On Wednesday, Austin said he wanted to have a discussion with caucus at a party retreat being held in Miramichi about a merger. It’s something Austin has long advocated for, mainly under the banner of his former party, the People’s Alliance.
It was a party platform promise, in fact.
Austin defected to the PC caucus in March and deregistered the People’s Alliance. The party has since been revived but without Austin at the helm.
“I was asked as a part of caucus and an MLA to offer any suggestions in terms of making government better, making public service better and I gave my two suggestions,” he said, speaking to reporters Wednesday at the New Brunswick legislature.
He said the merger discussion isn’t one that is related to language but rather about getting rid of the competition between the two health authorities.
“Clearly, we have two health authorities, so any time you have two there is going to be competition at some level,” he said. “So, my push has been how do we do this in a way that ensures that it is streamlined and working in a more collaborative and united front.”
However, the idea of a merger comes with the backdrop of Austin’s history with anti-bilingualism and anti-duality rhetoric from his time with the People’s Alliance. He has been adamant his views and policies are not anti-bilingual or anti-duality.
“I think it’s something that should be discussed,” he said. “These are the types of conversations we need to have in this province.”
Austin said any merging of the two health authorities would need to respect the Official Languages Act.
Language advocates have expressed concerns about the idea of merging the health authorities and the implications it has on people’s right to be served in their language of choice through the health-care system.
Both health authorities, regardless of their geographical location and primary service language, must offer both French and English.
The idea of the merger was immediately shut down by both Health Minister Dorothy Shephard and Premier Blaine Higgs.
“In my mind, there is no merger conversation,” Shepherd said.
She said New Brunswick is facing a health-care crisis and she needs to focus on implementing solutions to the ongoing problems plaguing the system. Shephard also said she has been clear in her mandate letters to both authorities that they must collaborate and streamline as much as they can.
“I’m not having a conversation on merging when I have a full plate of health-care crisis to deal with in our province,” she said.
Higgs said he doesn’t believe there is much support within caucus for a merger of the two health authorities.
“We are not merging Vitalité or Horizon,” he said. “We’re looking for a way we can co-ordinate activities.”