Coalition Government on Trial (The New Constitution Defined)

The political landscape of Nova Scotia in the 1840s was marked by a struggle for power and influence between various factions. The newly appointed Lieutenant Governor expressed concerns over the perceived excessive political power of the populace due to low suffrage qualifications. He advocated for maintaining the Crown’s power and prerogative within local government to balance this.

A coalition government was formed, with Liberal leaders strategically included in the Executive Council to win elections, but they lacked control over the Lieutenant Governor’s actions and policies. While the Liberal party held sway in the House of Assembly, the old Conservative party retained influence in the Upper House and public offices.

When the new government convened in February 1841, Joseph Howe, a Reform leader, became Speaker of the House. The Lieutenant Governor’s speech emphasized cooperation between branches of government while asserting the preservation of royal prerogative.

Debates ensued over the meaning of the new constitution, with Howe defending the coalition government as a step towards responsible government. However, disagreements persisted within the government regarding the interpretation of the constitution and the extent of its reforms.

Conservative leaders in the Legislative Council challenged Howe’s assertions, arguing that the Executive Council remained independent of the legislature. This disagreement highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the government’s responsibilities and authority.

“The new Lieutenant Governor had warned Lord John Russell that the people of Nova Scotia “possessed too great a degree of political power” because of the low suffrage qualifications and that it should be held in check by preserving in the local government the power of the Crown and the influence of the prerogative.

The Liberal leaders had been cleverly brought into the Executive Council and by their influence the elections had been won for the new administration; but they had not gained control over the actions of policies of the Lieutenant Governor. Reform and constitutional opposition had been swallowed up in a coalition arrangement in which the avowed enemies of democratic self-government held the majority control. But while Howe and his friends were a minority in Council, their party held the power in the House of Assembly. The old Conservative party, therefore, remained under cover entrenched in the Upper House and in possession of the public offices of the province.

On February 3, 1841, the new Assembly and the new government of Nova Scotia met to begin their work, and to justify the hopes and expectations of the friends and supporters of the new constitutional program. Joseph Howe, already a member of the new Executive Council, was elected Speaker of the House of Assembly.

In the speech from the throne Lord Falkland studiously avoided a direct statement in regard to the responsibility of the Executive Council to the majority party in the House, suggesting rather that the prosperity of the province made it indispensable “that a sufficient degree of reciprocal confidence should exist between the three branches of the Legislature to insure from each a fair and candid construction of the acts of the other constituent powers.” Cooperation was also necessary, he said, to enable the representative of the Crown to carry out the beneficent intentions of the Queen. While he was prepared to cooperate fully with the Legislature in all matters purely local, it was his purpose to maintain inviolate the royal prerogative.

The reply of the Assembly was couched in terms equally diplomatic. They assured Falkland of the warm attachment of the citizens to British institutions, and of the earnest desire to maintain the prerogative, “while guarding and preserving the rights of the people.” They assured him also that the “most effective means of securing the cooperation of the Commons will be at all times a conviction that the British principle has been observed, and Your Excellency surrounded by advisers enjoying the public confidence.”

On February 11 the House, organized as the committee of the whole, debated the meaning of the new constitution. The task of defending the principles on which the new government had been constructed fell naturally to the Reform leader, Joseph Howe, and his speech was something of a defense of his own act in accepting a place in the new organization. He declared that the changes had not been exactly according to his views and those of his party, but were the best that could be obtained under the circumstances. The British government had conceded to them the principle that harmony must be the rule as between the Executive Council and the Assembly.

The Governor-General had given them all to understand that no one was to sit in the Council unless he occupied a seat in one of the legislative bodies. Thomson had urged him to enter the Council, and he had done so reluctantly, with the “distinct understanding” that harmony was to prevail between the Executive and the Legislative departments. This principle would lead ultimately to the establishment of responsible government as understood by the Liberal party and its leaders, and the new system was a long step in that direction. To Howe the Coalition was simply a temporary convenience, out of which would come in time a permanent system under which the will of the people would be recognized as the supreme law. Meanwhile, a good and efficient government would be carried on concerning itself primarily with the peace and prosperity of the province.

