When Kris Austin signed the paperwork necessary in 2010 to form New Brunswick’s fifth political party, his People’s Alliance movement was being fuelled by the outrage over Shawn Graham’s botched attempt to sell NB Power.
Austin maintained a high profile during the campaign, pointing to the NB Power controversy and changes to MLA pensions, as symbols of a rot that had infiltrated the province's political system.
The People’s Alliance fielded 14 candidates and won a little over one per cent of the popular vote in 2010.
Four years on, the anger over the aborted plan to sell NB Power has subsided but Austin says his political party still has the political oxygen to mount into a successful 2014 campaign.
Born: Feb. 1, 1979 in Hamilton, Ont.
Education: Two-year diploma in theology in Faith School of Theology in Charleston, Me.
Political life: Formed the People's Alliance of New Brunswick in 2010. Elected deputy mayor of Minto in 2012.
Personal life: Married to Amanda Austin. They have one child.
“The misconception is that we started just because of NB Power. We started of course, NB Power played a part, but the biggest problem that we found lacking in all parties was the core value in representation,” Austin said.
“If you look at the political spectrum today there is more of an agenda to represent a party than there is to represent the people. That is where the system is failing us and failing us bad.”
Austin is quick to point to list of New Brunswick politicians, who he feels were forced to bend to the will of their political parties rather than stand up for their constituents’ views. The list includes Liberals, such as former cabinet minister Stuart Jamieson, and Tories, such as backbenchers Jim Parrott, Glen Tait and Sherry Wilson.
The People’s Alliance leader said political parties should not punt politicians from their caucus or force MLAs to apologize for raising issues that are a concern for people in their ridings.
Austin’s political message has a distinctly populist ring to it.
The People’s Alliance will have a broad campaign platform that will prove it is not a single interest party, which he believes distinguishes his party from the NDP and the Green Party. But Austin also stresses how any People’s Alliance MLAs will be accountable to their constituents and not beholden to party bosses.
“I would tell people that it is time for them to take their own power back and collectively, we have the power, it is not the parties,” he said.
“We have to break the mindset that Liberals and Conservatives are entitled to govern, they are not entitled to govern. This is a democracy where the people have the power.”
Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said the People’s Alliance is running into a problem common faced by populist movements.
“They are propelled into the public because of a particular issue, but they have a short life when that issue fades away,” he said.
“I think good for him for hanging in there but in the absence of prominent candidates or a big fundraising appeal, I think the alliance will stay pretty much at the margins.”
Austin's political success
The People’s Alliance failed to elect any MLAs in 2010 and in most ridings, candidates rarely earned more than a few hundred votes.
Austin, however, was an outlier. He placed third in the riding of Grand Lake-Gagetown, earning 19.6 per cent of the vote in the riding.
The provincial leader has had electoral success at the municipal level. He is the deputy mayor of the Village of Minto.
The 35-year-old Austin said his local political experience has given him an appreciation of how to represent constituents and how government can affect people.
He also draws parallels between his work as a pastor and his views on how politics can shape the lives of citizens.
“Throughout the years, I have been very community minded. I have a background in ministry that has a lot to do with organization, challenging people and motivating people and bringing about change,” he said.
Entering his second campaign, Austin said he understands the obstacles facing him and his party. He has no problem taking on the role of the underdog, however.
“I’m the kind of person who will stand up for the little guy in a sense,” he said.
“My passion really is to see things change and see things become better. That is what I’ve tried to do most of my life and that is what I’m doing in politics today.”
Future of the People’s Alliance
The People’s Alliance was able to find 14 candidates to put their names on the ballot in 2010. Heading into the 2014 campaign, the party still was aiming to field a full roster of candidates.
Austin would not commit to running a candidate in each riding. He pointed to other obstacles that are in the party’s path forward.
He said the People’s Alliance does not have the deep pockets of the other political parties or the organizational infrastructure.
'We can’t continue to support this political system, it is killing us. I have zero confidence that either the Liberals or Conservatives can get us out of this mess.' - Kris Austin
Instead, his party members have been forced to get out and knock on doors and find other ways to reach voters.
“Where we are still relatively new, we have been here for four years and the other parties have been here for decades,” Austin said.
“I have always said our challenge is not our message. Our challenge is getting our message out. We are beginning to do that. It’s one door at a time that we are accomplishing that task. If we can continue to do that, we will see some success in September.”
The People’s Alliance is focused on finding a way to secure a seat in the legislature The party’s best hope for a seat is likely in a central or southern New Brunswick riding, according to its leader.
He said he is cognizant of his responsibility to represent the party, and be visible across the province, but also to work as hard as possible to win in his riding of Fredericton-Grand Lake.
“We know we are the underdogs in this race, so a lot of my attention has to be spent locally in Fredericton-Grand Lake but that doesn’t mean I won’t be in other parts of the province,” he said.
“Back in 2010 … I was told in my own riding that I’d be lucky to get 200 votes and I pulled out 1,400 votes. And then people said we won’t last and we’d be gone in a year, but we’ve survived and we’re still here.”
The metric for success is different for Austin compared to Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward or Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, who are aiming to form a majority government on Sept. 22.
A moral victory for the People’s Alliance will be to have a seat in the legislature.
“I think success really is defined by having a voice in the legislature. That is what we are working on. Let’s at least get that element of change in there,” he said.
"If we can get a few people elected into the legislature, we can show the province we are credible and we are serious.”
But precisely how long the party will last if it is unable to win a riding in 2014 is a question that even Austin can’t answer.
“We haven’t fully sat down and looked at that [possibility of not winning a seat], we are focusing on the 22nd and how do we get people elected,” Austin said.
“Where we go from there if we don’t win a seat, will depend on what happens on the 22nd. I’m not sure what will happen but we will sit down and decide.”
While the People’s Alliance may have taken root following the protests over the former Liberal government’s failed attempt to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec, Austin said he believes there is still room for his ideas about involving citizens in the decision-making process.
The People’s Alliance leader points to the Alward government’s handling of the Crown forest strategy and in particular, contracts with major forestry companies, such as J.D. Irving Ltd.
Similar to the Graham government’s handling of the NB Power controversy, Austin said those forestry deals were not done in an open and transparent fashion.
When voters step behind the voting shield on Sept. 22, Austin said he would like each person to ask whether they believe the existing political system is working for them.
“Is the political system working in my best interest and the best interest of New Brunswick, that is the core question at the base of everything,” Austin said.
“We can’t continue to support this political system, it is killing us. I have zero confidence that either the Liberals or Conservatives can get us out of this mess.”