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Newfoundland Referendum:

The Odds for Confederation


[For the source of this document, see the end of the text.]

St. John's, Newfoundland: Newfoundland's first experience of politics in fifteen years has been both bitter and inconclusive. There is little reason to doubt, looking over the referendum results, that the introduction of the confederation issue was a political blunder.


So much attention has been concentrated on confederation and such [illegible word] questions as economic union with the United States that no real attempt has been made to begin the constructive process of forming defined political groups with which to operate any kind of responsible government.


Newfoundland ended responsible government in 1933 with two political parties whose only real distinguishing feature was their leadership. You w ere either an Alderdice man or a Squires man. The party labels which varied in the inter-war period from Liberal to Liberal-Progressive to Conservative mean nothing. These were high tariff parties; both were led by men whose social and economic backgrounds were similar.


With the appointment of commission government and the suspension of self-government political life stopped. It began to re vive in 1946 with the national convention but never developed.


Methods Were Wrong


Thinking Newfoundlanders, many inclined towards confedera­tion, have opposed it during the past few weeks because of the methods which have been chosen to put it before the public. A more natural process they feel would have been to hold a straight referendum with only two choices on the ballot paper - responsible government or commission - and then to have left the issue of confederation to a general election and a government elected by Newfoundland and interested only in Newfoundland.


As it is, the feeling persists that an attempt has been made to "railroad" the country into confederation. Both London and, surprisingly enough, Ottawa are suspected of being involved. There is no evidence as far as can be discovered to link either city with Newfoundland's future but the legend will be hard to kill.


Thursday's voting which was the heaviest reported in Newfoundland history shows the country has split geographically on the issue. The Avalon Peninsula which contains 40 per cent of the votes is in favor of responsible government. The remainder of the country is preponderately [sic] in favor of confederation


Division Can Be Serious

Carried into daily politics, as politics are carried on here, this division can be serious. With another referendum called for by the stalemate of the first the difference will probably harden. It will undoubtedly be carried into any following election no matter which side wins and Newfoundland faces a situation where its government is based not on an economic and political programme but on whether or not the country shall continue to exist as a country.


There were no surprises in the voting. Leaving the exaggerated claims of both M. Smallwood, confederation's able and energetic leader, and Mr. Cashin, the responsible government chief, the result was well predicted days before the vote. The only feature and even this was suggested beforehand which was not widely expected was the strength of the vote for a continuation of commission government


Some 20,000 votes supported the commission not so much because they were in favor of that form of government, it is believed, but because Newfoundland has had an unhappy political past.


The tenor of the national convention and the referendum campaign have done nothing to indicate that there has been much change during the last fifteen years. The nearest parallel would be Canadian politics of 30 and 40 years ago, rough and personal.


Any hope that either of the two remaining alternatives - commission government will be dropped from the next ballot - can secure the type of majority which such a decision really requires seems unlikely. It is impossible to say where the 20,000 commission votes will go. Both sides are already claiming them. In any event, both responsible government and confederation are so close together - 60,000 to 55,000 - that the final decision when it comes at the next referendum is likely to be based on a small majority which could, in fact, be easily upset in an ensuing election.


It is possible, for example, for confederation to win the next referendum and to lose to an anti-confederate party in the election immediately following it. The Canadian Government has made it clear that it would only accept a clear verdict. What this means in terms of votes is confusing but a decisive victory in a referendum where every vote counts and contributes to a final grand total has no relation to an election where a man can be elected on a minority vote and a large and populous constituency is worth no more than a small sparsely settled one. The referendum may be held as early as July. This morning the odds on confederation had risen three to one.


Source : F. B. W. " Newfoundland Referendum: The Odds for Confederation", Winnipeg Free Press, June 5, 1948, p. A17. Article transcribed by Jonathan Kusek. Revision by Claude Bélanger.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College