Falkland evidently was following an entirely different point of view. To him it seemed that Howe’s acceptance of a seat in the Executive body had broken the back of the Liberal opposition. He had even taken in some of Howe’s friends and followers in order to strengthen the popular leader, to make of him a stronger support for the government, and to keep in line the Liberal members of the newly elected Assembly. Herbert Huntington, however, refused to accept either a seat in the Council or the compromise of principle. He continued to insist that the control of the casual and territorial revenues should be in the hands of the local government and that the Executive Council should be reorganized by dismissing all those who had opposed the Reform program. But Huntington’s following was small, and Falkland’s government, with the support of Howe and Uniacke, could easily command a majority in the Assembly.

The leader of the old Conservative party, Solicitor-General J. W. Johnston, spoke in the Legislative Council, the strong citadel of the old order, on February 17. His speech may be taken as a reply to Howe’s attempt in the Assembly to define the constitution. He thought it impossible to recognize any fundamental change whatsoever. No statute existed which defined the power of any part of the British government, and the same principle held true for their local constitution. The “good sense” and “good feeling” of all branches explained the success of its operations. “Direct responsibility” was entirely “inconsistent with the circumstances of a colony,” because of a lack of proper checks and balances, such as existed in the mother country; the well defined orders of society, and nicely balanced economic interests did not exist in Nova Scotia.

“The change cannot be defined in specific terms. It is not a change of the constitution as has been said elsewhere. The three branches will continue as before; the change simply is that it becomes the duty of the representatives of Her Majesty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the people through their representatives and to make the measures of Government conform to these so far as it is consistent with his duty to the mother country. This is not to be effected by any declaration that he should do so; nor any power of the assembly to say that it has not been done, but by calling to his Councils individuals possessing influence in the Legislature, who may advise measures that would secure confidence and harmony. Supposing they did not command the confidence, is the Governor bound at the bidding of the people, to change his Councils? If that question were put in writing it would receive a negative from the Home Government. Yet who will say, that in the present position of the Executive, some such power exists . I cannot lay my hand on any theoretic change. The system is not that sought last year by the action of the Assembly on the vote of want of confidence.”

This was a calm explanation by the Conservative leader of the new order of things in Nova Scotia, and a flat repudiation of the claims of the Liberal members of the Government. The will of the Assembly was only a matter of convenience for the Lieutenant-Governor. His responsibility was to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and through him to the Crown of England; to go beyond this was to court the disruption of the Empire. Could Nova Scotia continue moving in the direction of self-government and still remain loyal to the British King? If so, a constitutional revolution was certainly in progress.

Alexander Stewart, another member of the new government with a seat in the Legislative Council, was even more outspoken against the claims asserted by Howe. The Executive Council was completely independent of the other branches of the government. Responsible government in a colony would mean independence, severing the bonds of the empire, and in his opinion, it was “responsible nonsense.”

The view thus expressed by the Conservative leaders was a challenge to Joseph Howe. He had entered the government with these men, understanding that a new constitution had been established. He met the issue, therefore, emphatically and at once, in a statement from the floor of the Assembly in which he said that “if any man in the colony, in this House or the other, says that there is no change in the constitution, the person so speaking does not state what is the fact.”

The principle had been established if the House was true to itself, that the Executive Council depended for its continuation upon the support of the popular branch, and must resign in case of a vote of censure by that body. The next day he spoke at length on the same question asserting again with considerable spirit that the constitution sought by the Liberal party had been fully established. It was the British system, and now, in case of an adverse vote by the Assembly, the Lieutenant-Governor must do one of three things: discharge the Executive Council, change his policy, or appeal to the people by dissolving the Assembly.

It is clear from these statements that the members of Falkland’s government did not agree as to the meaning of the constitution under which they served, and that there was a serious lack of harmony among the members of the new Executive Council. Each side claimed that the British constitution had been granted to Nova Scotia, but each had a different interpretation as to its fundamental meaning. The same difference of opinion would have been found at the same time even among the members of the British Parliament.

The whole question of the responsibility of the ministry was quite unsettled, and at this time Lord John Russell himself would hardly have dared to venture an opinion as to the exact definition of that responsibility. The task of the ministry in England was not to quibble over a theoretical point, but to carry on the government as successfully as circumstances would permit. This same task faced the coalition government of Nova Scotia. In most instances an opposition party would have debated with the members of the government the theories upon which it rested, but in the case of Nova Scotia the opposition was now a part of the government, so the argument was carried on among its own members.”

Livingston, Walter Ross. Responsible Government In Nova Scotia: a Study of the Constitutional Beginnings of the British Commonwealth. Iowa City: The University, 1930.