Party loss is NB's loss
On the drive home from work last week a political panel on CBC radio was analyzing what’s been happening recently in New Brunswick. One of the topics was the debate in the legislature about how to provide relief in reaction to soaring gas prices. Panelist Jamie Gillies, a professor at STU complimented the Green Party’s proposed solution and said the Greens had taken over from the PANB with their ability to cut through the Red Blue stalemate and propose something useful, even though it would surely be rejected. (LINK 7:30 - 13:00)
He was right. And it hurt me to hear him say that. I have been a supporter of the PANB for several years, managed its website and social media, and I was even more involved at the local level. There have been many moments to be proud of when our party’s common sense solutions resonated loudly with New Brunswickers, and when we held the balance of power in the province with three elected members. But in the blink of an eye it is gone. It’s important to work toward its renewal, remember what made it successful, and remind people why it is still important.
The beginning for the People’s Alliance in Miramichi
In 2016 I went to a meeting where there were four other people sitting around the kitchen table. I paid $10 to join the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB) that night and committed to attending further meetings and help set up a Facebook page. There were about thirty people from Miramichi who had joined or donated prior to me, and I assumed they were also fed up with Red and Blue politics in New Brunswick. I thought what the PANB was saying about corporate welfare, taxation, spraying, and language policies and other things made sense. For the next two years we had fundraisers and town halls, and as the 2018 election creeped closer our group had grown significantly and we were meeting weekly to discuss who could be the first PANB candidate in Miramichi. We asked at least 20 people to consider becoming a candidate, and Michelle Conroy came forward at the last minute.
Prior to 2018 Conroy had been part-time at the hospital for years, always being overlooked for full-time positions because of language requirements. She finally got a permanent position in 2018 only to have it snatched away again by a union grievance over language. If Conroy had gotten a full-time job sooner, she likely would never have decided to be a candidate. The rest is history.
I was Conroy’s campaign manager in 2018 and 2020, and I was her Constituency Office Assistant from October 2018 to May 2022. In the 2018 campaign she faced Bill Fraser, the DTI Minister at the time and a three-time Liberal MLA that boasted over $600 million in government investments in Miramichi while in office. Conroy was a virtual unknown aside from her work at the hospital and Dr. Losier’s office. The campaign strategy was to ask people to do something they had never done before: take a leap of faith and vote something other than Liberal or Conservative. We pointed out the revolving door of scandal and poor decisions by the main parties, and the fresh opportunity the energetic Conroy offered. It worked.
In 2018 almost 4000 people in Miramichi voted for a PANB candidate – astonishing when you consider historical voting patterns in this city. Conroy upset Fraser by almost 1000 votes, and two years later defeated local hero and Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers by an even wider margin. The 2018 win was a result of successful election strategy, hard work by the campaign team, and Conroy’s effort to get out and meet people and convert them with the message of “Be the Change”. The 2020 election had a theme about the benefits of minority governments, but victory could also be credited to Conroy’s growing legacy in the community as an approachable, caring, and hands-on problem solver. The Miramichi riding association grew, raising money was easy, and we felt like we were set for years to come. And then on March 30, 2022, Conroy and Kris Austin crossed the floor.
What justification is there for destroying an active political party?
Politicians cross floors, and leaders resign. It happens often and makes headlines for about a day before people stop talking about it. But de-registering an active political party is unheard of. We learned it takes one signature from the Leader to de-register a party. One signature on a one-page form that can be downloaded from the internet, with no consultation with the party members or riding associations, is all that’s required to wipe out a political party and all its assets. The same day Kris Austin signed the form Elections NB contacted all the riding associations and ordered them to send all their money to the Minister of Finance, including $30,000 from two Miramichi riding associations. They even confiscated anything of value from the party office. Blindsided is an understatement.
In our dealings with Elections New Brunswick since that day we get the impression they agree the legislation was never intended for this use. It was intended to wrap up a party that had no activity and no MLAs. It wasn’t intended as a tool for disgruntled leaders to dissolve a party on a whim. ENB simply acted as per the current legislation. It will take the will of the government, not ENB, to initiate any changes to the Act.
On the day of the floor crossing PANB consisted of only Conroy and Kris Austin in the legislature. 47,000 people voted PANB in 2018 when they elected three MLAs, and 32,000 voted for them in 2020 when they were reduced to two. The party had five staff, a legislative budget, thousands of dollars in the bank, candidates slated for the June 2022 by-election, and several active riding associations. Crossing the floor and dissolving the party was Kris Austin’s plan. Conroy simply followed because she couldn’t see herself carrying the weight of a leaderless party while still being a relatively novice politico. She explained she felt she could accomplish more for Miramichi as a member of the governing Conservatives than as a lone member of the PANB.
Austin and Conroy had different reasons for crossing, and it should be noted that they also have different political trajectories. Conroy’s popularity appears to have grown since 2018 with two convincing wins, while Austin had his margin of victory between 2018 and 2020 drop significantly from 2300 to 1300 votes.
