When the People’s Alliance broke through to win its first three seats in the New Brunswick legislature in 2018, it was just 40 votes from adding a fourth.
Alliance candidate Art O’Donnell pulled 35 per cent of the vote in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, with Progressive Conservative incumbent Jake Stewart just holding onto his seat. In a byelection on Monday in that same riding, Larry Lynch pulled seven per cent of the vote for the People’s Alliance.
“I’m at a bit of a loss,” said Lynch, who also sits on the party’s board.
“I still feel that there’s a lot of people that feel the two-party system has failed them.”
The party’s 2018 breakthrough was its high-water mark. Its share of the popular vote was 12.6 per cent, which fell to nine per cent in 2020. Then, earlier this year, leader and founder of the party Kris Austin announced he and Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy were joining the governing PCs and that the party would be deregistered.
“After 12 years as leader and founder, I now know it’s time for me to make a change,” Austin told reporters on March 30.
He and Conroy said the decision was the best way to represent their constituents.
The remaining party members, who were left in the lurch when Austin and Conroy jumped ship, had the party reregistered 60 days later, but their results in a pair of Miramichi-area byelections are a fraction of what they once were in an area that more or less served as its base.
The area stretching from the outskirts of Fredericton in the south to Woodstock in the west and Miramichi in the north had been the party’s stronghold. All three of the party’s wins and six of the party’s seven second-place finishes in 2018 were in that area. Miramichi is where Conroy took down Liberal cabinet minister Bill Fraser in 2018 by 900 votes and held off Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers by 1,300 votes in 2020.
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But Lynch failed to crack 10 per cent in his riding and Miramichi Bay-Neguac candidate Tom L’Huillier earned only 3.3 per cent from voters on Monday.
“There’s so much uncertainty with people that had supported us in the past, when they saw our two MLAs cross the floor they thought, ‘Well, do I trust this party with my vote again?'” Lynch said.
“It’s up to us to earn that trust back.”
Firstly, that means proving the party’s viability.
“Does the party exist, does it not exist, can it attract money, can it attract candidates, can it build a platform,” said Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick.
“People at the door are going to be skeptical. Why should I throw my vote away on a party that may or may not exist this time next year?”
When it was resurrected, former MLA Rick Desaulniers was selected as leader of the party. Lynch says one of the main priorities is to review the platform and decide what direction the party wants to move in.
And that could provide an opportunity for the party to reinvent itself, says Jamie Gilles, a professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University.
“What are they? Are they a populist protest party like the People’s Party federally?” Gilles said.
“Or do they become a less populist and more sort of a rural issues, rural grievances party?”
That could mean dropping the more controversial parts of the platform surrounding language duality in order to cast a wider net for supporters in the province, focusing on taxation and services, municipal reform and other issues that have broad appeal in the rural parts of the province.
While Austin maintained that francophones had a place within the party, they did not run candidates in most northern, francophone-dominated ridings in 2020. And Austin’s pitch to merge the province’s two health authorities in order to avoid duplicating services is a non-starter for many.
Lynch, who served as campaign manager for Conroy’s two successful campaigns in Miramichi, says many of the issues that helped propel the party to its breakthrough four years ago seem to still be top of mind for voters. But the party needs to figure out how to reconnect with those voters if it’s to survive, he says.
“It’s gotta get back to the grassroots,” Lynch said.
“It’s that type of approach that made the People’s Alliance successful in the past and we’re going to have to stick to.”