Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly

Article excerpt

The purpose of this paper is to describe and analyze the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly to increase public awareness of its procedural functions and provide the basis for a comparative analysis with other legislatures. The article includes a history of the legislature; the socio-demographics of MHAs; the resources of MHAs and party caucuses; and the relationship between government and opposition. The analysis includes the role of the Speaker, legislative committees, the procedure for bills, and the difficulties of mounting an effective opposition amidst lopsided majority governments.

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It is said that the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly has probably been the scene of more political and constitutional crises than all other provincial legislatures combined. (1) The path to democratic government in Newfoundland, like many of its highways, has been a bumpy, winding and foggy journey. The European-influenced political era began when fishermen arrived in the late 15th century. Until 1610 the area was "a kind of no man's land, without law, religion, or government ... only ruled in a rough way" by merchants and pirates. (2) Land settlement occurred from the early 17th to the early 18th centuries, a period characterized by power struggles between fishing admirals and colonists, and which was followed by the rule of naval governors. In 1711 an assembly of the naval governors was convened and a code of laws was established. The governors were appointed by Britain and they ruled over the ship captains, known as fishing admirals, who governed fishing communities.

Political agitation by St. John's residents such as William Carson in the early 19th century convinced the British Parliament to grant a bicameral legislature to the colony in 1832. Eligible male voters would now be able to elect 15 representatives to the lower house, the House of Assembly, by publicly announcing their choice to election officials. The governor and seven appointees comprised the upper house, known as the Legislative Council. These unelected men held political control and made spending decisions for the island's 75 thousand residents, but they were required to consider the views of the elected members. The nine electoral districts were located only on the eastern side of the island on the Avalon, Bonavista and Burin peninsulas.

The formation of the House of Assembly presents an interesting question: when democracy is first achieved but there is not yet a legislative building where do the members meet? The answer and the many subsequent movements of the Assembly symbolize developments in Newfoundland politics.

From the outset Newfoundland's representative government was disorganized and haphazard. The first session of the legislature was held in 1833 in a St. John's tavern and lodging house (across from the current war memorial). The appointed council, appropriately enough, met on the upper floor and the elected representatives gathered on the ground floor. However the establishment's operator, Mary Travers, was not paid her monthly rent. As the story goes, she proceeded to sell the Speaker's chair, a desk and the sergeant-at-arms' regalia including the mace, sword, suit and hat at an auction. (3)

The second session convened that same year at another location, the Old Court House. However, not only was it too small, but proceedings had to be delayed because the legislature needed papers that had been stored in the desk taken by Travers, which the tavern operator refused to return unless she was paid for five months' rent. She was eventually compensated without apparently disclosing that the desk, and thus the papers, had in fact been sold. Many of the items were eventually bought back from the purchaser and meetings continued in the Old Court House while a permanent building was being planned and erected.

The bicameral legislature lasted for a decade. Initially, the lower house was "a very respectful body', but the Legislative Council and elected officials "immediately disagreed" over even "trivial details', and both houses proved to be uncompromising. …

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