Austin said his decision to resign and decertify the party was predicated on the waning popularity of the PANB. There is some truth in this, but ultimately it’s about what was best for Austin. What’s best for Austin is a greater chance of winning his seat in 2024, and also cashing in on any promises made to him by the Conservative’s in return for eliminating their main rival in many ridings. Austin denies this deal, but the leverage he gained by doing it prior to two by-elections is too significant to ignore. (Fun fact: before Austin was the leader of the PANB, he was defeated in a nomination convention to become a candidate for the Conservatives.)
How Covid-19 impacted the fate of the PANB
The Covid-19 pandemic had a lot of unanticipated consequences, the most unanticipated of all was the temporary crippling of the PANB. Austin was correct that support for the party had waned. In 2020 15,000 fewer people voted for the PANB than in 2018 with the same number of candidates. Austin is partially to blame for this because he gave up almost completely on engaging supporters while he focused on supporting the Conservative minority government. He never even bothered to thank candidates after the 2020 election.
Covid-19 also provided Higgs with a high approval rating during the early days of the pandemic and his party successfully engineered a snap election two years into his mandate at a time when New Brunswick could brag about low infection rates. Rising infection rates, gas prices and inflation have tarnished his image since then. Covid-19 was also responsible for a lack of activity in the PNAB due to restrictions on gathering. There was a lack of fundraising, a lack of town hall meetings, a lack of party building. This was true of all parties which made it easier for Higgs to ride a wave of temporary popularity to a slim majority win.
But most of all, Covid-19 caused an internal rift in the PANB that led the party to lose focus and momentum, and caused three board members to resign just weeks before Austin pulled the plug. The board members and supporters who left the party were largely supportive of anti-vax and anti-mandate policies and wanted to focus on issues arising from Covid more than anything else, a change the majority felt would be harmful to the party.
Austin told the party members he wanted to avoid turning the party he built over to this faction. But there was never really a risk of that. The three board members who quit were a minority of the PANB board, and the remaining majority wanted to keep the party together and remain active. They believed it was important to let people know that the party was never radical, and will never be. The PANB wasn’t and won’t be radical about bilingualism, and it wasn’t and won’t be radical about public health mandates. What happened to the party after Austin left should never have been his concern, unless it was part of a deal with Higgs.
The stress on the party actually began before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 when the government put forward a bill that would mandate school children to be vaccinated. Austin vacillated on the bill citing concerns about parental rights. This bill became national news, and PANB's mailbox became inundated with homemade research from anti-vaxxers from across the country. Legislative hearings on the Bill included several presentations from people that gave anecdotal evidence about their negative experiences with vaccines. The anti-vax crowd is definitely well organized even if they are delusional. The PANB eventually cast 3 NO votes helping defeat it, saying Cardy never proved the measure was required to keep children safe. (There were NO votes from the Conservatives as well, and some YES votes from Liberals. The Greens abstained.) After the defeat of the bill, the anti-vax crowd and other conspirists felt they had a home with the PANB.
My perception is that the PANB started to fracture at that moment and developed serious cracks after the 2020 election, especially in ridings where the candidates were adamantly anti-mandate. Example: Graham Gill looked like a winner in Hartland, but after losing he was not long deregistering his riding’s association in protest over the PANB’s support of mask mandates. Social media comments show others felt the same.
PANB’s loss is New Brunswick’s loss
Detractors of the PANB will say they never accomplished anything except getting rid of the front license plate. In reality, the PANB did exactly as it set out to do and that is hold the government accountable on many important issues. PANB MLAs got to sit on every committee at the legislature. They got to question every bill, every department budget, every decision, and every person or group who came before the legislature.
The minimal number of PANB MLAs shared a heavy workload. They got to ask questions about spraying. They got to vote for a $1 million budget increase for the Auditor General. They voted against a raise for the OLA Commissioner. They got to question Irving Oil executives who lied by omission about the value of their assets for property tax purposes. PANB MLAs were busy doing important work everyday, and using common sense to hold the government accountable just as they had promised.
That common sense oversight is gone now as Austin and Conroy will have a limited role and will be assigned to fewer committees because of the size of the Conservative caucus. No longer do PANB researchers dig into government policy and budgets looking for discrepancies. No one will ask the OLA Commissioner why the Ombudsman couldn’t handle language complaints at a much cheaper price. No one will ask why language requirements are still keeping ambulances sidelined. Why oil companies get tax breaks and rake in huge margins while inflation rises and families struggle. Why lumber companies have amassed huge profits while the price wood suppliers get has not increased. No one will ask the tough questions that matter to all New Brunswickers because their roles have fundamentally changed.
This is why the PANB should not disappear. It is important that it exists on the promise to challenge the government (as well as corporations and special interest groups) from both inside and outside the legislature. There are big decisions to be made in New Brunswick about housing, healthcare, food supply, and the environment, and our voice is needed.
The party has to be ready the next time the Liberals or Conservatives implode, which happens frequently whenever a scandal or a rash of bad decisions leaves voters scratching their heads and looking for other options. Remember Atcon? Potential sale of NB Power to Quebec? Francophonie Games? Larry’s Gulch? The next scandal borne of arrogance and contempt for the taxpayer is just around the corner, and the PANB needs to be ready. It is inevitable.