The greatest scoundrel in our history?
Alfred B. Morine was undeniably brilliant and he was a forceful orator. He was at or near centre stage in Newfoundland’s public life for more than half-a-century. And there is a strong case to be made that he was the greatest scoundrel in our long and turbulent political history.
Morine, a Nova Scotian, came to Newfoundland in 1883, and became the editor of a St. John’s newspaper that supported William Whiteway, the Liberal prime minister. He immediately threw himself into the controversy spurred by the Harbour Grace Affray, the 1883 clash between Orangemen and Roman Catholics which claimed the lives of four Protestants and one Roman Catholic. Nineteen men, all of them Roman Catholics, subsequently stood trial for murder; the jury found all of them not guilty. A second trial led to the same result.
The subsequent election campaign, in 1885, was fought on sectarian grounds; Morine and his newspaper played a leading part in stirring up strife between the two religious groups. The 22 seats in which Protestants were a majority returned Protestant candidates, and the 14 with Roman Catholic majorities returned Roman Catholics.
Whiteway did not seek re-election. Morine, hitherto a Whiteway supporter, was defeated in Bonavista Bay, where he ran as an independent, although he won a subsequent byelection there. He and Robert Bond then persuaded Whiteway to return to public life. Morine soon fell out with him again, but nonetheless succeeded in winning re-election as a Conservative in Bonavista in the 1889 and 1893 elections, both won by Whiteway and the Liberals.
The 1893 election took 14 months to settle. Morine, by then a lawyer, brought challenges against Whiteway and other Liberal members under the Corrupt Practises Act. In all, 16 sitting members — including Whiteway, Bond, and Edward Morris (all of them prime ministers) — were unseated by the courts. By February 1895, however, all had returned to the House in byelections, and Whiteway had again become prime minister.
The Conservatives, led by James Winter, won the next general election, in 1897, and Morine became minister of finance. Building the railway across Newfoundland was the biggest political issue of the day, culminating in the 1898 railway contract with the Reids.
Morine took the lead in negotiating the contract, which was heavily criticized by Bond and his fellow Liberals. The subsequent revelation that Morine had received payment from the Reid interests while the deal was being struck led the governor of the day, Sir Herbert Murray, to dismiss Morine from the cabinet, the first and only time that any Newfoundland governor (or lieutenant-governor) has ever done so.
A subsequent bitter dispute between Morine and Winter split the Conservative party. Winter did not stand for re-election in the 1900 general election, in which Bond and the Liberals won 32 of the 36 seats. Morine, re-elected at the head of the poll in Bonavista Bay, became Opposition Leader.
He continued to lead it until he resigned from the House of Assembly in 1906, and moved to Ontario. He lived there for eight years, receiving regular payments from the Reid interests on condition that he stay out of Newfoundland. But he did not stay free of scandal: a brief term as chair of the Canadian Public Service Commission came to an end when his connections with the Reids and his record in Newfoundland became public in 1911, several months after the new Canadian prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, had appointed him to the job.
But Morine was nothing if not resourceful. By 1912, he had become legal advisor to William Coaker’s Fishermen’s Protective Union. Bond’s resignation two months after his unsuccessful bid to reclaim the premiership in the 1913 general election caused his Twillingate seat to come open. Coaker moved from Bonavista to Twillingate, a district in which any candidate with his backing was sure to be elected, and Morine won in Bonavista. Both men were elected by acclamation.
Although Morine remained a Member of the House until the November 1919 general election, he lived mostly in Ontario, and spent little time in Newfoundland. By then, he and Coaker had become bitter enemies. When Michael Cashin became prime minister in May 1919, he made Morine minister of justice.
The subsequent encounter between Coaker and Morine a few days later has gone down in history as the Inkwell Incident. Coaker criticized Morine vigorously in a lengthy speech; Morine’s reply so irritated Coaker that he picked up his inkwell and tried to throw it across the House at Morine. All that he achieved was to spatter himself with ink.
Knighted by King George V
Morine finished at the bottom of the poll in Bonavista in the election that fall, a defeat brought about at least in part because of his role in the infamous Flat Islands Invasion. But he wasn’t through with Newfoundland politics. Walter Monroe, a Conservative who became prime minister after the 1924 election, appointed him to the legislative council, the legislature’s Upper House. He served there until the Conservatives were defeated by Squires and the Liberals in 1928.
On Monroe’s recommendation, King George V made Morine a knight, and he became Sir Alfred. He died in Toronto in 1944, aged 87.
History has not been kind to Morine. Peter Cashin, elected as a Conservative in 1923 and 1924, recounted in his memoirs that he “was termed by [ James Winter] one of our former prime ministers [as] the greatest scoundrel that ever came through the Narrows.”
The Liberal Member of Parliament who exposed him in 1911 called his speech “the Menace of Morine: showing the Trail of the Serpent across Newfoundland politics.”
Archbishop Michael Howley called him “an unmitigated rascal and nuisance.” He may well have been the greatest scoundrel in our history. But whatever he may have been, Newfoundland politics have never seen his like again.
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. He can be reached by email at the following: email@example.com.