Austin faces tough questions on language at PC party meeting

Cabinet minister Kris Austin faced questions from several Progressive Conservative members at the party's annual general meeting on Saturday.  (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Cabinet minister Kris Austin faced questions from several Progressive Conservative members at the party's annual general meeting on Saturday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Tensions within the governing Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick burst into the open Saturday when two francophone party members confronted cabinet minister Kris Austin about his views on bilingualism.

The two members, both presidents of PC riding associations in northern areas of the province, spoke during a question-and-answer session with cabinet ministers.

One of them, Gertrude McLaughlin of Tracadie, asked Austin to commit to supporting official bilingualism, which he did.

The other, Léopold Ouellet of Restigouche West, said he didn't accept Austin's explanation that bilingualism hasn't been properly implemented in the half-century since it was made law.

"You're 50 years late, Mr. Minister," Ouellett said. "Don't try to change things your way. It won't work. The laws are there. People know them. They should follow them."

He said Austin's explanation for why he hadn't learned French himself "doesn't fly. It doesn't work."

'Elephant in the room'

Austin thanked both members for bringing up what he called "the elephant in the room" — his 12-year history with the People's Alliance party he founded and some of the language stances he took in that role.

Austin quit the Alliance in March and joined the PCs. He was sworn in as public safety minister last month.

"I support the right of both anglophone and francophone residents in this province to receive services in their language of choice because we are an officially bilingual province," Austin told McLaughlin.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

He added: "There's always differences of opinion on how it's implemented and this is where I have maybe a little different view."

He said that was the same opinion he had as Alliance leader.

"I will give you my word as I have before: I'm not here to take anybody's rights away. I never have been."

Call for unity

After McLaughlin and Ouellet made their comments, another francophone PC member, Roger Léger of Dieppe, appealed for party supporters to pull together.

He said anglophones had been "tolerant" of francophones' push to "catch up" on their rights since the 1960s and "now it is time for francophones to [allow] some reshaping, some tweaking."

He said it was better to have Austin "reintegrated" into the PC party when that happens.

McLaughlin told reporters after the session that she would wait and see before declaring herself satisfied with Austin's response.

"I got an answer. We'll see if he lives up to his answer," she said.

Austin's newly prominent role in the government has been a flashpoint for francophone Conservatives who recall some of his language stances as Alliance leader.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Last month, a regional vice-president of the party, Maurice Arsenault, wrote a letter to attempt to trigger a review of Premier Blaine Higgs's leadership, but so far that hasn't gathered any momentum. Arsenault cited Higgs's appointment of Austin to cabinet as his reason.

Andrew Dawson, one of the candidates running for party president, said Saturday that Arsenault's letter "was the 'check engine' light coming on in the vehicle we're driving.

"A vote for me is a vote to pull over and look under the hood," said Dawson, who lost the race for party president 110 votes to 70 to Fredericton lawyer Erika Hachey.

Adding to tensions in the party was Higgs's confirmation on Friday that Austin is part of a 10-member committee of PC MLAs developing the government's response to the Official Languages Act.

The Acadian Society said Higgs was "burning bridges" with francophones.

Views on bilingualism

Austin repeated at Saturday's PC meeting that he supports the party's constitution, which says official bilingualism and language equality are key principles.

He told reporters he still questions the need for English and French health authorities in the province and for a commissioner of official languages, but doesn't see those positions as contradicting the party's constitution.

He said there are other potential avenues for complaints to the province about poor bilingual service, such as the ombud's office.

But he said as an individual cabinet minister, he'd accept whatever decision the government makes.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

After Saturday's session, Local Government Minister Daniel Allain, one of only two francophone PC MLAs, said the party remains united.

Allain is also part of the committee crafting the plan to update the language law.

"Let's get criticized on what we bring out, not on all this noise that people are debating about," he said.

He also said it's been "interesting" to see Austin learn about the PC party and about how government functions.

In his speech to the meeting, Higgs said he was happy with the "genuine speaking from the heart … and addressing the real issues" during the question-and-answer session.