At the time this article was published
Neil Penney was administrative assistant to the Speaker of the Newfoundland
House of Assembly. He was also co-ordinator of the twenty-first Canadian
Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which was
held in Newfoundland in August 1981.
Each Canadian province has a unique
political history but none is more colourful than that of Newfoundland. The
House of Assembly has probably been the scene of more political and
constitutional crises than all other provincial legislatures combined! In this
article the author discusses some notable events in Newfoundland's
parliamentary history and outlines the structure and organization of the
present day House of Assembly.
Findings at the World Historic Site at
L'Anse au Meadows have set the date of Newfoundland's discovery at 1001 AD with
the arrival of the Norsemen. It was rediscovered in 1497 by John Cabot who
returned to England with stories of fish-a-plenty. During the years that
followed, the coastline was explored by Portuguese, French and Spanish mariners
but it was a British subject, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who entered St. John's
Harbour in 1583 to claim Newfoundland as Britain's first possession in North
At first the island served only as a fishing
colony and training ground for the Royal Navy. The first settlement in 1610 was
at the present day village of Cupids in Conception Bay. It was organized by
John Guy, acting for Sir Francis Bacon's Newfoundland Colonization Company. The
settlers faced a harsh climate and frequent attacks by marauding pirates. A
conflict with the Indians led to the eventual extinction of the Beothuck tribe.
This remains a black mark in Newfoundland history.
In 1662 the French added to the colonists'
problems by, first taking possession of Placentia and subsequently destroying
St. John's. Attacks by the French and their Micmac allies continued until the
Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave the English sovereignty of Newfoundland, with
the exception of fishing rights for the French on certain coasts in
Newfoundland. The French continued attempts to take over Newfoundland until
their final attack in 1796 at Bay Bulls.
For many years the colonists had neither
representative institutions nor civil courts. They were ruled by Naval
governors appointed by the United Kingdom. Civil courts were established in
1791. During the 1820's a movement for representative government developed, led
by William Carson and Patrick Morris. Finally on March 2, 1832 Governor Sir
Thomas Cochrane authorized Newfoundland citizens to elect fifteen members to a
House of Assembly. The election was held over an eight day period beginning on
September 25, 1832. Candidates were required to be property owners in
Newfoundland for at least two years. Voter eligibility was based on one year
residence as well as property ownership in Newfoundland. The 1832 constitution
gave Newfoundland the usual system of colonial government consisting of a
Governor, a Legislative Council appointed by the Crown and an Assembly.
The first session commenced on January 1,
1833 at the hotel of Mrs. Mary Traverse. The Governor made an introductory
speech in which he told members, "hitherto you had no control over
finances, henceforth you will be to a great measure the guardian of your own
happiness, the promoters of your own welfare."1 The new
Assembly's ability to manage finances can be judged by the second session when
returning members discovered that all documents, the sword, mace and even the
Speaker's hat had been seized by the hotel owner as payment for back rent!
After meeting in various locations for sixteen years the formal seat of
government was established at the Colonial Building in St. John's on January
Throughout its history Newfoundland society
has been deeply divided between English protestants and Irish catholics. These
divisions tended to he reflected in the parties which dominated the Assembly.
Election riots of 1840 caused the British government to suspend the
constitution and appoint a commission of enquiry. The commission recommended an
"amalgamated" legislature whereby both Houses would sit together. Six
sessions of the "amalgamated" legislature were held between 1843 and
1848 when the original constitution was reinstated.
