Premier Blaine Higgs is being criticized for tapping former People's Alliance leader Kris Austin for an internal working group of Progressive Conservative MLAs crafting the government's plans for the Official Languages Act.
Higgs confirmed to reporters Friday that Austin, now a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, is one of 10 party MLAs tasked with figuring out how — or whether — to update the legislation.
The premier was reluctant at first to identify MLAs on the committee, but after confirming Austin's membership he quickly added that the two francophone members of his cabinet, Réjean Savoie and Daniel Allain, are also part of the secret deliberations.
"We have a balance in the committee," he said.
The premier said he included Austin, who joined the PCs in March after years criticizing many aspects of official bilingualism, to ensure a broad consensus on changes to the act.
Excluding Austin and his perspective would risk sparking another backlash over language issues, he said.
"I don't want to see another conflict in our province, creating another political party that's concerned, that's representing a number of citizens that have that concern on their ability to speak both languages," Higgs said.
"What I'm trying to do here is say, let's put everything on the table, let's work through this in a meaningful way and that we come out with a plan where everyone will say, 'Yeah, this can work.'"
The Acadian Society of New Brunswick promptly issued a statement accusing Higgs of "burning bridges" with francophones just two days after he met with the society's leadership.
But there is a precedent for Higgs's approach.
In 2002, then-PC premier Bernard Lord appointed a former president of the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party, PC MLA Tony Huntjens, to an internal consultation group examining how to respond to a New Brunswick Court of Appeal ruling on language rights.
Huntjens and another MLA, francophone Louis-Philippe McGraw, helped Lord forge a consensus in his caucus on a new Official Languages Act.
But the leaders of the two other parties in the legislature rejected the idea that Austin needs to be at the table to make the final decision credible.
"It concerns me when there's a bias clearly displayed in the membership of the committee making decisions," said Liberal Leader Susan Holt, who said Austin has tried to "undermine bilingualism."
Green Leader David Coon agreed.
"You need to show leadership when dealing with minority rights, and you don't aim for the lowest common denominator," he said.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau took a more nuanced position, saying he'd be fine with Austin playing a role if the group were an official committee of the legislature meeting in public, not an informal group working behind closed doors.
In an emailed statement, Allain, one of two Acadian ministers in the Higgs cabinet, said he has "welcomed the opportunity to discuss and ensure the francophone perspective is well represented and appreciated by all" within the PC government.
"In politics, we work with people who have different experiences and ideas," said Allain.
He also said he was "encouraged by the seriousness our government has given to the report and its recommendations."
Austin was not available for interviews Friday, but in his own statement issued Friday at 6:30 p.m., he said 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 manner that reflects the linguistic makeup of New Brunswick.
"Bringing various opinions and ideas to the table supports a healthy conversation," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a team approach and I am there to provide my thoughts."
Austin's Alliance past
As Alliance leader, 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 working group 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" provincial employees can work in their choice of English or French.
"I don't think it's a lowering of requirements," Higgs said when asked what the committee might do with that recommendation. "It's deciding what levels of capabilities are needed for specific jobs. … Some jobs are going to require much higher levels."
Austin and the only other Alliance MLA, Michelle Conroy, defected to the PCs in March.
Austin fully behind party stance, Higgs says
Higgs said Austin, who founded the Alliance in 2010 and was made a PC minister last month, accepts the principles laid out in the party 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 in protecting and promoting both languages "while treating each community with fairness and justice."
Higgs said Austin is "fully there and fully behind it, so I'm not concerned that's an issue."
But he acknowledged that other MLAs may interpret those principles differently and that Austin may consider it possible to oppose two health authorities and an official languages commissioner while still supporting bilingualism.
"It doesn't break down that specific, but the rules and principles are very well defined, and that's what you sign on to," Higgs said.
He said it was important to him that "we all feel that we're being fair to each other, but that we're raising the bar, ensuring that both cultures work together, but the francophone culture is protected, and we don't lose ground in that area."
Higgs said he is also part of the committee. The other members are cabinet ministers Ted Flemming, Margaret Johnson, Dorothy Shephard, Mike Holland, Bill Hogan and Moncton South MLA Greg Turner, who chairs the PC caucus.