CHAPTER V.--THE PRESENT STATE OF THE ISLAND.

Present Condition of the People. (continued)

  218. The credit system might perhaps have disappeared without direct intervention by the Government had an attempt been made in other ways to train the people to independence. The political practices of the last 25 years have, however, had precisely the opposite effect. Politics in Newfoundland have never been such as to inspire wholehearted confidence in the ability of the people to govern themselves wisely, but there is general agreement that a process of deterioration, which has now reached almost unbelievable extremes, may be said to have set in about a quarter of a century ago. We ourselves would have been inclined to place the commencement of this process at a much earlier date, and to sympathise with the view expressed by Prowse, who writing in 1896, said that "politics and steam" had been the ruin of the middle class.* However this may be, there is no doubt that, some years before the War, politics in Newfoundland underwent a process of "modernisation," which was responsible for the introduction into political life of methods foreign to the British tradition. These methods, while primarily designed no doubt to speed up the wheels of administration, unfortunately led to the general adoption of questionable practices which were condoned because they were said to be "smart" and "up-to-date." Any increase in efficiency was thus more than counterbalanced by the unhealthy tendencies to which the new methods gave rise, tendencies which inevitably conduced to the personal enrichment of the politician in office, and of his relations, friends and supporters, and to a general lowering of moral standards in the conduct of public business. The evidence tendered to us from all sides and from responsible persons in all walks of life leaves no doubt that for a number of years there has been a continuing process of greed, graft and corruption which has left few classes of the community untouched by its insidious influences.

  219. As a general statement, it is not too much to say that the present generation of Newfoundlanders have never known enlightened government. The process of deterioration, once started, could not be controlled. The simple-minded electorate were visited every few years by rival politicians, who, in the desire to secure election, were accustomed to make the wildest promises involving increased public expenditure in the constituency and the satisfaction of all the cherished desires of the inhabitants. The latter, as was not unnatural, chose the candidate who promised them the most. This might be said of other countries, but in Newfoundland this cajoling of the electorate was carried to such lengths that, until the recent crisis brought them to their senses, the electors in many cases preferred to vote for a candidate who was known to possess an aptitude for promoting his own interests at the public expense rather than for a man who disdained to adopt such a course. They argued that, if a man had proved himself capable of using his political opportunities to his personal advantage, he would be the better equipped to promote the advantage of his constituents: an honest man would only preach to them.

  220. The country was thus exposed to the evils of paternalism in its most extreme form. The people, instead of being trained to independence and self-reliance, became increasingly dependent on those who were placed in authority; instead of being trained to think in terms of the national interest, they were encouraged to think only of the interests of their own district. Even within a district, or a church denomination, there was no public spirit; in the struggle to secure a decent living, the average man sought only his personal advantage. The Government was looked upon as the universal provider, and it was thought to be the duty of the Member for the constituency to see that there was an ever-increasing flow of public money. Since, outside St. John's, there was no municipal Government in the Island, and no direct taxation (apart from income-tax, which was only payable by the few) the people did not pause to consider how the money was to be provided or what would be the end of this orgy of extravagance. They were content that their immediate wants should be satisfied. The politician was caught in his own meshes. As there was no local Government, he was expected to fulfil the functions of Mayor and of every department of public authority. In addition, he was the guardian of local interests, the counsellor and friend of every voter in the constituency and their mouthpiece in the Legislature of the country. Finally, under the peculiar system of administration adopted in Newfoundland, he was not only the liaison between the people and the Government but the channel through which the money voted by the Legislature for public purposes within his constituency was allocated and spent. The demands made upon him by the people increased from year to year. If a man lost his cow, he expected the Member to see that the Government provided him with another; if he had some domestic trouble, it was for the Member to put things right; if he fell ill, he looked to the Member to arrange for his removal to the hospital at St. John's at the public expense, to visit him in hospital where he obtained free treatment, and generally to see to his comfort at no cost to himself. If the wharf in a settlement fell into disrepair, the Member was expected to see that funds were provided by the Government to compensate the inhabitants for repairing it: notwithstanding that the material was to hand, that the lack of suitable wharfage was a serious inconvenience to the community, and that the necessary repairs could be effected in a few hours by willing workers, men would stand idly by and would prefer that the wharf should collapse into the sea rather than that they should repair it for their own benefit without public remuneration. The people were in fact taught to look to the Government for everything and to do as little as possible to provide for their own requirements. If the fishing was good, agriculture was neglected. If the fishing was bad, more attention was paid to the land but the Government were expected to provide the seeds for the people to plant. Roads, bridges, town halls and public buildings; all these, often superfluous luxuries, the Government, through the Member, was expected to provide and maintain. The Member on his part, knew that unless he gave satisfaction to the people, he stood little chance of re-election: consequently, he was tempted to concentrate his energy on obtaining the maximum amount of money from the Government for allocation in his constituency. When it is said that, under the system adopted, there was no adequate audit of the money so allotted, it will be appreciated what opportunities there were for waste and extravagance. With no training in citizenship, and unversed in the elementary canons of public finance, the people were unable to realise that excessive expenditure would inevitably recoil on their own heads; the Government evidently possessed or could raise the money and, if that was so, it was held to be their right to have the maximum share of it.

  221. This political system, combined with the effects of the credit system in the fishing industry, weakened the fibre of the people and left them wholly unprepared for the intensive economic depression which was soon to cast its shadow over the Island. In 1929, the price of fish was such as to yield the fisherman a fair margin of profit. In 1930, prices began to fall; in 1931, they were lower still and by 1932 they had reached the lowest level recorded in the present century. Even in 1930, the average fisherman was unable to do more than balance his account with the merchant. By the end of the season of 1932, he was hopelessly in debt to the merchant, and had been reduced to abject poverty. During the winter of 1932, no less than 70,000 persons or 25 per cent. of the population were in receipt of public relief, other than poor relief or relief for the aged poor. Such relief was distributed in kind, i.e., in rations of pork, flour, tea, and molasses of the maximum value of $1.80 per head per month. Even at this modest rate, the amount expended in relief during the year 1932-33 was $1,100,000 or one-seventh of the revenue of the country.


  * D.W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland, 2nd edn., London, 1896, p. 453. cf. also pp. 530, 534-5, 550.




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