Seven men rule Newfoundland, now a country of no parties, no elections, no parliament
H. A. WINTER
WE ARE all interested in government, but, while a host of writers from Plato down have concerned themselves greatly with forms of government, ideal or actual, very few seem to have given thought, except incidentally, to the question: How much government? I believe one political philosopher did remark that that country is the happiest which is least governed, but nations on the whole do not appear to have taken the hint and adopted it as a working principle. To economy not in, but of, government, might be applied the words the cynic used to explain the failure of Christianity: “It has never been tried.”
Well, it is being tried today in the case of one country at least, and with striking results. Newfoundland, until last year autonomous and equal in status with the United Kingdom, Canada and the other Dominions, is now enjoying —and not metaphorically either—a Government pared down unquestionably to the irreducible minimum. Her Parliament is gone, its very domicile transformed, with a fine eye to economy and none at all to sentiment, into the home of the Natural Resources Department; with it the Cabinet and Executive and, of course, the whole electoral system and its elaborate machinery. For there is now no responsibility or representation, in the old sense. Her constitution completely broken up, she is rapidly regaining her health !
Too Much Government
WHEN THE Royal Commission, appointed in 19,33 under the chairmanship of Lord Amulree to investigate, with very wide powers of enquiry, the financial condition of Newfoundland and its future prospects generally, made its report late in that year, it was plain that the Commissioners considered that it had been having not merely the wrong kind of government, but altogether too much of it. Downing Street thought so, too. Since the people of Newfoundland themselves, if the witnesses before the Commission truly expressed their views, declared themselves, with quite unconscious humor but great emphasis, of the same mind, there was very satisfactory unanimity all round. And just as in actions at law many difficulties presented by abstract rules can be surmounted by consent of all parties concerned, so in this larger domain the whole edifice of political and constitutional theory, deep-rooted in history and tradition, was toppled over with one thrust of practical common sense, to give place to something concrete, compact and suited to actual requirements.
That last sentence is a long one. but it is not mere grandiloquence. For those roots, that history and that tradition
were really there. It is probably generally known that Newfoundland is the oldest of Britain’s colonies, but it is not so fully realized how closely her constitution, in fact her whole body }X)litic, follows the model of the mother country— more closely, 1 believe, than that of any other of the Empire family. Two factors in her history supply the simple explanation of this.
In the first place, she was a unitary Dominion, free from the complications ol federations such as Canada and Australia. Pausing for a moment there, it will be seen how the task of “changing over” to a Government by Commission was thereby simplified. The idea of Canada, for instance, making such a change is fantastic; but even if a single province desired it— and it has been suggested— it is difficult to see how it could be fitted easily into the federal machinery.
In the second place, her population is almost wholly British—of English, Irish and Scottish ancestry; hardly three per cent being of foreign blood. So that not merely were there no racial problems to solve, but the resemblance to Great Britain which was reflected formally in her constitution went much farther and deeper. It was shown in the customs, manners and ideas of the people and, very strikingly indeed, in their laws and legal system, which, except where purely local conditions demanded local treatment, are not mere copies but in many cases actual facsimiles of their British prototypes.
Paradoxical though it may seem, this very affinity, which might have been expected if only for sentimental reasons to oppose the greatest obstacle to the recommendations of the Royal Commission, in fact facilitated their adoption. For Newfoundland’s troubles, as with most countries today, were mainly economic; and the proposal was merely that she submit to the “suspension” of her constitution until the national budget should be balanced and the financial future safeguarded as fully as possible. This meant control from London; and there are few parts of the Empire in which such control and the application of British policies and administrative methods could be so easily and naturally carried out. This was probably felt, rather than consciously reasoned, by Newfoundlanders themselves; and so it would seem to be working out in practice.
BOTH PARTIES being thus agreed, the constitution was suspended accordingly. Since it was created by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, all that was necessary for that purjx>se was the issuing of new Letters Patent (they are
dated February 17, 1934) suspending (the word is carefully emphasized ) the existing Letters Patent and constituting the new and temporary form of Government.
The Commission so appointed consists of seven members, under the ex-officio chairmanship of the Governor. Of the remaining six, three are residents of Newfoundland, three of the United Kingdom. But—and this is important—they are all appointed by His Majesty; and if a vacancy occurs among the Newfoundland members, it will be filled by His Majesty’s advisers in Great Britain, acting upon such advice as they see fit to take.
Complete legislative, executive and administrative authority is vested in the Commission. They are the House of Assembly, Legislative Council, Cabinet and Ministryin one, or rather seven. Possibly they are even more, but a longer list would be too reminiscent of a certain Gilbert ballad.
