
In addition to serving as the minister of transportation and infrastructure, he has also served as deputy whip for the Official Opposition, the Opposition critic for WorksafeNB and as a member of the legislative administrative committee.
Oliver previously worked in the insurance industry for nearly 30 years.
"It has indeed been a journey," he said, thanking his wife, Chris, and son, Danny, for their love and support.
"I can only imagine how proud my parents would be if they were here to share today's ceremony."
Oliver also took a moment Wednesday to recognize Brenda Robertson, the first woman elected to the legislature and to serve in cabinet, who died last month at age 91. He described her as a "trailblazer."
"Since 1786, only 47 women have ever sat in these seats and senator Brenda Robertson was the first." She was elected in 1967 and appointed minister of youth in 1970.
In 2014, Progressive Conservative Ted Flemming stayed on as a candidate for Speaker against then-premier Brian Gallant's choice, Liberal Moncton Centre MLA Chris Collins, who won.
The Speaker is to act impartially in handling the affairs of the legislative assembly.
The Speaker is the head of the office of the legislative assembly. The Speaker also chairs the the legislative administration committee and oversees administration of the House.