Premier Blaine Higgs is being criticized for bringing in former People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin for an internal task force of Progressive Conservative MPs that is drawing up the government’s plans for the Official Languages Act.
Higgs confirmed to reporters on Friday that Austin, now a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, is one of 10 party MPs tasked with determining how — or if — to update the legislation.
The Prime Minister was initially hesitant to identify MPs on the committee, but after confirming Austin’s membership, he quickly added that the two French-speaking members of his cabinet, Réjean Savoie and Daniel Allain, are also on secret deliberations.
“We have a balance in the committee,” he said.
The prime minister said he had included Austin, who joined the Conservatives in March after years of criticizing many aspects of official bilingualism, to ensure broad consensus on changes to the law.
Excluding Austin and his perspective would risk triggering another backlash over language issues, he said.
“I don’t want to see another conflict in our province, creating another political party that is concerned, that represents a number of citizens who have this concern about their ability to speak both languages,” Higgs said.
“What I’m trying to do here is say, let’s put it all on the table, work through this in a meaningful way and we come up with a plan where everyone is going to say, ‘Yeah, that can work. “”
The Société acadienne du Nouveau-Brunswick quickly released a statement accusing Higgs of “cutting ties” with French speakers just two days after meeting with society leaders.
But there is precedent for Higgs’ approach.
In 2002, then PC Prime Minister Bernard Lord appointed a former chairman of the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party, PC MP Tony Huntjens, to an internal advisory group examining how to respond to a decision by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal on language rights.
Huntjens and another MPP, French-speaking Louis-Philippe McGraw, helped Lord forge consensus in his caucus on a new Official Languages Act.
But leaders of the other two parties in the legislature rejected the idea that Austin must be at the table to make the final decision credible.
“It worries me when there is a clearly displayed bias in the composition of the committee that makes decisions,” said Liberal Leader Susan Holt, who said Austin had tried to “undermine bilingualism.”
Green Leader David Coon agreed.
“You have to show leadership when dealing with minority rights, and you’re not aiming for the lowest common denominator,” he said.
Green MP Kevin Arseneau took a more nuanced position, saying he would be fine with Austin playing a role if the group was an official Legislature committee meeting in public, not an informal group working behind closed doors. closed.
In an emailed statement, Allain, one of two Acadian ministers in the Higgs cabinet, said he had “appreciated the opportunity to discuss and ensure that the Francophone perspective is well represented and appreciated by all.” in the PC government.
“In politics, you work with people who have different experiences and ideas,” Allain said.
He also said he was “encouraged by the seriousness that our government has given to the report and its recommendations”.
Austin was unavailable for interviews Friday, but in his own statement released Friday at 6:30 p.m., he says he has always supported the right of Anglophones and Francophones to receive government services in the language of their choice.
He said he’s on the committee “to offer my ideas on how we can accomplish this in a fair and equitable way that reflects New Brunswick’s linguistic makeup.”
“Bringing diverse opinions and ideas to the table promotes healthy conversation,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a team approach and I’m here to give my opinion.”
The past of the Austin Alliance
As leader of the Alliance, Austin called for the merger of two language-based regional health authorities, the elimination of the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, and a relaxation of bilingual hiring standards in the public service.
Higgs confirmed Friday that the task force is looking at bilingual job requirements.
Last year’s mandatory, independent 10-year review of the language law included a recommendation that the province “clarify” language requirements and “ensure” that provincial employees can work in the English or French of their choice.
“I don’t think it’s a lowering of the requirements,” Higgs said when asked what the committee might do with that recommendation. “It’s about deciding what levels of ability are needed for specific jobs. … Some jobs are going to require much higher levels.”
Austin and the only other Alliance congresswoman, Michelle Conroy, defected to the PCs in March.
Austin fully behind party position, says Higgs
Higgs said Austin, who founded the Alliance in 2010 and was named PC minister last month, accepts the principles set out in the party’s constitution on bilingualism.
It includes a statement that “the diversity of our two linguistic communities is a unique strength of our province” and that the party believes in official bilingualism and the protection and promotion of both languages ”while treating each community with fairness and justice”.
Higgs said Austin was “fully there and fully behind, so I’m not afraid that’s going to be a problem.”
But he acknowledged that other MPs may interpret those principles differently, and that Austin may see it as possible to pit two health authorities against an official languages commissioner while supporting bilingualism.
“It’s not that specific, but the rules and principles are very well defined, and that’s what you’re committing to,” Higgs said.
He said it was important to him that “we all feel that we are fair to each other, but that we are raising the bar, making sure that the two cultures work together, but the francophone culture is protected, and we won’t lose ground in this area.”
Higgs said he was also on the committee. The other members are ministers Ted Flemming, Margaret Johnson, Dorothy Shephard, Mike Holland, Bill Hogan and Moncton South MP Greg Turner, who chairs the PC caucus.