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'Unrepentant' N.B. Tory worker who called for Higgs's leadership review steps down

John Williston is shown in a handout photo. The New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party volunteer who spearheaded a leadership review of Premier Blaine Higgs has resigned from his post. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO) John Williston is shown in a handout photo. The New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party volunteer who spearheaded a leadership review of Premier Blaine Higgs has resigned from his post. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)

A New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party volunteer who spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to trigger a leadership review of Premier Blaine Higgs has resigned from his post.

John Williston, who served as regional vice-president for Westmorland Albert, outlined his decision in a scathing letter in which he accused the party of losing sight of its long-held defining principles. He cited examples such as equality between English and French-speaking communities, fiscal responsibility and access to key services like education and health care, but argued the primary failing comes from a lack of openness and accessibility within the ranks.

"A year ago, promises were made to bridge the divide in our party and work towards a brighter future, but I have yet to see any real progress made on this front," he wrote in the letter dated Thursday, which did not mention Higgs.

"Instead, we have witnessed a significant exodus of elected officials, resignations from the provincial executive, the alienation of key volunteers, particularly those from the progressive conservative wing, and a feeling of hopelessness among our members, which has particularly affected several of our riding associations in the northern and southeast regions of the province."

Representatives for Higgs did not immediately respond to request for comment on Williston's resignation.

Williston, who turns 43 on Tuesday, said his association with the party dates back to childhood. He recalls putting up political signs with his father when he was as young as six or seven and getting more involved in the Progressive Conservative party as he got older.

He has been a vocal critic of Higgs and the party's overall direction under his leadership, especially the recent changes to the province's policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Williston also objected to proposed legislation that would allow authorities to force certain people into drug treatment, as well as the premier's refusal to rule out invoking the constitution's Notwithstanding Clause -- a move that would shield the bill from court challenges if it becomes law.

Higgs has turned the Progressive Conservative party into "nothing more than a platform for his personal agenda," he added in a telephone interview.

Williston believes there has been a shift in the way the party functions since 2020, including a lack of policy discussions at annual general meetings and limited internal debate before controversial policy changes take effect.

"I think we are adopting policies that fall outside the norms of the traditions of the Progressive Conservative party. And we appear to be pushing further in that direction every day," he said. "That's the primary reasons I would have for why I feel I cannot support (Higgs) in his upcoming reelection bid."

The now former regional vice-president said he managed Natural Resources Minister Mike Holland's campaign when he first ran for office in 2018, and former cabinet minister Daniel Allain's first run in 2020.

Higgs has been facing internal revolt for nearly two years, starting with the resignation of former education minister Dominic Cardy. In October 2022, Cardy accused the premier of micromanagement. Since then, other ministers who stepped down from their posts have also called Higgs out on what they have described as his inflexible leadership style.

So far, 11 Tories have announced a departure from provincial politics since the 2020 election, including former ministers Allain, Trevor Holder, Dorothy Shephard and Jeff Carr.

Williston's effort to trigger a review of Higgs's leadership foundered last summer after falling short of official party criteria. The rules state a leadership review is triggered if it is requested by at least 50 party members, including 26 riding presidents.

Williston said 26 riding presidents did submit letters, but accused Tories of referring them to a lawyer who found technical reasons to disqualify some of them.

"(Higgs) may have won a very technical victory in that sense, but it was ethically and morally disgusting," he said.

"The premier was able to stifle the voice of that leadership review."

In his resignation letter, Williston said he was "unrepentant" about his actions over the past year.

"Many of our members are feeling disenfranchised, hopeless, or unhappy about the direction our party is taking, and I'm proud to have given them a voice while on the executive," he wrote.

"Openness and accessibility are fundamental principles of our party, and I firmly believe that our members should have had a say in determining the direction of our party and its leadership."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2024.

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