DOUG LETTO BOOK A WARNING ABOUT WEAK LEADERSHIP

“Newfoundland’s
Last Prime Minister:
Frederick
Alderice and the Death of a Nation” authored by former journalist, Doug Letto, chronicles
the final stages of economic crises, which ultimately led to the loss of
responsible government in Newfoundland.

The book
places more than just Alderdice under a spotlight; it illuminates the attitudes
that prevailed among the political and business elites of the day, whose views mirrored
Alderdice’s own. 

An
impoverished society is cut off by its bankers, and unable to pay the
semi-annual interest due on the public debt. Alderdice proposes a partial
default, an idea rebuked by Britain which offers the timid and deferential
Prime Minister a Hobson’s choice: limited financial help but only if the Government
agrees to vote itself out of existence.


A man in awe
of the trappings of power, but lacking the ability to wield it, Alderdice is
worn down within less than two years of his Party’s rout of Sir Richard
Squires’ highly unpopular Administration. Overwhelmed by his circumstance, or
just out of his league, Alderdice is incapable of attempting a better bargain
with Britain just as he is untroubled that the loss of a Nation’s sovereignty
is at stake. Of the Amulree Report, he tells the Legislature: “I am afraid
there is nothing for us but take it or leave it…the terms that have been
offered are so very generous that it seems to me it would be ungracious to ask
if they could be improved upon”.


Alderdice
could not even exhibit the defiance of one as far removed from the crisis as Acting
British Opposition Labour Leader Clement Atlee, who rebuked British Prime
Minister Chamberlain’s boast “no Empire Government…has ever yet defaulted”.
Atlee reminded the PM: “the best countries default nowadays…we ourselves are
not paying the United States of America.”

But Alderdice
had capitulated early; a condition above which he had neither the attitude nor
seemingly, the aptitude, to rise. Speaking to the Legislature in advance of the
vote to accept the Amulree Report, the pedestrian Alderdice offers not a
glimpse, but an entire window on a view of democracy all too commonly shared by
his political and business friends: “What good does this vote do for us? Has it
not degenerated the great bulk of our people?” Alderdice adds: (responsible
government) is only a theoretical boom not what it is cracked up to be”.

Letto is
careful not to draw too many conclusions. In this respect, his work exhibits
the journalistic quality of a writer disciplined to objectivity.  Instead, he forces the reader to wonder the
origins of such moral decay: how could a Newfoundland society that had punched
above its weight in the Great War, sending more money and soldiers than it could reasonably afford, now so flagrantly exhibit the very
anti-democratic ideas against which it fought? 

Were those
attitudes the result entirely of financial desperation and despair, or merely of
uninspired and corrupt politics where the beneficiaries had nothing left to
grab?

How was it
possible that, at the very least, Alderdice might have secured the timing and
conditions of responsible government’s reinstatement? 



But Letto is a political
scientist assuming the role of historian. All disciplines have their limitations.  Likely, he is well aware this is a
question as much in need of sociologists and social psychologists, as any other. But, as is so  often the case, it is simple economics that lays bare the largest and the smallest societies, too.

There is no doubt
Newfoundland is in a serious financial fix; one that was in development long
before the exigencies of a world-wide depression were obvious. Alderdice is often
portrayed a micro-manager scrambling for a new iron ore market for the Wabana
Mine and another for our perennially low quality salt fish.

Unfortunately,
Letto gives scant attention to how budgetary deficits had become an annually
recurring theme. His focus is the period of Alderdice’s stewardship, though some
greater attribution to Newfoundland’s disproportionate financial contribution
to WW I and the deficit plagued Newfoundland Railway might have lent greater
context to the evolution of the Country’s economic predicament.

But Letto
does offer a profound indictment of the leadership of Prime Minister Walter Monroe
and his role in the economic debacle: “the Monroe Government “borrowed $20
million from 1924 to 1928 and increased Newfoundland’s debt to $85 million.
Even as he went to the markets and borrowed more money, Monroe enriched the
upper classes by abolishing income taxes…and the profits tax on business…an
amount that surpassed the new tariffs the government…placed on goods such as
beef, flour, pork, and gasoline.”

This was the
same Walter Monroe, now a Member of the Legislative Council (the Senate) who,
in the debate on Amulree, advised: “Responsible Government was the ideal form
of government” but not for Newfoundland since “for us it has been a very
expensive luxury”.