Over the years Newfoundland politicians such
as Philip Francis Little and John Kent supported petitions and resolutions to
Great Britain arguing in favour of responsible government for the colony. The
influence of two British members resulted in the issuance of this statement
dated February 21, 1854, from the Secretary of State, the Duke of Newcastle:
Her Majesty's Government have come to the
conclusion that they ought not to withhold from Newfoundland those institutions
and that civil administration, which under the popular name of responsible
government, have been adopted in all Her Majesty's neighbouring possession's in
The first election under responsible
government was won by the Liberals under Philip Francis Little. He was
succeeded by another Liberal, John Kent, both of whom received their support
from Catholic ridings. Election campaigns were frequently marred by outbursts
of sectarian violence and intimidation. The conflict reached a climax in 1861
when the Governor, Sir Alexander Bannerman, in alleged conspiracy with the
Conservatives, dismissed the government in a flagrant violation of
constitutional practice. The Conservatives, led by Sir Hugh William Hoyles, won
the ensuing election amidst charges of fraud and corruption. When the Assembly
opened on May 13, 1861 some defeated Liberal Members took their seats and had to
be forcibly removed by the police. A mob gathered in front of the legislative
building and it too was dispersed by authorities but not before three people
were killed and twenty wounded.
The question of Newfoundland's union with
Canada was discussed throughout the 1860s and finally decided in the 1869
election. The Prime Minister, Frederick Carter, favoured union. He had support
from both the protestant merchants of St. John's and a large number of Irish
catholics. Nevertheless an anti-confederation party under the leadership of
Charles Fox Bennett swept to victory. In 1895 Canada and Newfoundland tried to
reach agreement on the terms of Newfoundland's entry into Confederation, but
the talks ended in failure.
Perhaps the most controversial issue during
the second half of the nineteenth century was French access to offshore
fishing. French claims extended back to the Treaty of Utrecht but the treaty
was unclear as to what constituted "fish" and what areas were
involved. In an effort to clarify the situation the British signed a convention
with France in 1857. It gave the French exclusive rights in a defined area
known as the "French Shore. For one of the few times in its parliamentary
history, the Newfoundland House of Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution condemning
an action of the British Government. The resolution led to the withdrawal of
the entente and more importantly a letter from the British Colonial Secretary,
Henry La Bouchere to the Governor of Newfoundland which stated: "The
consent of the community of Newfoundland is regarded by Her Majesty's
Government as the essential preliminary to any modifications of their
territorial or maritime rights".3
Nevertheless the presence of French
fishermen remained a problem for Newfoundland. The Assembly passed The Bait Act
to prohibit the French from obtaining bait in Newfoundland. The French
successfully appealed the act to Britain but in 1887 arguments by Newfoundland
Prime Minister, Robert Thorburn, at a colonial conference, resulted in its
reinstatement. Finally in 1904 French fishing rights were abrogated altogether
as part of a larger agreement between Britain and France regarding their
From 1893 to 1933 Newfoundland was beset by
long periods of unemployment and continuing sectarian strife. Some of the most
unusual political events ever to take place in a parliamentary democracy also
occurred during this period. For example the standings after the 1893 election
were changed to such an extent as a result of charges under the Corrupt Practices
Act that enough Liberal members were unseated to cause a transfer of power to
the Conservatives. In a second election held that year the Liberals were
returned to office.
Led by Sir Robert Bond, the Liberals also won
the elections in 1900 and 1904 but in 1907 the party split when the Attorney
General, Edward Morris, resigned to found his own party, the Newfoundland
People's Party. The 1908 election resulted in a tie, eighteen seats for each
party. For two months the rival groups waged an intense struggle for power. The
Governor first called upon Bond and then Morris to form an administration but
when the House finally met it could not even elect a Speaker. A new election
was held. Morris and the People's party, won twenty-six seats compared to ten
for the Liberals.
Morris also won the 1913 election and
presided over the so-called "Long Parliament" which ended in total
chaos in 1919. The 1913 election left the People's Party with sixteen seats,
the Liberals with seven and a new party, the Fisherman's Protective Union with
eight. The Union, led by, William Coaker, was a leftwing party whose platform
called for government regulation of the fisheries, administrative and
constitutional reform, and the extension of education and social welfare.
