After years on the fringe, People's Alliance ready to take next step
The party is polling at new heights, but its positions are not without controversy
Kris Austin and his upstart People's Alliance party may be having their moment.
The party, which has never managed to elect a single MLA since Austin founded it in 2010, appears to have its best chance yet for a breakthrough in the current provincial election campaign.
It's ticking up in polling, and Austin got good reviews Wednesday at a service club meeting of 90 retired men from the Fredericton area.
"Kris Austin sure understands the issues, and he explains them quite well," said city resident Gordon Young, who wouldn't say how he plans to vote.
"I'm not in his riding, but we could do a lot worse than having people like him in there. He should be a good representative for wherever he's running."
Austin is on the ballot in Fredericton-Grand Lake, a riding he came within 26 votes of winning in the 2014 election. He created the People's Alliance in 2010 after failing to win the Progressive Conservative nomination in the former riding of Grand Lake-Gagetown.
His message is a mixture of economic conservatism, rural populism and opposition to some aspects of official bilingualism and language duality.
In the CBC poll tracker, an aggregate of recent public-opinion surveys, the Alliance is now projected to win 6.6 per cent of the vote.
That would be a huge improvement from its 2.1 per cent of the vote in 2014. The party had just 1.2 per cent four years before that.
"It is poised to make some gains, at least in the popular vote," said CBC poll analyst Eric Grenier. "The question is whether they can win a seat."
Austin said he senses an opportunity for his party.
"Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think we're at the tipping point where people are getting the reality that the Liberal and Conservative parties govern the same way," Austin told CBC News.
"That opens the door wide to a third option, and we're hearing more and more people are opening up to that third option."
- Have you tried out the Vote Compass feature?
Stance on bilingualism
Austin spoke to the men-only Fredericton Golden Club for about 30 minutes Wednesday morning, explaining Alliance policies on senior care, nursing homes and what he calls "the current way bilingualism is implemented in New Brunswick."
He said he supports the delivery of government services in both English and French, but said the law needs to be applied with "common sense."
He repeated his proposal that Ambulance New Brunswick, which has faced a shortage of bilingual paramedics, should be allowed to use a special translation phone system in areas of the province where there isn't as much demand.
Don Stevenson, a Fredericton resident who grew up in Edmundston, said he believes "very, very strongly" in official bilingualism but agrees with Austin that "there have to be some practical limitations on the application of the principle."
Austin didn't mention some of his other positions, such as merging the province's two health authorities and eliminating the position of commissioner of official languages. And some of his other statements on the language issue were misleading or incomplete.
He said a labour arbitrator had come to the same conclusions he had about Ambulance New Brunswick using a translation phone line in some areas of the province.
What he didn't mention is that the province is challenging the arbitration decision in court because it's at odds with court rulings on how Ambulance New Brunswick must provide bilingual service.
Austin also repeated his opposition to two school-bus systems, one for anglophone schools and one for francophone schools, and called for more "local autonomy" in school governance.
In fact, the Liberal government abandoned a court case on dual buses in 2016 and said district education councils could decide for themselves whether to share buses. District officials said at the time that would not be as simple as it sounded.
But in the absence of those details, many of the Golden Club members suggested Austin might get their vote if he were their local candidate.
"The policies that he put forth are something that I would certainly agree with," said Alan McFadden, who lives in New Maryland-Sunbury.
"I'm not in his riding, so I guess it wouldn't make much difference as far as my vote."
McFadden said he's "sort of on the fence right at the moment" about whether to vote for the local Alliance candidate or Progressive Conservative incumbent Jeff Carr.
Austin said that's the challenge he has to confront between now and Sept. 24.
"I've always said if we can win the people over with the party message, then the second part of that is winning the people over with the local candidate," he said.