Coaker ver­sus Morine: The Inkwell In­ci­dent

The Compass - - OPINION -

New­found­land’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory has been marked by strong, even vi­o­lent lan­guage, and sear­ing per­sonal at­tacks, both dur­ing de­bates in the House of Assembly and dur­ing po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. But phys­i­cal as­saults — ac­tual vi­o­lence — have been few and far be­tween.

Joseph Small­wood and Peter Cashin ex­changed blows dur­ing a meet­ing of one of the Na­tional Con­ven­tion Com­mit­tees, and there have been sev­eral in­stances since Con­fed­er­a­tion when one mem­ber has struck an­other. But per­haps the strangest in­ci­dent was the row be­tween Wil­liam Coaker and Al­fred Morine one night in 1919.

Po­lit­i­cal pas­sions had risen high that spring. The First World War had ended six months ear­lier, in Novem­ber 1918, and all con­cerned knew a gen­eral elec­tion was not very far away. The wartime coali­tion formed by Ed­ward Mor­ris in July 1917 had sur­vived his de­par­ture, when he ac­cepted a Bri­tish peer­age on New Year’s Day 1918. He was suc­ceeded by Wil­liam Lloyd, who led an un­easy com­bi­na­tion of men elected in 1913 un­der the ban­ners of the Peo­ple’s Party, the Lib­er­als, and the Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union.

Lloyd’s coali­tion col­lapsed early in May 1919, a few days af­ter Michael Cashin (Peter’s fa­ther) pre­sented the 1919-1920 bud­get. The next time the House met, Cashin stood in his place among the cab­i­net min­is­ters and moved “no con­fi­dence” in the govern­ment. Af­ter a long pause, dur­ing which the Speaker looked around the House and mem­bers looked at each other, Wil­liam Lloyd, the prime min­is­ter, rose to sec­ond the mo­tion. Not sur­pris­ingly, it car­ried unan­i­mously.

Great­est scoundrel

Cashin be­came prime min­is­ter a few days later. He promptly ap­pointed Al­fred B. Morine as the jus­tice min­is­ter. Morine, a prom­i­nent fig­ure in New­found­land pol­i­tics and pub­lic life for nearly 40 years at that point, may well have been the great­est scoundrel ever to hold of­fice in New­found­land’s of­ten tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

To Coaker and his FPU col­leagues, Morine’s ap­point­ment was an in­sult and a provo­ca­tion. To say they de­spised Morine is to put the point gen­tly. Coaker was quick to say so. He rose to his feet on May 27, the first time the House met af­ter Cashin took of­fice. Sir Michael’s son, Peter, was in the pub­lic gallery that af­ter­noon. Coaker spoke un­til 6 p.m., Peter re­called.

His en­tire speech was de­voted to the de­nun­ci­a­tion of Morine with all the vigour and bit­ter­ness which Coaker could com­mand. Not once did Morine in­ter­rupt ... [he] merely took notes and ap­peared un­con­cerned.

But he and the other Cashin sup­port­ers de­feated Coaker’s at­tempt to ad­journ the House un­til the next day.

Peter Cashin con­tin­ued: “I went back af­ter sup­per to hear Morine. He lit­er­ally tore Coaker to pieces. He drove him to des­per­a­tion and had Coaker jump­ing off his seat call­ing to the prime min­is­ter, my fa­ther, and the Speaker, Mr. [W.J.] Hig­gins to stop Morine. They merely laughed at him. Morine said, ‘you sit down now and take your medicine.’”

Those were the days when the pub­lic gal­leries were fre­quently filled by par­ti­sans of one side or an­other. That night, they were filled with Coaker’s sup­port­ers, who heck­led Morine. Noth­ing un­daunted, Morine de­fied them.

Again, in Cashin’s words: “He told those heck­lers in no un­cer­tain lan­guage that he, Morine, was try­ing to free them from the slav­ery which he felt Coaker was try­ing to in­flict on them.”

Coaker was driven to fury by Morine’s ver­bal as­sault. He lost his tem­per, and was un­able to con­trol him­self. He be­came so an­gry that he picked up the inkwell on his desk and tried to throw it at Morine, across the House. He suc­ceeded only in splat­ter­ing ink all over him­self and his clothes.

For what­ever rea­son Hansard, the of­fi­cial record of the House de­bates, pub­lished no ac­counts of the pro­ceed­ings that day. But the Daily News, a stri­dent and vo­cif­er­ous op­po­nent of Coaker and the Fish­er­men’s Union, was not so ret­i­cent.

The next morn­ing, its front page story told the world: “[Coaker] en­tirely lost his head and for­got both the dig­nity of the House and that of his own po­si­tion as Leader of the Op­po­si­tion. His lan­guage was not only un­par­lia­men­tary, but ex­tremely vul­gar, and he swore with a ve­he­mence that was as dis­gust­ing as it was amaz­ing ... At one point Mr. Coaker took up the ink-well ... and at an­other he threat­ened to throw the desk at him; at an­other he threat­ened to go across [the House] and choke him. And all the while he acted like a mad­man while Mr. Morine made fun at him, and went through the ac­tion of pulling a string to make him dance still higher and higher. ... And Mr. Coaker brought it all on him­self.”

Coaker’s pa­per, the Fish­er­men’s Ad­vo­cate, made no men­tion at all of the in­ci­dent.

Morine loses elec­tion

But Coaker had his re­venge, just a few months later. Morine, per­haps bravely but cer­tainly fool­ishly, sought to win a seat in Bon­av­ista Bay, which re­turned three mem­bers to the House of Assembly. He had been elected there in a Novem­ber 1914 by­elec­tion, un­op­posed and with FPU sup­port, when Coaker stood down to seek elec­tion in the Twill­ingate seat left va­cant by Sir Robert Bond’s res­ig­na­tion.

But he soon learned that the elec­tors sup­ported Coaker, and not him. Coaker and his two Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union col­leagues were re­turned at the head of the poll in Bon­av­ista. Morine fin­ished sixth, with fewer votes than any other can­di­date. Coaker got more than 10 votes to ev­ery four cast for Morine.

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.

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