As in Canada, the war resulted in a
political crisis over the issue of conscription and eventually the formation of
a National Government headed first by Morris and after his retirement by the
former Minister of Justice W. F. Lloyd, who joined the National Government from
the opposition benches. Michael Cashin, Minister of Finance, succeeded Morris
as leader of the People's Party. On May 20, 1919 without warning Mr. Cashin
rose and moved a motion of non confidence government! Prime Minister Lloyd
started to reply and when the Speaker pointed out that the motion had not been
seconded, the Minister promptly seconded it. Coaker described the move as an
attempt to destroy the Union but after long debate it passed. Cashin thus
became Prime Minister and Lloyd had to return to his seat on the opposition
The subsequent election was won by Richard
Squires and his Liberal Reform party which promised "clean
government" and industrial development. The post war period was a time of
falling revenue and increased expenditures. Unemployment continued high and the
political atmosphere became very tense. On at least two occasions the Speaker
had to suspend sittings of the House because of fist fights in the public
gallery. Squires was returned in the May 1923 election despite rumours of
financial mismanagement. Two cabinet ministers, including Dr. Alex Campbell
Minister of Agriculture and Mines, were defeated. The public accounts for Camp
bell's department revealed the extent of the corruption under Squires'
government. Four ministers, led by William Warren, led a cabinet revolt which
forced Squires to resign. Warren became Prime Minister. He asked the British
Government to appoint a commission of enquiry into the public finances of the
The Hollis Walker Report was published in
March 1924. It was highly critical of Campbell, Squires and a number of public
officials. The report appeared to substantiate Warren's action but in a strange
series of events, his government fell on the day the Assembly opened.
Warren had learned that certain members of
his own party wanted to force an election before prosecutions were laid against
Squires, and Campbell. To forestall their strategy the Prime Minister
authorized the immediate arrest of the two former ministers. Squires was
released on 540,000 ball and was able to attend the opening of the House on
April 24, 1924. Warren's strategy failed completely for when a non confidence
motion was moved it was approved by a vote of 16 to 15 with the marginal vote
being cast by Richard Squires himself! An immediate dissolution was granted
with election day set for June 2.
Warren tried to consolidate his position by
approaching opposition members to join the cabinet. Again he failed, leaving
the political party system in an unprecedented state of confusion as various
factions manoevered for position. The Governor finally called upon Albert
Hickman, who had not even been a member of Warren's cabinet, to form the
administration until the election.
The results gave the opposition, now known
as the Liberal-Conservative Progressive Party, and led by Waiter Monroe,
twenty-five seats. Hickman's Liberal-Progressive Party won ten. The former
Prime Minister, William Warren, was returned as an Independent. Monroe's support
came mainly from conservative and business circles. Soon he enacted changes to
tariff and income tax laws which benefited these groups but Monroe's loose
coalition soon broke up. In 1928 he handed the government over to his nephew
and business associate, Frederick Alderice. Alderice lost the 1928 election to
Richard Squires who had returned to public life despite a conviction for income
tax evasion. His second administration was beset by financial problems caused
by the great depression. Alderice returned to office after the 1932 election.
His platform contained a promise to establish a committee to look into the
political future of Newfoundland.
In 1933 the Amulree Commission was
established. It consisted of a British Peer, Baron Amulree, and two Canadian
bankers. After several months of investigation the Commission called for the
suspension of representative government and its replacement by an appointed
commission. According to the report, Newfoundland required a rest from
politics. When the House of Assembly reconvened the Amulree recommendations
were accepted with only two dissenting votes. On February 16, 1934, Prime
Minister Alderice signed a paper surrendering Dominion status and bringing to
an end more than a century of parliamentary government.
The Road to Confederation
The Commission of Government, later termed
by one member, Thomas Lodge, as "Dictatorship in Newfoundland",
consisted of six members, three from Britain and three from Newfoundland. It
was chaired by the Governor of Newfoundland. All members were appointed by
Britain and were responsible to the Dominions office in London. Six departments
were created Public Utilities, Finance, Home Affairs and Education, Justice,
Public Health and Welfare, and Natural Resources.
