The Higgs government's decision to replace French immersion is turning into a major political liability for the Progressive Conservatives, according to a poll commissioned by a lobby group fighting the move.
The New Brunswick chapter of Canadian Parents for French has released a poll by the research firm Leger suggesting the Opposition Liberals now have a big lead over the PCs in voting intentions.
It also suggests the plan to replace immersion is deeply unpopular.
"It tells me that the government of New Brunswick is not in sync with the people of New Brunswick," said the chapter's executive director Chris Collins.
According to the poll, taken in December, 72 per cent of respondents said their opinion of Premier Blaine Higgs had deteriorated "over the past few months."
The same percentage told the pollster they agreed it is "important for anglophone parents in New Brunswick to have the opportunity to send their child(ren) to a French immersion school."
Asked which party they'd most likely vote for if an election were held now, 40 per cent of respondents said the Liberals compared to just 22 per cent for Higgs's PCs.
The Greens were at 15 per cent, the NDP at 12 and the People's Alliance at nine.
The next provincial election is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2024. Higgs said in December he hasn't decided whether to lead the party into that campaign or retire.
The government announced in December it will replace immersion starting next fall for students entering Grade 1 and kindergarten.
Those students will instead spend half their days in what the province called "exploratory learning" in French. That's more time than what non-immersion students get now but less time than the immersion program.
Collins said he hopes the poll results will persuade some PC members of the legislature to push back against the replacement of immersion.
"I think it will change the minds of members of the legislative assembly who are on the precipice of losing their seats in areas like Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton," he said.
"I think there's going to be a lot of dissension in caucus when people are seeing those kinds of numbers on their premier, and they're thinking, 'How does this set me up for the next election in '24?"
On Monday night, Education Minister Bill Hogan took part in the first of several public meetings on the changes.
During a series of vetted questions and scripted answers, Hogan said it was still possible the new model could change.
"Let me be clear," he said. "There's still a chance for New Brunswickers to have their say."
In the Leger poll, 63 per cent of respondents said they were against "abolishing" French immersion.
In response to another question about the policy change, only 22 per cent of respondents agreed that immersion "must be abolished and a new French as a second language program should be implemented."
A far larger share, 55 per cent, agreed that "the current French immersion program should be maintained, but make it accessible to more students, even if they are not in immersion programs."
The 18-point gap in voting intentions in favour of the Liberals over the PCs is a bigger lead than what the Liberals have enjoyed in recent surveys by Halifax-based Narrative Research.
The last Narrative poll from November 2022 had the Liberals ahead 39 to 30.
Leger said it conducted its web-based survey of 500 New Brunswickers from Dec. 15 to 23, a period that included the announcement on replacing immersion.
Because the poll was done with an online panel and not a random sample, the firm said it was impossible to calculate a margin of error. But it said a poll that size using a random sample would be accurate to within 4.4 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
The company said the results were weighted by gender, age, mother tongue, education, region and presence of children in a household to reflect New Brunswick's population.