CHAPTER V.--THE PRESENT STATE OF THE ISLAND. (continued)

The Political Machine.

  227. We have given in a previous chapter a brief summary of the Constitution of the Island, and have indicated in our immediately preceding remarks the extent to which party politics, as practised in Newfoundland, have contributed to the demoralisation of the people. There are certain other aspects of the political life in the Island which we desire to emphasise.

  228. It should be appreciated, in the first place, that there is now no real distinction of principle between the political parties of Newfoundland. The names of Liberal, Conservative or Tory and Labour are in use but the division is rather one of persons. Secondly, the population of the Island is so small, and its financial resources are so restricted, that the choice of political candidates is severely limited. There is no leisured class, and the great majority of the people are quite unfitted to play a part in public life. As a rule, the Parliamentary Session only lasts about two months, and it might have been thought that the necessity for attendance during this short period would not have been an insuperable handicap to the members of the commercial community. In fact, however, very few of the business men are prepared to enter politics, even though members of the Government are permitted to carry on their businesses while in office. This is not due to the lack of public spirit, but to the personal abuse to which candidates are subjected and to the feeling that, if elected, they would be suspected of being associated with corrupt dealings. A certain number of the legal profession have been ready to embark on a political career, but the professional classes generally have not responded. "Politics" have come to be regarded as an unclean thing which no self-respecting man should touch; the very word "politician" is virtually a term of abuse which carries with it a suggestion of crookedness and sharp practice. Many of the working people have a contempt for the politician. The so-called "modernisation" of politics, and the introduction into political life of men who sought to make a living out of their political activities, have been responsible for this deplorable state of affairs. At the last election, in 1932, the national danger was such that men offered themselves as candidates to whom the prospect was otherwise abhorrent. In normal circumstances, we are given to understand, it would not be possible for either party to count on the services of a greater number of candidates than would be required to fight each seat; and even this could only be achieved by lavish promises of election funds and subsequent rewards.

  229. The spoils system has for years been in full force in Newfoundland. Given the conception that it is quite fair, whilst one's party is in power, to make what one can for oneself and one's friends, it is natural that in the minds of many people politics should be regarded simply as job-farming. It has been the practice for each incoming Government to side-track or sweep away all Government employees who were either appointed by or were suspected of any connection, direct or indirect, with their predecessors, and to replace them with their own nominees, irrespective of the qualifications of the latter for the particular appointments assigned to them. St. John's is a small city of some 40,000 inhabitants. The educated class, from which the administrative grade of the Civil Service is recruited, is very small: the members of it are all known, if not related, to each other: everyone knows everyone else's business and it is a simple matter to ascertain which way any particular Civil Servant voted or, if he did not vote, what are the political leanings of his family and his relations. If he or they voted the wrong way, then, under the rules of the game, he must be deemed to have forfeited his appointment and must make way for a personal friend or supporter of the incoming Minister; although, in some cases, owing to lack of suitable personnel, Civil Servants have been permitted to continue in Government employment notwithstanding their alleged political affiliations.

  230. In the case of the executive staff, post-election changes are commonly of a sweeping character with effects which manifest themselves in every corner of the Island. In such cases, the main consideration is the good will of the Member for the district concerned. Post Office and Railway employees, Customs Officials, Receiving Officers, Fishery and Timber Inspectors and Wardens, members of the Fire Control staff, Lighthouse Keepers, and even Stipendiary Magistrates; all are liable to sudden dismissal, however competent their work, as the result of a change of Government.

  231. The effect of this system on the administration of the country can well be imagined. The Civil Service, with no security of tenure, is left at the mercy of the politician. Constant changes have led to a low standard of efficiency. Departments function as individuals rather than as a team; there is no cohesion, no continuity of policy and no incentive to take responsibility. Bitter experience has indeed shown that it does not pay to deal with any case, however petty, on its merits without submission to the Minister concerned; the Service has been reduced to a state of abject subservience, apathy and indifference. In such circumstances it is obvious that it cannot attract the best candidates. The young men now leaving the secondary schools would make admirable material for recruitment to the Service, but few of them have any ambition other than to make their way in the United States or Canada; to enter the service of their country under conditions which, by placing good work at a discount, could only deprive them of their self-respect, cannot and does not appeal to them.

  232. It is hardly surprising that, in these circumstances, the whole machinery of Government functions on political lines. Impartial administration is unknown and hardly expected. Breaches of the law or of current regulations are apt to be condoned if they are committed by the adherents of the party in power; the latter also expect special concessions, contracts and commissions, the waiving of customs duties and other inconvenient restrictions and numbers of petty favours, small in themselves but formidable in the aggregate. The adherents of the other party are deemed to have no ground for protest since their turn will come on a change of Government. These practices in themselves cannot but lead to an unhealthy tone in public life. Their effect is intensified by the interplay of religious denominational divisions and the ramifications of family relationships.

  233. It has been shown in Chapter III that up to 1861 sectarian rivalry was a marked feature of the political life of the Island; that it was the practice for each general election to be fought in an atmosphere of denominational jealousy and bitterness; and that the riots of 1861 finally led to an agreement that "all religious parties should be fairly represented in the arrangement of an administration and in the distribution of offices." This understanding has been faithfully observed since that date. The constituencies of the Island, now numbering 27, are divided equally into those which return candidates from the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Canada, respectively. Similarly, the Executive Council of "Cabinet," with a membership of 12, is composed of four members representing the Church of England, four representing the Catholic Church and four representing the United Church. This arrangement, while doubtless achieving the salutary object of avoiding overt rivalry between the Churches, must necessarily be a handicap to good administration. Moreover, the underlying principle of equality between the Churches has been extended and amplified in some directions and modified in others, to the detriment, it must be said, of the best interests of the country. Thus, if a member of one denomination obtains a contract from the Government, then members of the other main denominations must be selected for some compensating favour. All appointments not merely to the Civil Service but to Boards and Committees must be equally allotted. On the other hand, the Minister in charge of a Department is commonly expected to show special consideration to the members of his own denomination, and here the principle of equality of treatment takes a different form.




Partnered Projects Government and Politics - Table of Contents Site Map Search Heritage Web Site Home