The United Kingdom assumed financial
responsibility for a debt whose interest payments amounted to fifty-six per
cent of total annual revenue. Slowly the Newfoundland economy began to recover
although this was due more to three American military bases and to other war
related developments than to the policies of the Commission.
In December 1945, with Newfoundland's
financial condition much improved and the war over, the British government
announced that a National Convention would be elected by the people of
Newfoundland to make recommendations as to possible future forms of government
which could be put before the people at a national referendum. The Convention
was elected in June 1946. For sixteen months the political options available to
Newfoundland were debated by the forty-five members of the Convention. The
debate was carried by radio throughout the province, One option under
consideration was Confederation with Canada. The leader of this movement was
Joey Smallwood. While he managed to gather some support for his idea he could
not persuade a majority of Convention delegates to support this option. In
November 1947 the convention defeated by a vote of twenty-nine to sixteen, his
motion to include confederation with Canada on the ballot, in any future
referendum. At this point the British Government intervened on the side of Mr.
Smallwood. The Governor of Newfoundland was instructed to include confederation
on the ballot so that citizens would have the fullest possible opportunity to
consider the question.
The referendum was held on June 3, 1948 with
the following result:
For responsible government 69,400, 44%
For confederation 64,066, 41%
For commission government 22,311, 14%
Since a clear majority was required before
the British government would take a decision a second referendum was held seven
weeks later. Feelings ran high as confederate and anti-confederate forces
debated the question. In the second referendum seventy-eight thousand (52.3%)
voted for confederation with Canada while seventy-one thousand (47.4%) voted against.
The die was cast. Eight days after the second referendum the Canadian Prime
Minister announced that his government would meet with authorized
representatives of Newfoundland to discuss the Terms of Union. The agreement
was signed in December 1948, and at midnight March 31, 1949 Newfoundland joined
Canada as its tenth province.
Structure and Operation of the House of
Since the entry of Newfoundland and Labrador
into Confederation, there have been ten provincial elections. Political control
was held from 1949 until January 1972 by the Liberal Party led by Joseph R.
Smallwood. His twenty-three years in office was the longest of any Premier or
Prime Minister since responsible government in 1833.
Since 1949 the political party system has
been dominated almost exclusively by two parties, the Liberals and the
Progressive Conservatives with the exception of the 1959 election when the
United Newfoundland Party elected two members, the 1971 election when a member
of the New Labrador Party was elected; and in 1975 when Mr. Smallwood's Liberal
Reform Slate elected four members. Other parties have fielded candidates in
various elections: the Commonwealth Co-operative Federation (C.C.F.) in the
1950s, and subsequently, the New Democratic Party, but they have not won any,
seats in the House of Assembly.
The House which relocated to the new
chambers in the Confederation Building in 1960, is presently in the third
session of the 38th General Assembly. The Assembly has increased its number of
seats substantially, since 1949 when twenty-eight members were elected. This
rose to thirty-six in 1956 and to forty-two seats by, 1962. On March 29, 1973.
the Electoral Boundaries Delimitation Act was signed which in part states that
"fifty-one member districts be established in 1979." Another district
was added increasing Labrador's representation in the House to four.
As early. as 1928. Lady Helen A. Squires,
was elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly. The first woman elected
after Newfoundland joined Canada was Mrs. Hazel MacIssac in 1975. Four years
later the first female cabinet ministers were appointed. Mrs. Lynn Verge became
Minister of Education and Mrs.Hazel Newhook was sworn in as Minister of
Consumer Affairs and the Environment. The latter was recently appointed
Minister of Municipal Affairs.
The basic indemnity paid to members of the
House of Assembly is $20,520. Travel allowances range from $9,500 to $14,500
depending on distance and accessibility to the House of Assembly in St. John's.
The Speaker, the Leader of the. Opposition and Ministers of the Crown receive
$19,700. The Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Committees and the Opposition House
Leader receive $10,000 for their added duties. The Deputy Chairman of
Committees receives $5,000 while the Party Whip's extra remuneration amounts to
$3,090. The Government House Leader receives no additional remuneration.