While it was easy, under the simple and flexible British system of Parliamentary government, to remove the constitution itself and its most important symbol and organ, the Legislature, the work of Government, under whatever form, still had to go on. So the administrative machinery, the Civil Service, was left untouched, though it was in that large field that the first reforms were made by the Commission itself and are quietly and effectively making themselves felt now. The old departments, however, and ministerial portfolios were abolished, or, more correctly, regrouped and renamed.
As might be expected under the circumstances, the more
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important and “financial” of these were assigned to the British Commissioners. Hon. Sir John Hope Simpson, C.I.E., is Commissioner for Natural Resources, which includes the fisheries, mines, forests and agriculture; lion. Thomas Lodge, C.B., Commissioner for Public Utilities, which embraces labor, railways and transportation; Hon. E. N. R. Trent ham, Commissioner for Finance and Customs, which covers those departments and posts and telegraphs. To the Newfoundland members belong Home Affairs and Education, presided over by Hon. F. C. Alderdice, the late Prime Minister; Public Health and Welfare, by Hon. J. C. Puddester, another member of the late Government; and Justice, by Hon. W. R. Howley, K.C.
In respect, therefore, of the mere size of the apparatus of government, it will be seen how sweeping is the change. An elected House of twenty-six members and a nominated Upper House somewhat smaller give place to this compact body of seven. In the same connection should be mentioned the quite considerable curtailment effected during the past year in the Civil Service and certain public services, though this is rather accidental than essential and dictated by temporary policy. Has there been a corresponding saving in the actual work of government and—an equally important factor—time? The answer is a decided affirmative.
rT'HE COMMISSION meets as a rule T twice weekly, and passes (how would harassed Prime Ministers everywhere receive that simple statement!) such legislation, makes such appointments and performs such administrative acts as may be necessary and as it may decide upon. Whatever has to be done is done speedily and with a minimum of form and ceremony. Time is no longer lost in Parliamentary eloquence) debate is confined to discussion around a table. “Parliament” is continuously in session; it is never prorogued. If a change in the law is required, whether by amendment, repeal or new enactments, it can be effected instantly.
One example of this refreshing dispatch may serve to show what it means. Shortly after taking office, the Commission thought fit to repeal in large measure, for reasons that do not matter here, an important statute known as the Bait Act. It was felt to be a mistake and the repeal was—I believe at the next meeting—itself repealed, leaving things as they had been. If the mistake, assuming it to be such, was made more precipitately than would be possible in any regular Legislature, it will be conceded that any defect in the system thereby suggested is more than offset by the readiness with which it could be remedied.
In a report recently tabled in the British House of Commons the Commission of Government reviewed the first year of its activities. Intelligent opinion in Newfoundland seems to consider it too modestly, if not diffidently, composed. It makes clear the encouraging improvement in the national balance sheet. On the one side, the conversion of the loans representing the public debt of $100,000,000 from an average interest rate of five to three per cent has effected a saving of just over $2.000,000 a year in expenditure. On the other, trade recovery, notably a better price for fish, the staple export, has produced an increase in revenue which is estimated at over $1,000,000 for the fiscal year. Since the deficit when the Commission assumed control was about $4,000.000, it will be seen that a good part of the road to recovery has already been traversed. But it must be remembered that many important services, particularly education. have been drastically cut and will need to be restored.
No one is more sensible than the Commis-
sioners themselves that most of this improvement has been outside their control and cannot be credited to them. Perhaps it is just as well that much that does deserve to be so credited has not had time to manifest itself fully. Their first year has been one of preparation; if there has been demolition, it has not all been for economy but often with a view to a rebuilding which has already begun. Constructive measures in the fisheries and agriculture have been initiated; there is promise of their expansion, possibly to large dimensions, if the good results so far achieved are maintained.
Weakness of New Regime
WIIAT OF the other side of the picture?
Is there no loss to place over against the gains briefly indicated above? Assuredly there is. But I believe that all of it that is of any importance can be placed in one general category.
Economy in whatever direction is undoubtedly a virtue, but virtues can be carried to excess. Simplicity can be made too simple. Parliaments, even the smallest, do more than pass laws and grant supply. They “air grievances;” they are vents for the expression of opinion, the exchange of ideas, the gathering of useful information, even if a lot of hot air is mixed with it. Practically no such vent exists in Newfoundland today. There are the newspapers, of course; but the average man does not care particularly for that vehicle of expression. The Commission welcomes, and receives, many communications; but each writer can only state his case, he cannot know what others are saying. Nothing for this purpose can take the place of a representative assembly.
