Like Banquo’s Ghost: Hugh Mahon and the Eden-Monaro by-election

The name Hugh Mahon has appeared in the news recently in connection with the Eden-Monaro by-election caused by the resignation of Labor’s Mike Kelly. Like Banquo’s ghost, Mahon’s appearance during a by-election for an opposition seat strikes fear into the heart of the incumbent opposition leader. For Mahon is the only opposition candidate to lose a seat to the government at a federal by-election.

That by-election was in December 1920 for the seat of Kalgoorlie after Mahon had been expelled from the House of Representatives for criticising British rule in Ireland at a public meeting in Melbourne.

In his speech, the Irish-born Mahon had described the British Empire as ‘this bloody and accursed empire’, an epithet that unleashed a storm of protest from loyalist, Protestant and ex-service organisations demanding that the Nationalist government led by Billy Hughes remove him from office. Cancel culture was alive and well even then.

The by-election was fought mostly on empire-loyalty grounds and Mahon was defeated by the Nationalist candidate George Foley. This provided Hughes’ minority government with a majority over the combined votes of the Labor Party and the new Country Party, which in those days acted independently.

Although Hugh Mahon’s name frequently appears in the media when by-elections are tight (eg. Longman in 2018) or when there is talk of expelling a member (eg. Craig Thomson in 2013, Senator Fraser Anning in 2019), the reportage is often wide of the mark. Even prime ministers get it wrong. Contrary to what Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC’s 7.30 in July 2018, Mahon was not expelled after being ‘convicted of treason’.

So, who was Hugh Mahon, and why was he thrown out of parliament and then rejected by his constituents at the ensuing by-election?

Born in County Offaly in 1857, Mahon and his family migrated to America in 1869 where he trained as a newspaperman. Unfortunately, the family’s American dream failed and in 1880 they returned to Ireland. Mahon soon found employment as editor of an Irish-nationalist newspaper that supported the Land League, an organisation that fought for the rights of tenants against their landlords.

His Land League activities brought him under police notice and in October 1881 he was arrested and interned without trial. Imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol with Charles Stewart Parnell, Mahon was released after two months on health grounds. He immediately returned to his Land League activities but after being threatened with re-arrest he emigrated to Australia.

For a number of years he worked for the Irish-nationalist cause in Australia before returning to journalism, firstly in New South Wales and Victoria before moving to Western Australia during the gold rush of the 1890s. There he owned and edited newspapers, gaining a reputation as a crusading journalist, exposing corruption in business and government. Prosecuted four times for criminal libel, he was acquitted each time, acting for himself in in some of the cases.

Elected in 1901 to the first Commonwealth parliament, Mahon initially represented the seat of Coolgardie. He became the member for Kalgoorlie in 1913 following a redistribution of electoral boundaries.

During his time in parliament Mahon advocated Aboriginal rights, calling for a constitutional amendment to empower the Commonwealth parliament to make laws for them, a change that only occurred in 1967.

He served as a minister in four Labor governments, including Postmaster-General in the first Labor ministry in 1904 and Minister for External Affairs during World War I. He split with Billy Hughes over conscription, deciding to remain with the Labor Party. He lost his seat in 1917 but regained it in 1919.

This was a time when the Irish were fighting for their independence from Britain. To defeat the Sinn Féin rebels, the British government unleashed the murderous Black and Tans. Along with many other Australian Catholics of Irish descent, Mahon was a passionate supporter of Irish self-government, angered by Britain’s misrule in Ireland.

After the Sinn Féin mayor of Cork died on hunger strike in a British gaol, Mahon tried to have the situation in Ireland debated in parliament. But he was gagged. Then, on 7 November 1920, he addressed the public meeting at Melbourne’s Richmond Reserve at which he used the infamous epithet.

It was just four days before the second anniversary of the armistice that ended the war in which 60,000 Australians had died fighting for ‘this bloody and accursed empire’. Hence the storm of public outrage and Mahon’s ultimate defeat.

Keen to pick up an extra seat to ensure his majority, Prime Minister Hughes moved for Mahon’s expulsion on 11 November, a date that resonates in Australian history. The motion, declaring Mahon ‘guilty of conduct unfitting him to remain a member of this House, and inconsistent with [his] oath of allegiance’ was carried on party lines and Mahon’s seat was declared vacant. He was never charged let alone convicted of any offence arising from what Hughes alleged were Mahon’s ‘seditious and disloyal utterances’ and certainly not of treason, as Turnbull claimed.

To this day, Mahon remains the only person to have been expelled from the federal parliament, and he is likely to remain so. In 1984 a joint select committee described his expulsion as an ‘abuse of power by a partisan vote’ and in 1987 legislation was passed removing the federal parliament’s power to expel its members.

At the by-election on 18 December Foley received 8382 votes to Mahon’s 7939, a majority of 443. In many ways, it was not a bad result for Mahon, taking into account the avalanche of vituperation that he had endured for the previous six weeks. He lost solely on the vote in Kalgoorlie town. In the rest of the electorate Mahon had a majority of 102. But a loss is a loss.

After his defeat Mahon continued a successful business career as founder and managing director of what is now called Catholic Church Insurances. In 1922 he travelled to Rome and had an audience with the new pope, Pius XI, before making a brief visit to his native Ireland. He died in Melbourne in 1931. Debate in parliament on the usual condolence motion was interrupted when a Country Party member declared he could not support it because of Mahon’s attack on the Empire.

Although Mahon remains a spectre to opposition parties facing by-elections, the circumstances of his defeat in December 1920 are unique, which is of little comfort to Anthony Albanese. If Labor loses Eden-Monaro it will be the first time in the almost 120-year history of the federal parliament that an opposition, in ordinary circumstances, has lost a federal by-election to the government.

Jeff Kildea is the author of Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician Vol 1 1857-1901 (2017), Vol 2 1901-1931 (2020) available from Anchor Books Australia.

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Dr Jeff Kildea is an Adjunct Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and an historian of early 20th-century Australia.

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