From outsider to insider: Cabinet minister Kris Austin on the year he went mainstream
People’s Alliance founder turned PC minister says his goals and strategy have not changed
Kris Austin says he has not changed, but the politics surrounding him have — and he believes they're moving in his direction.
The former People's Alliance leader's defection to the Progressive Conservatives in March was a stunning moment in New Brunswick politics this year.
But he argues it made sense given his goal remains the same in 2022 as it was when he founded the Alliance in 2010: to nudge the party system into giving New Brunswickers a sharper contrast and a clearer choice.
"I think there needs to be a separate distinct ideology between the two [mainstream political parties], and back then I didn't see it quite like I do today," the Fredericton-Grand Lake MLA and minister of public safety said during an in-depth interview with CBC News.
"Today I feel there is a little more of a difference between the two, and I think we played a part in that, which I think is good and positive in the long term."
Now, as a member of an internal PC government working group studying how to update the Official Languages Act, he's an even more polarizing figure than he was as leader of a small populist party.
In a wide-ranging 45-minute discussion, Austin said he is pragmatic about what he can achieve as part of a mainstream political party.
But this is still better than irrelevance, he said.
Winning some battles better than opposition
"Maybe you win 50 per cent of the time, maybe you win 70 per cent of the time," he said.
"The alternative was to sit in the opposition and win none of the time and not be able to see any change in New Brunswick that you want to see."
Austin said he understands how his switch from the Alliance, which he made with fellow party MLA Michelle Conroy, upset many supporters.
"They were very passionate over the years, and I know some of them are disappointed in the decision I made," he said.
"It's about effectiveness. How do we be effective and how do we really make change? Otherwise I feel like we're just wasting time. And I'm not one for wasting time."
No 'ultimatums' on language law changes
What kind of influence Austin will have on an update to the Official Languages Act has emerged as a key question for many francophones leery of his position on bilingualism.
He has long insisted he supports official bilingualism but questions some aspects of its implementation — a disingenuous distinction in the eyes of Acadian activists.
Liberal and Green MLAs want him removed from the internal working group, worried he'll weaken institutions created to protect minority-language francophone rights.
Austin believes the post of commissioner of official languages, created in 2002, and the two language-based health authorities, established in 2008, are not needed to meet the goal of the original 1969 Official Languages Act: equal service to the public in both languages.
Last month, his cabinet colleague Daniel Allain said keeping those institutions was "non-negotiable" for him as a francophone, and he'd vote against any move to eliminate them.
Austin said he will not draw any similar lines in the sand.
"Whatever government decides as a whole, you're part of government," he said. "I don't like to operate on ultimatums."
Austin founded Alliance after losing PC nomination
Austin ran for the PC nomination in the riding of Grand Lake-Gagetown for the 2010 election.
He lost, and rather than stick with the party and wait for another opportunity, he founded the Alliance.
"I wanted to do something new. I wanted to do something that I felt would give more openness to the political spectrum."
The PCs and Liberals had become "a little too similar," in his view. He felt voters needed a distinct right-of-centre option.
The early years were a slog, with few encouraging signs — until the 2014 election.
Narrow 2014 loss encouraged him to press on
In that campaign he came within 25 votes of winning the new Fredericton-Grand Lake riding.
"I think it would have been different if I had lost with a much larger margin. It was really that 25-vote spread that told me that we can continue to build and see some growth."
By 2018 several language-rights controversies were brewing, including a cut in work hours for a unilingual commissionaire at the government's Chancery Place office building and a number of bilingual paramedic positions that couldn't be filled.
The Alliance won three seats, including Austin's.
He said there's no denying language issues played a role in the breakthrough.
"Pretty much everybody" supports the idea of bilingualism, Austin said, but Alliance voters didn't want it implemented in a way that would "leave anybody out in the cold."
Liberals 'aggressively' sought Alliance support in 2018, Austin says
The Liberals lost their majority in that election and won one fewer seat than the PCs. Premier Brian Gallant tried to hang on to power, convening the legislature in the hopes of winning a confidence vote with the support of smaller parties.