Discerning critics see in this the chief weakness of the new régime; the more severe of them would say, its dangerous potentialities. If political influences had worked harm in many ways—and if this cannot be denied the case has undoubtedly been exaggerated—they at least provided a system of counterchecks and balances which hardly exists today. Politicians in more countries than Newfoundland have a way of watching one another, and serious mistakes are often prevented by nothing more than an equilibrium of forces, even when the motives behind them are not wholly meritorious.
One mistake of the sort was made last year which could scarcely have been possible but for the absence of this kind of scrutiny. In October the Government imported no less than 100,000 bags (equivalent to 50,000 barrels) of English flour for relief purposes. This was done suddenly, without warning to the trade, which had made provision for its winter requirements and did not deserve such competition, having borne the brunt of the relief problem during the Government’s financial difficulties. The object of the measure, no doubt well meant, was to provide a flour that was both cheaper and, so the medical experts advised, more nutritious than the customary white flour. Both advantages have proved illusory. The apparent cheapness has been offset by greater wastage and cost in storing and handling, as well as a lower content for baking purposes in the flour itself; and, whatever doctors may say as to its nutritive value, the recipients themselves have no doubt on the point. Newfoundlanders are very large consumers of flour and have acquired a taste, which might be called fastidious but is probably wise in the long run, that is not satisfied with anything less than the highest grade products of the Canadian mills.
Opponents of the new order argue from instances like this that the necessary secrecy of the Commission’s deliberations—a secrecy hardly to be avoided by the Commission themselves—may lead them into errors of a
similar sort on large questions of policy. The fear is probably unfounded, but already sharp differences of opinion exist as to the merits of certain policies that have been plainly indicated and in part instituted. It is generally conceded that the administrative reforms, the gradual removal of round pegs from square holes and the introduction of British executive methods and auditing system (for which very competent experts have been lent from the British Civil Service) have all been to the good; but this is a gain rather on the negative side. It is realized, as in other countries, that something of a positive and constructive nature is required to get the thousands that are still idle at work again and “off the dole.”
The big question is, how? The bulk of the population are fishermen. Last year showed a slight improvement in fish prices, but the outlook for this year is uncertain and disquieting. Faced with arbitrary quotas in several of the largest markets and difficulties of exchange in others, the large exporting firms cannot decide whether it is wise or not to seek to expand the industry. The Government has decided that it is and have subsidized a considerable shipbuilding programme throughout the country', mostly with a view to increase deep-sea fishing.
Another remedy, the application of which has caused most discussion, is one now familiar everywhere—a back-to-the-land movement. The phrase is not quite appropriate to Newfoundland, where not very many people have been on the land at any time except as a small adjunct to the fisheries. Newfoundland is only to a limited extent an agricultural country; and even the Government, which evidently contemplates quite large schemes of land settlement, does not hope for the present to do more than establish “subsistence” groups, where careful planning and controlled co-operation may offset natural disadvantages of soil and climate. So far as the country’s needs at large are concerned, it is probable that it will for some time yet continue to import even the humble potato
from Prince Edward Island, and will be wise to do so.
What of the Future?
1 I TIE CHIEF responsibility in the large task of deciding and directing the policy of the Commission lies, as things are today, on the shoulders of the Commissioner for Natural Resources, Sir John Hope Simpson. Fortunately, they are broad and capable shoulders. Of a wide and sympathetic understanding, a tireless industry and an open mind that is ready to receive new ideas and to discard those that are proved wrong, Sir John has won a personal confidence even from those who still doubt the benefits of the system of which he is a part. As to that question, only time and results can give the answer and justify or refute what must be regarded, and unquestionably will be so regarded by history, as a great and bold experiment in government.
The question is often asked today, both in Newfoundland and in sympathetic circles outside, whether her people, if and when the occasion arises, will ask to have their constitution restored to them. Prophecy is usually futile, but if by that question is meant the old constitution—complete and unfettered autonomy—I think it probable that they will not. If, before financial rehabilitation is complete, some via media between the old and the present forms of government is not devised and adopted, they may ask for that. Some return, that is, to representation in modified form, possibly the power to manage their own purely domestic affairs, but always subject to the benevolent supervision of Britain in matters financial. They will probably ask that their affairs be still “audited” as at present. The very condition precedent of Newfoundland’s restoration, and the experience of the prosperity that must bring it about, will be a sufficient deterrent to all sensible Newfoundlanders from a return to the old order —to the privilege of being allowed to raise money where they can manage to get it and to spend it as they please.