Little
wonder Letto might conclude: “The sting of Amulree’s Report was that
self-government had been so manipulated by Newfoundland politicians for their
own benefit that there was no value in preserving it. That conclusion was
agreeable to the elites in St. John’s, including the government, businessmen,
the newspapers, and the Church of England.”

The Telegram
Editor asked: “Will we place first political institutions…or will we place
Newfoundland’s interests first?” as if these two matters were distinguishable.

The Daily
News also spoke to “the generousity of the offer” from Great Britain.

As might be
expected, all Members of the St. John’s Board of Trade, but one, supported
Amulree’s recommendations. E.J. Godden “thought the people ought to be
consulted before giving up (their) liberty”.

How did the political
and financial elites become possessed of the idea that democratic government
was a mistake from its infancy, 78 years earlier?  

It may be
unfair for this Blogger, a pablum-fed post-confederate, to be judgemental about the leadership
and events of an earlier time, as thousands fought malnutrition and entire
families were forced to live on the dole, at six cents a day. Still, Letto
leaves little margin for any conclusion, other than that Newfoundlanders have
no one to blame except a group who saw the abandonment of democracy as a solution
aligned with their own self-interest.

Letto’s
story contains the research of an academic tome except that his unmistakeable
journalistic flair makes it a highly readable and important historical work.

We now have
a better understanding of a time when Newfoundland was denied the intellectual,
moral and political leadership that is every society’s wont. In some respects,
it is less the story of a society under economic strain than of one so politically
and intellectually immature it is capable only of the realization it must be
fed.

Would the business,
union, and other elites be any less eager, today, to trade what we have left of
our sovereignty to save their own skins as oil revenues suffer in a new era of declining resource wealth, successive and unbridled budget deficits and cost overruns on a latter day Newfoundland Railway, in the guise of Muskrat Falls? 

Doug Letto’s
“Last Prime Minister” should stir much needed reflection on that question and the
risks of electing diminutive men and women to high office.

“The Last
Prime Minister: Frederick Alderice and the Death of a Nation” is published by
Boulder Publications. www.boulderpublications.ca
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The comparison between the 20's and the period from 2006 to 2013 are erily similar. Massive increases in public spending, lowering of income taxes, and the increased dependence upon a single source of revenue. We are not where we were in 1932, but we should be ashamed of how the government of the last 15 years have spent silly. It was an opportunity to provide a lasting legacy of debt reduction, and long term sustainiblity. It was an opportunity squandered.

    This is a good review.

  2. "the risks of electing diminutive men and women to high office"
    This is not a real risk we need to worry about. Des would be distracting us like poor dimi-Davis has to, if he was progressive cucumber party leader. Ed Hollett would be slightly better at liberal Ballgames and someone quicker than him would wear the bow-ties and blog out his shortcomings. Why not put Tom Baird in the NDP leadership position and see how easy it is to play King Ludd then! Or, put Chris Bruce in the position and Poof!, he is no longer the taxable-earnings Robin Hood of Town. The augmentative 'super'-risk to fragile democracy is in fostering inadequate community response and accepting weak 'celebrity' journalism. Dr. 'Who Letto democracy die', should get in his TARDIS and and visit us in 2015. Don Dunphy's body is being used as a soapbox by Lynn Moore (crying for cop jobs) and Simon Bono (sulking for a suited boards), and others, to push for 'more work' and 'more oversight'. Letters-analysis indicates an idiopathic streak of political patronage, but not necessarily a sociopath's badness/coldness towards us, or the dead Dunphy? One solution not offered by the politically-motivated: We should add civilians to the force to cope with much of the work that does not require an expensive, trained armed officer, and provide a trust-fostering buddy system below budget. A big strong assertive person is not always the answer. Not even in the oil patch – see the life and times of Neil Young, lately. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a lark for millions of non-diminutive people in North America. In Newfoundland, where a democratic government was replaced by a British-controlled commission, the thousands of people living on free Costco samples still had their sense of sustaining hyperbole, living on a rock with no soil. As the situation worsened, a voice arose amongst the poor. Pierce Power, a shy leader of unemployed workers in St. John’s, led a poetry slam against Newfoundland’s business and political Elmo's, Bert's and Ernie's. He was so diminutive however, despite his strong lyrical expression, that his myth merged with that of the little people. http://en.copian.ca/library/learning/social/book4/cover.htm