The great­est scoundrel in our his­tory?

The Compass - - OPINION -

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.

14-month elec­tion

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.

Con­tro­versy fol­lowed

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: ed­wardm­roberts@gmail.com.

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