Mahon’s republic injustice continues

Published on Mon 21 November 2016 11:11am

Mr Wilson (11:11am) — I thank the member for Moreton for bringing forward this motion, which seeks to redress an injustice done almost 100 years ago. And I thank the member for McMillan for his thoughtful contribution.

On 11 November 1920, Hugh Mahon, who was originally the member for the Federation seat of Coolgardie, and subsequently the member for Kalgoorlie, was expelled from his place in the House of Representatives. His seat was declared vacant and he lost the by-election that followed. As a new member, I am thankful to say I have limited experience of the parliament’s disciplinary procedures, but I know enough to understand that expulsion is an extraordinarily harsh measure. In fact, as the motion makes clear, this process only occurred that one time. It was a political act, and it was poorly considered.

Hugh Mahon’s crime was to call for an Australian republic at an Irish national demonstration in Melbourne on 7 November, an occasion that was made more febrile by the news that the mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, had died after a hunger strike of 74 days. It was a time when the question of Irish nationalism was alive and hot, and of course sharp sectarian divisions were well and truly present here in Australia. The rally considered and passed three motions, the last of which read:

That this meeting of Australian citizens, in view of the policy of oppression and tyranny pursued by the English Government in Ireland, and which has brought eternal disgrace upon the whole British Empire, of which Australia forms a part, pledges its support to any movement for the establishment of an Australian republic.

In the parliamentary week that followed, and on the basis of newspaper reports, Prime Minister Billy Hughes moved a motion that read:

That, in the opinion of this House, the honorable Member for Kalgoorlie, the Honorable Hugh Mahon, having, by seditious and disloyal utterances at a public meeting on Sunday last, been guilty of conduct unfitting him to remain a Member of this House and inconsistent with the oath of allegiance which he has taken as a Member of this House, be expelled this House.

And so it was done by a vote on party lines of 34 to 17. Hugh Mahon himself was absent from proceedings and was not able to speak on his own behalf, but afterwards he was unrepentant and was reported as saying in The WA Record:

The indignity surely attaches to the garrotter, not to his victim.

While one should hesitate to judge history through the prism of a contemporary perspective, it is clear the expulsion of Hugh Mahon was hasty and unfair as a matter of process, and that it delivered an outcome that was hugely disproportionate to any real offence or danger. I accept that calling for an Australian republic at the time was freighted with heavy meaning. Even so, the expulsion of Hugh Mahon was a misuse of power.

There have been a few instances where our version of the Westminster system has produced travesties, and it is a curious echo that 11 November was the day on which Hugh Mahon was expelled from parliament in 1920 and also the day on which Gough Whitlam was dismissed as the prime minister in 1975.

In the case of the Dismissal, the fundamentally antidemocratic and dangerous outcome was enabled by structural flaws that were, in part, subsequently addressed by constitutional change, especially with respect to casual Senate vacancies. In the case of Hugh Mahon, the reform necessary to prevent a recurrence of his mistreatment was eventually delivered in the form of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.

But neither outrage would have occurred without a certain amount of malice aforethought; and, ultimately, those responsible for that kind of misjudgement have to take responsibility for it. It is fortunate no-one was similarly expelled in the interim period. At the time, Hugh Mahon himself considered the implications of what had occurred in the following terms: ‘This episode may serve as a precedent when Labor is again in the ascendant. If a future Labor government’s interests should be promotable by expulsion of an obnoxious opponent they will find the track cleared and the procedure simplified by Hughes.’ We can be thankful that such a course was never taken. After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

Let me say in conclusion that, like Hugh Mahon, I support an Australian republic and that in my view the achievement of full sovereign autonomy for our nation through a proper process is well overdue. Our current Prime Minister, nearly 20 years ago, was part of an effort towards that end. In my view, it is high time we returned to that cause. When we do cross the twin thresholds of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and the achievement of an Australian republic, I look forward to the creation of a new national day that marks a more inclusive, independent and mature Australia that is better connected to the culture and heritage of our first Australians and that grows free from the tether of its colonial past.

This motion calls for recognition that what was done with the expulsion of Hugh Mahon from parliament was wrong. I do not think there can be any doubt on that front. When we do achieve an Australian republic, which I hope is soon, it will be, among many other things, a form of vindication for Hugh Mahon. It will be a long-awaited achievement of independence.

Share this article...

Get Involved
Subscribe for updates
Contact Josh