The fringe ‘has gone mainstream,’ says New Brunswick MLA of political floor crossing

Click to play video: 'Questions remain over People’s Alliance leader, MLA joining Progressive Conservatives' Questions remain over People’s Alliance leader, MLA joining Progressive Conservatives
WATCH: Questions continue to be raised about the recent decision by the former members of the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick to join the Progressive Conservatives. The official Opposition questions the premier’s judgement on letting in two people with differing ideologies – but for some political scientists, the direction isn’t a surprise. Nathalie Sturgeon reports. – Mar 31, 2022

The political defection of two former People’s Alliance members to the Progressive Conservative party is raising a lot of questions, but some political scientists are saying the move isn’t surprising.

About 12 years ago, Kris Austin created the People’s Alliance party, touting the idea it was a different option for New Brunswickers than the two typical mainstream parties.

In its early days, it campaigned on anti-duality. It wanted to remove requirements to be bilingual to work in the civil service and merge the English and French health authorities, among other ideologies that leaned more right.

There was a conversation later on about the removal of the double-tax for non-owner occupied properties and the removal of the front licence plate, as well as, one-time registration for vehicles.

On Wednesday, the two only members defected to the PCs, joining the majority government.

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Read more: People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin steps down, joins N.B. Progressive Conservatives

JP Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said floor crossing is always big news, even more so when the party they are crossing from no longer exists, but said that it isn’t surprising.

“It’s not news that doesn’t make sense,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

Voter support for the party dwindled in 2020, when the People’s Alliance lost their third seat, despite the fact they held the balance of power in 2018.

“We don’t have former leaders, a large population of former members like MLAs, to come out and say ‘Oh this is the wrong thing,’ or, ‘Where did the spirit of our political movement go?’”

He said it will take time to assess how voters feel about the decision.

“I mean that could be the news coming out in the next few days, is we hear the volunteers, the former candidates, the people who are really involved in the party and how they react to this,” he said.

Lewis said he does believe that the integration of the People’s Alliance will have an impact on the relationship the party has with Francophone New Brunswickers and it will widen the divide between the north and south of the province, with the north typically voting Liberal.

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Read more: N.B. Progressive Conservatives dominate political fundraising in 2020

“Unfortunately, it probably locks us in to the north-south divide in terms of our political map,” he said.

Lewis said it remains to been seen how much Premier Blaine Higgs will listen to his two new members specifically on policy they have been known to speak out about.

Don Wright, another political scientist with the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said he didn’t think the move was surprising either.

“Moreover, I’m sure Kris Austin and Mrs. Conroy read the tea leaves and realized there isn’t much room to grow,” Wright said.

“They are going to be a perpetual third or fourth party. So, rather than always being on the sidelines, why not have a seat at the table or even the cabinet table?”

The thing is, he said, it will leave a sour taste in the mouth of voters who support the People’s Alliance.

“Floor crossing is always risky,” he said. “Because you alienate your voters.”

He said it appears that Austin is acting in his own self-interest.

“But hypocrisy has a long history in politics, so this is not a surprise,” Wright said.

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Click to play video: 'Decision New Brunswick: People’s Alliance leader talks about losing a seat during concession speech' Decision New Brunswick: People’s Alliance leader talks about losing a seat during concession speech
Decision New Brunswick: People’s Alliance leader talks about losing a seat during concession speech – Sep 14, 2020

On the political side, many members of the legislative assembly remain concerned about what the integration means.

Kent-North MLA Kevin Arsenault said people are worried about the fact a fringe party with questionable ideology is moving into the mainstream.

“Many Francophones and Anglophones I’ve been talking to were saying that we prefer to see them have to defend their ideals publicly, and voice those opinions publicly, then now they’re going to have the capacity to do it behind closed doors,” Arsenault said speaking to reporters.

He said it is dangerous to have them working in the government and feels they should have continued as a separate entity.

“They’ve represented a fringe in the population,” he said. “But now that fringe opinion has gone mainstream.”

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Outside the political landscape, the decision is also making some waves.

The Francophone Association of New Brunswick Municipalities said it has fears about the former People’s Alliance members joining the governing powers in the province.

“We won’t hide it, it’s worrying to see people with openly defended anti-bilingualism positions, and at the limit anti-Francophone, joining the party in power,” the group said in a press release.

Yvon Godin Bertrand, the president of the association, said it is ‘downright backwards’ to have people within the party that support anti-bilingualism.

“However, it is to be hoped that their years in the Assembly, legislation opened their eyes to the importance of bilingualism and brought them an opening to the Acadian community and Francophone in the province,” he said in the release.

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