Newfoundland’s unelected prime ministers
Twenty-eight men and one woman — Kathy Dunderdale — have served as prime minister or premier of Newfoundland, or today of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Many people believe that an election victory is the only way to gain the highest office in our province. But no less than 17 — nearly two out of three — of those 29 were sworn into office before they led their parties into a general election.
One third — nine — of them did not win an election, and so lost the job quickly. The tenth, Kathy Dunderdale, is still an open question.
Our first seven prime ministers — Philip Little, John Kent, Hugh Hoyles, Frederick Carter, Charles Fox Bennett, William Whiteway, and Robert Thorburn — all won the right to govern in general elections, some of them more than once.
Augustus F. Goodridge, in 1894, was the first to get there by other means.
William Whiteway and the Liberals were victorious in the 1894 general election, but 15 of their 23 Members (including Whiteway) were unseated by the Supreme Court in response to petitions filed by Conservatives.
Goodridge, the leader of the Conservatives in the House, became prime minister when Whiteway resigned. But he lost the job within months, when the Liberals won all but one of the byelections to fill the vacated seats.
He was replaced by Daniel Greene, the acting Liberal leader in the House, our second unelected prime minister. He held the office for a little more than two months, until Whiteway returned to the House.
The next three prime ministers — James Winter ( 1897) Robert Bond ( 1900) and Edward Morris (1909) — all led their parties to victory, although both Bond and Morris served as prime minister for several months before the elections in which they did so.
William Lloyd and Michael Cashin, successors to Morris, failed to do so. Lloyd became prime minister on Jan. 1, 1918, when Morris was appointed to the British House of Lords (the only native Newfoundlander ever to be so honoured). He led the war-time National Government for 17 months, before losing the prime ministership in one of the most memorable moments of our political history.
Cashin, finance minister since 1909, triumphantly presented his 1919-20 budget early in May. When next the House met, he stood in his place and moved a motion of “no confidence” in the government of which he was a part.
After a few moments of stunned silence, Lloyd rose to second the motion. It carried unanimously. Newfoundland had won a unique place in parliamentary history.
Cashin became prime minister two days later. He and his “Liberal-Progressive” party were devastated in the election that fall, winning only 12 seats to the 24 earned by the Liberal Reform-FPU coalition.
Squires became prime minister a fortnight after the 1919 election, and his coalition won re-election handily in 1923.
Soon after the election, however, he found himself mired in the Liquor Store scandal, perhaps the most putrid in Newfoundland’s long political history.
He was forced to resign as prime minister, to be succeeded by William Warren, a fellow Liberal.
Warren, the fifth unelected prime minister, held office for 10 months, until he was ousted by a “no confidence” motion, with a margin of one vote. He was succeeded by Albert Hickman, our sixth unelected prime minister.
He promptly called an election, which he lost. He held office for 30 days, the shortest term of any of the 31 Newfoundlanders who have led us. Hickman was followed by Walter Monroe (1924-28), Squires again (1928-32) and Fred Alderdice (1932-34), all of them victors in general elections.
Sixty-five years passed before we had another unelected first minister. Joseph Smallwood was premier for two months before he won the 1949 general election; Frank Moores won two election victories; and Brian Peckford won a general election soon after he was chosen as Leader of the Conservatives in 1979.
Thomas Rideout became premier in March 1989, when he succeeded Peckford as PC Leader. Clyde Wells and the Liberals won the subsequent general election, making Rideout’s tenure the second shortest, bettering only that of Hickman.
Brian Tobin, succeeding Wells, won a general election and Beaton Tulk inherited the premiership from him in October 2000, to be succeeded in February 2001 by Roger Grimes, the newly-elected Liberal Leader.
Grimes, another unelected premier, remained in office until the Liberals lost the 2003 general election to Danny Williams and his Conservatives. Williams, after two overwhelming victories, retired from politics in December 2010.
Kathy Dunderdale became the first woman to serve as our premier. We shall soon know whether she will take her place as one of the 10 who never won an election, or one of the 19 who have.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province’s lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.