Patronage, Paternalism, NL Politics

This post is a short overview of patronage and paternalism in NL politics. I put this together mostly as a linked reference for an article on the possibility of a democratic politics in NL. The extracted text presented below is drawn from some of my research for the project Resistance in Contemporary Newfoundland Fiction. In this extract I use material from an article by George Perlin, which was written in the early ’70s and which incidentally concluded with a call for a democratic movement or democratic reform in the province as a means of sweeping away the deeply entrenched systems of patronage and paternalism. Perlin seems to have imagined that such a movement would occur in the years after his article appeared, or that such a movement was inevitable in a march of political progress in NL. There is ample evidence that no such movement has happened, even as four-and-a-half decades has passed. I have not been able to find a copy online, so here is the citation for Perlin’s article for anyone who wants to go to the library and get the book:

Perlin, George. “Patronage and Paternalism: Politics in Newfoundland.” Social Space: Canadian Perspectives, edited by D. I. Davies and Kathleen Herman. New Press, 1971, pp. 190-95.

Before providing the quotations from Perlin and my interpretive remarks, I also want to recommend writing on patronage and paternalism by Ed Hollett on his blog The Sir Robert Bond Papers. I don’t see eye-to-eye with him on every issue, though he needs to be given his due for persistently tracking the continuation of patronage and paternalism in politics today, even as politicians and political parties may prefer to pretend that these old-school politics have already been overturned. A few posts I recommend are:

The Persistence of Patronage Politics,” 12 Jan. 2011.

Kathy Dunderdale: The New Paternalism,” 30 Dec. 2010.

The Value of Nothing or Pater Knows Best, Redux,” 2 Nov. 2011.



In his article “Patronage and Paternalism: Politics in Newfoundland” (1971), George Perlin outlines some of the general parameters of paternalism, noting that it was essentially a political system in which a local strong leader or dominant figure was de facto in charge of the community:

Priests and clergymen, the merchants, and sometimes an unusually successful fisherman, provided leadership at the local level. Their authority was of broad compass – for two reasons. Firstly, there was no local government and the representatives of external authority, the police and the magistrates, could make only infrequent visits. Secondly, local elites were usually the only members of the community who were educated and who had the regular contacts with the outside; thus they were relied upon to mediate in most external transactions. (191)

This was a system of power and authority that was locally based and that did not rely on any sort of official appointment or election, and so was in a sense informal. However, in that the paternal role was filled by the people who had the most power, and often the most wealth in the case of a merchant, there was nothing about the arrangement that was based on ideals of liberty or equality.

As Perlin notes, “for the greater part of the population dependent upon the fishery, the future held little prospect. They were tied in perpetual debt to a local merchant who, in turn, was usually tied to one of the larger mercantile firms in St. John’s” (192). For the merchants there was also a degree of risk in carrying large debts and in giving out so much credit to local fishing families. But as Perlin suggests, “While the risks for those who supplied the credit [the merchants] were great, it was the fisherman who was most profoundly affected by this system [of mercantilism]” (191). The fishing families had “no independent choice either in the purchase of any goods” or “in the sale of [their] product,” essentially relying on the merchant to be an honourable steward of the community and not cheat them on the value of their product (191).

Perlin describes the patronage system as developing in “the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century,” at a time when “a new element began to challenge this oligarchy [of the large merchant firms]” (192). Perlin notes that “some of the lesser merchants and professionals used political careers or relationships with politicians to compel a broadening of economic leadership” (192). The elected officials in outport districts became the ‘patrons’ of the community. Sometimes the merchants themselves stood in the role, and sometimes other prominent members of the community stood in the role, but nonetheless generally took their orders from the merchant and acted as the merchant’s agent. If there were any jobs associated with public employment, such as civil servants or creating roads or other public works, the local patron could give them out to his friends and political allies, or in such a way as to curry favour. Describing the patronage system, Perlin continues:

The Assembly member dealt with a network of key men who occupied elite roles at the local level. Local elites were effectively brokers of blocs of votes who, from their strategic roles in the community, could bargain for personal material reward or for community benefits which would enhance their own personal prestige. (192)

A politics based on paternalism is in many respects autocratic and potentially authoritarian in character, but the patronage arrangement, and the system of faux-representation it embodies, at least rely on some form of popular participation. However, because this is a corrupt system, and because the politician only maintains political power because of deals and favours that potentially have little to do with the popular vote or the desires of the electorate, it would be a disservice to even the most generous conceptions of the term democracy to apply it here.

The systems of patronage and paternalism remain deeply entrenched in contemporary NL politics. As Perlin suggests, it will take a democratic movement to uproot this blight. Though I respect Perlin’s optimism that such a movement is inevitable, I disagree, and instead argue that such a movement will be opposed by the current order at every turn and will require a monumental effort by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. The political system, which is based in culture of patronage and paternalism, will not simply reform itself. The system needs to be placed under extreme pressure — I prefer such pressure comes from a grassroots movement of people power, but it seems as likely it could come from external actors that hold or guarantee NL’s rapidly expanding debts.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *