Four premiers in 12 months


New­found­land’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory has long been filled with tur­bu­lence and trou­ble. But 1923-24 was uniquely tem­pes­tu­ous, even by New­found­land’s stan­dards.

Four men, lead­ing dif­fer­ent par­ties, held the of­fice of prime min­is­ter dur­ing the 12 months be­tween July 1, 1923 and June 30, 1924.

Richard Squires, lead­ing a coali­tion be­tween the Lib­er­als and Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union, won a smash­ing vic­tory in the May 1923 gen­eral elec­tion, tak­ing 23 of the 36 seats in the House of Assem­bly.

But his tri­umph soon turned to ashes when it be­came known that he had been “ bor­row­ing” funds from the Board of Liquor Con­trol, re­plac­ing them with his per­sonal IOUs.

A cabi­net revolt and threat­ened min­is­te­rial res­ig­na­tions led to his re­lin­quish­ing of­fice at the end of July. Wil­liam War­ren, min­is­ter of jus­tice in his cabi­net, be­came prime min­is­ter, an of­fice he was to hold for nine months.

War­ren moved quickly to set up a pub­lic in­quiry into the charges against his dis­graced pre­de­ces­sor. Thomas Hol­lis Walker, a Bri­tish bar­ris­ter, be­gan hear­ings in St. John’s early in Jan­uary 1924, and pre­sented his re­port to the gov­er­nor in mid-March.

The re­port, a dev­as­tat­ing in­dict­ment of Squires, was made pub­lic a few days later, on March 21.

War­ren and his col­leagues de­cided that crim­i­nal charges should be laid against sev­eral of those sin­gled out by Hol­lis Walker for con­dem­na­tion — Squires him­self, his col­league and ally Alexan­der Camp­bell, and two civil ser­vants. All were ar­rested on April 22, and charged with lar­ceny (theft). Squires was re­leased on bail im­me­di­ately.

The 1924 session of the House of Assem­bly opened two days later. As soon as the gov­er­nor had read the Speech from the Throne and left the cham­ber, the Lib­eral mem­bers moved a mo­tion of non-con­fi­dence in the War­ren ad­min­is­tra­tion, which they had un­til then sup­ported.

The Op­po­si­tion mem­bers — who called them­selves Lib­eral Labour Pro­gres­sives, al­though they were re­ally Con­ser­va­tives — voted in sup­port of the mo­tion. So did Squires, still an MHA, along with the mover and sec­on­der of the non­con­fi­dence mo­tion and two other Lib­er­als.

War­ren and his cabi­net lost. They were sup­ported by only 15 mem­bers, while 16 voted no con­fi­dence.

War­ren de­cided not to re­sign, but in­stead asked the gov­er­nor to dis­solve the House and or­der a new gen­eral elec­tion.

He hastily cob­bled to­gether a new cabi­net, made up of his for­mer Lib­eral col­leagues to­gether with John R. Bennett, W. J. Hig­gins and Wal­ter Mon­roe, all of them prom­i­nent Con­ser­va­tives.

The so-called “ four-day min­istry,” it was soon ob­vi­ous, would not be able to com­mand the sup­port of the House. War­ren re­signed fi­nally on May 8. His part­ing words to the gov­er­nor, Sir Wil­liam Al­lardyce, as he did so were to sug­gest that Wil­liam Coaker be asked to take on the job of prime min­is­ter.

Coaker de­clined, and in turn rec­om­mended that the gov­er­nor ask Al­bert Hick­man, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man, to form the gov­ern­ment.

Al­lardyce did so, Hick­man, who had served in the Na­tional Gov­ern­ment un­der Morris and Lloyd, and in Sir Michael Cashin’s cabi­net in 1919, agreed to do so.

He and his col­leagues were sworn in on May 10. Re­al­iz­ing that he had no elec­toral man­date of any sort, he promptly ad­vised the gov­er­nor to call an elec­tion and pre­pared to lead his party, now called the Lib­eral-Pro­gres­sives, into the fray. Polling day was set for June 2.

The Con­ser­va­tive Op­po­si­tion had been in dis­ar­ray for some time. Cashin, briefly prime min­is­ter in 1919, had con­tin­ued as leader of the Op­po­si­tion un­til shortly be­fore the 1923 elec­tion, when ill health forced him to stand aside.

John R. Bennett, a Tory stal­wart with many years ser­vice in the House, suc­ceeded him, but failed to win the elec­tion.

A pub­lic meet­ing held a day or two later af­ter Hick­man be­came prime min­is­ter chose Wal­ter Mon­roe, an­other prom­i­nent New­found­land busi­ness­man, to op­pose Hick­man.

To add to the con­fu­sion, Mon­roe re­named his party as the Lib­er­alCon­ser­va­tives. It wasn’t un­til 1975 that New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans again had to choose be­tween two Lib­eral par­ties — the Lib­er­als and the Lib­eral Re­form group led by Joey Small­wood.

Hick­man’s ten­ure ( May 10 to June 9) was the short­est of any prime min­is­ter in New­found­land’s his­tory.

Mon­roe won a strong man­date on June 2, with 25 seats to Hick­man’s 10, and be­came prime min­is­ter on the June 9.

The 36th seat was won by Wil­liam War­ren, run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent.

Coaker did not con­test the elec­tion, the first one since 1913 in which he had not been a can­di­date. But he did stand in the by­elec­tion held in Bon­av­ista Bay at the end of Oc­to­ber, when Mon­roe and one of his cabi­net col­leagues sought re­elec­tion af­ter hav­ing ac­cepted “of­fices of profit” un­der the Crown.

Coaker lost, the first and only time in his life that he did so.

Four prime min­is­ters and five cab­i­nets — Squires’s sec­ond min­istry; War­ren’s two, Hick­man’s, and then Mon­roe’s, all within 12 months.

Once again, New­found­land made par­lia­men­tary his­tory.

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