Members are allowed twelve round trips from St. John's to a central point in
each district. Unlimited telephone and telegram services are provided.
The present standings in the House of
Assembly, show the Progressive Conservative Party with thirty-four seats and
the Liberals with eighteen. The Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party,
is A. Brian Peckford, Premier and Minister responsible for Communications and
Intergovernmental Affairs. The Opposition Leader is Len Stirling who was chosen
at the Liberal Convention of November 1, 1980. It is interesting to note that
in Newfoundland the opposition sits to the right of the Speaker with the
government on his left, exactly the reverse of the practice in legislatures on
the mainland. This tradition developed in the old Colonial Building in the
1850s because of the location of the fire places.
The Standing Orders of the House of Assembly
provide for standing committees on Government Services, Social Services,
Resources, Public Accounts, Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders, and
Miscellaneous and Private Bills.
Select Committees are established for
specific matters. For example a Select Committee to consider adoption of a flag
for the Province was struck on November 23, 1979. Its report, which included a
design, was tabled on April 29, 1980. A month later the Newfoundland Flag Bill
was given Royal Assent. Another recent example is the Select Committee on Resource
Management created on November 26, 1980.
The three elected officials of the House of
Assembly are the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Committees, and
the Assistant Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of Committees. There have been
six Speakers since 1949. The first was Reginald Sparkes, who held the post for
seven years. John R. Courage, held the deputy speakership during that period,
and was Speaker from 1957 to 1962. George W. Clarke held the post for the
longest period stretching from 1963 to 197 1. He was succeeded by James
Russell, Speaker from 1972 to 1975; Gerald Ottenheimer, now Minister of Justice
and Regional Representative for Canada in the Commonwealth Parliamentary
Association was Speaker from 1975 to 1979. The present Speaker of the House of
Assembly is the Hon. Leonard A. Simms, MlA for Grand Falls, who was elected to
that position on July 12, 1979. The Deputy Speaker is John Butt, MHA, for
Conception Bay South. Mr. Ray Baird, MHA for Humber West is the Assistant
Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of Committees.
In addition to his two elected deputies the
Speaker has jurisdiction over the appointed officials in the offices of Clerk,
Sergeant-at-Arms, and Hansard, as well as in the Government Members' Office,
the Opposition Members' Office and the Legislative Library. Since 1949 the
following persons have held the office of Clerk: Henry H. Cummings 1949-1956,
Robert W. Sheppard 1957-1966, George S. Baker 1966-1968, Hugh F. Coady
1969-1977 and Elizabeth Duff since 1978. Mr. Baker has been the federal Member
of Parliament for Gander-Twillingate since 1974. The Sergeant-at-Arms have been
Sergeant Thomas Christopher 1949-1960, Captain George Hicks 1960-1962 and Major
A.E. Hemmens. Major Hemmens is now the longest serving Sergeant-at-0Arms in
The Sergeant-at-Arms Is responsible for the
Pages and Duty Constables of the House. Other security services are supplied by
the Royal Canadian Legion members in the province and by the security staff of the
Department of the Public Works and Services. The Government and Opposition
Members' Offices each have the services of a research officer while the
Legislative Library provides assistance to members through its extensive
collection of books, periodicals, government documents and clipping files.
The Press Gallery consists of 15 fulltime
and 10 part-time members. They provide daily reports to all forms of media
including television, radio and print. The House of Assembly provides certain
services to the Press Gallery, including copies of all tabled documents, typing
facilities and interview rooms. Cameras and live recordings are only permitted
in the Chamber with the unanimous consent of the members.
1. Public Ledger and Newfoundland General
Advertiser, January 4, 1833.
2. Dispatches: The Colonial Secretary to
the Governor of Newfoundland, February 21, 1854, Provincial Archives, St.
3. La Bouchere to Governor Darling, March
26, 1857 in Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries, p. 396.