New Brunswick

People's Alliance fracking stance pioneers not-in-my-backyard veto

The People’s Alliance has introduced a new way of thinking about the role of local MLAs, pioneering what you might call a not-in-my-backyard veto.

People's Alliance oppose shale gas exploration — but only in their own ridings

All three People's Alliance MLAs voted for a Progressive Conservative throne speech that had pro-fracking language in it but have said they have concerns about allowing it in their own ridings and would not support lifting a provincewide moratorium. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The People's Alliance has introduced a new way of thinking about the role of local MLAs, pioneering what you might call a not-in-my-backyard veto.

On the contentious issue of shale gas development, the Alliance MLAs say they have hesitations about allowing it in their own ridings and could vote against it but will not try to stop it in ridings they don't represent. 

They say fracking in those other ridings is none of their business and is up to the MLAs from other parties who represent those constituencies.

We've been elected to represent our areas. We felt it would be infringing on Sussex for us to impose ourselves down there.- Kris Austin, People's Alliance Party leader

"Every riding has their own representative," Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers said last week. "And they should do their job and represent the people in their best interest."

"I can't be the father of everyone or the mother of everyone. I can be the voice of the people in Fredericton-York."

DeSaulniers, Alliance Leader Kris Austin and Miramichi Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy all voted last week for the Progressive Conservative throne speech, including language endorsing fracking in the Sussex area.

"Some of our members, myself included, have questions about it, but this is related to Sussex," Austin said. "We've been elected to represent our areas. We felt it would be infringing on Sussex for us to impose ourselves down there."

Austin has promised to consult his riding on how to vote if fracking is proposed there.

'A higher level of democracy'

Premier Blaine Higgs, whose PC minority government needed the three Alliance MLAs to win a confidence vote, praised the approach.

"I really think it is a higher level of democracy," Higgs said.

Higgs has vowed to revive shale gas extraction in areas where there is local consent.

People's Alliance of New Brunswick Leader Kris Austin answers questions from the media after the closure of the Throne Speech at the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (James West/Canadian Press)

But with no PC legislation on fracking in the offing, the three Alliance MLAs won't have a mechanism to vote against fracking in their ridings if it became a possibility in the future. They have to rely on Higgs's promise to not impose it there.

And while the new premier welcomed the Alliance decision, he hasn't said whether he'd let individual Tory MLAs veto particular initiatives affecting their local ridings.

Alliance supported PC amendment

The PC throne speech amendment endorsed fracking in communities around Sussex that "have demonstrated their desire to proceed with shale gas development."

DeSaulniers had vowed to vote against fracking anywhere.

People's Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers represents Fredericton-York. (CBC)

"If it comes to lifting the moratorium in Sussex, I'm not going to vote in favour of that, either," he said Nov. 21. "I do not believe in shale gas."

A week later, his tune changed.

"Who am I to tell Sussex what is right for them?" he said. "It's one thing to have beliefs. It's another thing to impose them on someone you really shouldn't impose them on."

DeSaulniers noted the two top vote-getters in the riding of Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins in September's election, PC Bruce Northrup and the Alliance's Jim Bedford, supported fracking there. They captured a combined 73.8 percent of the vote.

'Hyper-NIMBYism'

St. Thomas University political scientist Jamie Gillies calls the approach "kind of a hyper-NIMBYism, not-in-my-back-yard: 'I don't want it, but if they want it, go for it.'"

He said it's a new twist on the classic "delegate" model of representation which holds that elected members are primarily elected to speak for their constituents.

Jamie Gillies says People's Alliance stance on "yes" to fracking but not-in-my-backyard, will make it difficult for the Alliance to craft coherent policies. (CBC)

But "on some issues you can't do a delegate model effectively," Gillies said. "You can on issues like 'the courthouse is closing so I'm going to fight to keep the courthouse.' You can on 'the school might be closing' or 'we need a new school.'

But on issues that spark provincial debates, "I think the delegate model only goes so far."

Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson, who was pressured to speak out when the Gallant government closed the provincial courthouse in Grand Falls, agrees shale gas is not that kind of local issue.

"I would vote with my beliefs," he said. "My belief is that it's not safe. So if it happens in Andy Harvey's riding, I'm not going to vote for it."

Not a local issue

Gillies predicts the shale gas issue will not be contained to the local Sussex area. "Then it becomes an issue a party has to consider not just in the context of one hyper-localized concern."

He said it will pose a challenge for Austin, who supported the Sussex-only fracking language because extraction won't occur in his riding of Fredericton-Grand Lake.

But if fracking in Sussex leads to court challenges and protests, Austin will have to take a provincial view as a party leader, he said.

Green Party of New Brunswick Leader David Coon speaks to the media following the Throne Speech at the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (James West/Canadian Press)

Green leader David Coon argues there's no way to confine the impacts of fracking to a single riding.

"We're talking about a development that adds carbon to the atmosphere, and we all share the atmosphere," he said. "It's not something where you can simply say 'locally they want it so they should have it.'"

Provincial view 'irrelevant'

A provincewide view doesn't seem to be a consideration for the Alliance.

 "We represent our own people. I represent the people from Fredericton-York," DeSaulniers said. "I can't impose my will on others. That is for Bruce Northrup. That's his fight to take up."

Bruce Northrup, the PC MLA for Sussex-Fundy-St Martins, has been a strong proponent of lifting the moratorium. 

The Alliance constitution says the party's MLAs can vote freely to "reflect the wishes of their constituents on day-to-day governing, without party discipline."

Its election platform supported "the environmentally responsible development of our natural resources" but promised referendums "on contentious developments on a regional basis."

Coherent policy a challenge

Gillies said the hyper-local approach will make it difficult for the Alliance to craft coherent policies.

"How does that fit into our larger provincial energy policy? How does that fit into our larger provincial environmental policy?"

That challenge will be even greater if the Alliance remains a de facto partner of the PC government.

"There will be things you're not willing to compromise on, and your constituents don't want, but in order to keep the government going you're perhaps going to need to go with the government," Gillies said.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said that all three Alliance MLAs would vote against shale gas development in their ridings. In fact, the MLAs have said they would not support lifting a provincewide moratorium. Kris Austin and Michelle Conroy both said they would have concerns about fracking in their ridings and would consult constituents before deciding how to vote on fracking there.
    Dec 04, 2018 5:13 PM AT

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