Part memoir, part history, The Worst and Best of the Premiers and Some We Never Had is Bill Rowe’s most ambitious work of non-fiction to date. The book observes with a critical and humorous eye the landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador politics since Confederation in 1949.
Forty-two leaders are presented here, of all political stripes. Bill Rowe, with his inimitable style, examines the professional lives of each leader—from Chesley A. Crosbie in the 1940s to Dwight Ball, present-day premier of the province—and grades them based on accomplishment during their time in public life.
Bill Rowe is a national bestselling author and former MHA and minister in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and he was a long-time host of Open Line, a popular radio talk show. His books Danny Williams: The War With Ottawa and The Premiers Joey and Frank: Greed, Power, and Lust have appeared on the Globe and Mail bestsellers lists. His non-fiction works have also appeared on the annual best books lists of the Hill Times in Ottawa.
Henry George Reginald Mews took on the job of leader of the Newfoundland Progressive Conservative Party after the electorate had voted for Confederation with Canada in the 1948 referendum.
Mews had been a lieutenant with the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War and later became a well-known insurance executive in St. John’s. He’d been elected as a city councillor during the Second World War.
Mews led his party into the 1949 provincial election in May against the newly appointed premier and Liberal Party leader, Joey Smallwood. Since the Responsible Government League had more or less become the Progressive Conservative Party, Mews was perhaps counting on many of those who had voted for Responsible Government—nearly half the electorate—to vote Tory now. That would mean that he and the new party would make a creditable showing on polling day.
But the blizzard of federal government cheques for family allowances and old-age pensions that hit the province helped to decide otherwise. The political hay that the much superior campaigner, Smallwood, was able to make of the largesse from Ottawa, present and future, allowed his Liberals to easily defeat the PC Party. Of the 28 seats in the House of Assembly, the Liberal Party won 22 with 65.5% of the popular vote, and the PCs got 5 with 32.9%. In fact, the latter figure was a pretty good proportion of the anti-confederate vote. An Independent candidate, Peter Cashin, also won a seat.
Mews himself contested the district of St. John’s West but failed to win. He abandoned provincial politics and, six months later, successfully ran for mayor of St. John’s. Now he’d found his niche. The citizens of St. John’s kept him on as mayor until 1965.
At city hall he gave a pretty good idea of what he would’ve been like as provincial premier. He was mayor when the city embarked on an ambitious program of slum clearance in the city core and effected a substantial public housing and suburban development plan. He formed the St. John’s Transportation Commission to replace the ramshackle private bus system and created extensive water and sewerage infrastructure.
Then, secretly, in cahoots with senior management, without the knowledge of city council, he hoarded a large fund of money for building, after his retirement, a brand new city hall. This surreptitious accumulation of public money, for a purpose that had not been openly debated and voted on, triggered abundant controversy.
As premier, perhaps he would have been a determined activist, but, evidently, rather secretive in his actions.
His son-in-law was T. Alex Hickman, a minister in both Smallwood’s and Moores’s governments, and a failed leadership candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1969 against Joey. Later he was appointed chief justice of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland. Mews’s grandson, Sandy Hickman, was elected to the St. John’s City Council.
For his contribution to competitive democracy, as first leader of the Progressive Conservative Party after Confederation, intrepidly taking on the triumphantly dominant Smallwood, but deducting his election failures, personally and as leader, and his secretive nature, I’d give Harry Mews a rating of 55%.
The Worst and Best of the Premiers and Some We Never Had provides another feast for political junkies.-- Atlantic Books Today --
Bill’s book is definitely riveting.-- Burton K. Janes blog --
Brisk, chatty, in-the-know, this chronicle covers events in which Rowe was often a participant and has both memory and a view of them.-- The Telegram --
It’s one of the most entertaining and well-informed reviews of the province’s Premiers, and also those who could have been.-- Tint of Ink --