Rick DeSaulniers thought he was through with politics, but this week he finds himself back in the thick of it as the new leader of the almost–dissolved People's Alliance of New Brunswick.
The former Fredericton-York MLA was acclaimed as the populist party's leader on the weekend and says he's now focusing on fielding candidates in two Miramichi–area byelections.
"I couldn't turn my back on New Brunswick having the option of our voice out there," he said in an interview. "And I believe in a lot of the things that we've done and will do. I just couldn't turn my back on it."
Former Alliance leader Kris Austin stunned the political world in March when he and fellow party MLA Michelle Conroy joined the governing Progessive Conservatives.
That left the Alliance with no members in the legislature.
Not only did Austin quit the party he founded in 2010, he invoked his right as leader to deregister it through Elections New Brunswick.
DeSaulniers says he was stunned by the decision.
"I personally was mentally and emotionally connected to the party in a really deep way," he said.
"That's one of the reasons I can't step away from it. I'm emotionally invested in it. It was hard for me. It wasn't an easy time."
But he won't talk about Austin's and Conroy's motivations or what he calls their "assumption" that the party was no longer needed.
"I promised myself and my family and friends that I'm going to take the high road on all of that. I'm going to move forward and look into the future rather than the past."
Elections New Brunswick said Tuesday the Alliance had been officially reregistered.
Old dog, new tricks
About three dozen people attended the convention on the weekend, "more than what we thought we would get," he said.
DeSaulniers was elected in 2018 along with Austin and Conroy, and the three–member Alliance caucus held the balance of power for two years of Higgs's minority government.
But he was defeated in an early election in 2020 in which the PCs won a majority.
DeSaulniers says the party has candidates for the June 20 byelections in Southwest Miramichi–Bay du Vin and Miramichi Bay–Neguac.
He's opting not to run himself, even though the Alliance came within 35 votes of winning Southwest Miramichi–Bay du Vin in 2018, and it might be a quick way for the new leader to get back into the legislature.
"It's one thing to parachute into a riding, but that's a long, long way. It just doesn't make sense to me."
DeSaulniers plans to be in the Miramichi area Wednesday with the two byelection candidates.
He said he wants to see the party campaign on anger over local government reforms and on what he says is Higgs's on–again, off–again commitment to some reforms, such as the recently re–announced cut to the provincial non–owner–occupied property residential tax.
The Alliance must position itself "between the red and the blue. Stay in that centre lane," he said.
Opposition Liberal leader Roger Melanson would not comment Tuesday on what impact the Alliance may have on the two byelections.
"I don't believe in their policies or their vision or their values," he said.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau said the revival of a party that has criticized the way government delivers bilingual services is discouraging, especially with Austin and Conroy now influencing PC government decisions.
"Now you have this party still pushing those ideals, and at the same time you have people who still believe those ideals in a government in power. So it's worst–case scenario," he said.
Austin did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.