Gallant worked "aggressively" to win him over, Austin revealed.
"There was no hard offer on the table but the door was always open, you know," he said. "'Should you decide to at least open the door to that, we could talk about different things.'"
Many Liberal MLAs elected with Gallant in 2018 now want Premier Blaine Higgs to drop Austin from the language law working group.
The Alliance voted against the Liberals, leading to the defeat of their government and Higgs's ascent to the premier's office — with Austin holding the balance of power.
Alliance worked quietly to influence PC policy
Austin adopted a quiet approach to take advantage of his leverage and advance his agenda.
At a 2019 public accounts committee meeting, officials from Ambulance New Brunswick said no ambulance had ever been taken out of service because of a lack of bilingual paramedics.
Austin was at the committee session but opted not to use the forum to challenge the officials or ask questions on the issue.
Similarly, he never introduced a bill to amend the Official Languages Act.
Drafting a bill would require a lot of specialized expertise from a party still learning the ropes at the legislature, he explained.
He preferred to work behind the scenes with Higgs to get Medavie Health Services to reorganize the ambulance service to address vacancies. The government also reclassified paramedic positions, which gave them higher pay.
2020 setback left Austin at 'crossroads' about party's future
Despite those successes, the Alliance suffered two setbacks in the next election in 2020: one of its three MLAs was defeated, and the PCs gained a majority.
"I was at this crossroads," Austin said.
The party's leverage was gone. At the same time, donations and members were dropping off, in part, Austin believes, because voters saw the PCs under Higgs adopting some Alliance policies.
"One of the key elements for me was, 'What is the current government doing?' and 'If they're doing a lot of what we're saying, why are we doing what we're doing?'" he said. "Why can't we just join that and try to be a part of that and see growth in New Brunswick?"
Austin also said he was exhausted after 12 years travelling the province as a party leader, giving up precious family time.
He and Conroy announced their move to the Tories on March 30.
No promise of cabinet post when he defected to PCs, Austin says
Defecting to the PCs meant Austin lost the $19,750 salary he got as leader of an official party in the legislature on top of his $85,000 annual MLA pay.
He made the jump without any promise from Higgs of a cabinet position and salary down the road, he said.
"There was no commitment to say, 'Look, this is what I want' and 'This is what you're going to get.' I did say, 'I want to be a part of this, not just on the outside looking in.' But there was no hard commitment."
Austin said he and Conroy got a "very cordial" welcome from the PC caucus, including ministers Daniel Allain and Dominic Cardy, despite clear disagreements on key issues.
"Even with Minister Allain, we've had discussions and I feel no animosity, personal or otherwise, with him, and I hope he doesn't."
Says he wants to improve his French-language skills
Cardy recently tweeted that Austin told education officials he met in the spring that he would not support "anything that forces French down people's throats."
Austin said he doesn't remember saying that. He said he told officials he did not want increased French instruction for non-immersion students coming at the expense of math, science and "some of the other basics."
In October, Austin was sworn into cabinet as public safety minister.
The rookie minister said he now hopes to improve his own French skills.
"That is something I do want to work on. There's no question learning a second language is a difficult task, especially the older you get.… But I acknowledge I do have to do a little bit better in terms of at least getting some basic understanding of the language."
He also wouldn't rule out running for the PC leadership someday.
"I leave all options on the table. I don't want to box myself in one way or the other."
'My objective was accomplished'
Reflecting on the last 12 years, the one-time populist outsider believes he has moved the PCs to a place where there is now a "clear distinction" with the Liberals.
"I think my objective was accomplished to a certain degree in that regard."
Still, he doesn't feel he needs a clear win on language policy, one of his old party's signature issues, to prove his point.
He believes he, Allain and others on the language working group can reach a consensus everyone can accept — but that still bears his imprint.
"This is about how do we find that middle ground? How do I ensure that at least some of my ideas on public policy, whatever it is, can be brought to table and be part of that change?" he said.
"Again, you're not going to win every battle, but I know that I'm more effective where I am now than where I would be had I not made this move."
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