This year, on November 11, marks the 45th anniversary of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister. Yet November 11 is also the date of another dismissal – not as well known as Kerr’s coup but one which a hundred years ago ignited similar passions. It was the expulsion from the federal parliament of Hugh Mahon, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie.
On 11 November 1920 Prime Minister Billy Hughes moved in the House of Representatives a motion for Mahon’s expulsion because of his criticism of British rule in Ireland. At that time the Irish were engaged in a bitter war against the British government to gain their independence. Hughes charged that Mahon was unfit to remain a member of the House because of ‘seditious and disloyal utterances’ he had made at a public meeting that were ‘inconsistent with the oath of allegiance’ he had taken.
The furore arose from a speech the Irish-born Mahon had given at a meeting to protest the death of Irish hunger striker, Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork. In front of a crowd of 3000 people in Melbourne’s Richmond Reserve, Mahon declared:
“Never in Russia under the worst rule of the Czars had there been such an infamous murder as that of the late Alderman McSwiney. They were told in the papers that Alderman McSwiney’s poor widow sobbed over his coffin. If there was a just God in heaven that sob would reach round the world, and one day would shake the foundations of this bloody and accursed Empire.”
Mahon’s speech was made just four days before the second anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to the war in which 60,000 Australians had died fighting for ‘this bloody and accursed empire’. Public reaction was swift and brutal. Protestant, loyalist and ex-service organisations flooded the government with telegrams, letters and personal representations demanding Mahon’s removal from parliament.
The metropolitan dailies followed suit. Keen to pick up an extra seat to secure a parliamentary majority, Hughes readily obliged, moving Mahon’s expulsion. In the early hours of the next morning the motion was passed.
The 14-hour debate had been a political show trial. Mahon’s fate had been sealed two days before when the Nationalist caucus voted to support the motion. Mahon had been tried by a stacked jury that had cheered when the prosecuting counsel, Hughes, opened the government’s case.
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 the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege 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.
But in 1920 many saw it differently. The file in the National Archives of Australia relating to the affair is thick with letters, telegrams and newspaper cuttings: the early ones demanding government action, the later ones congratulating the government on the action it took.
The Melbourne Argus declared, ‘By his statements Mr. Mahon had done treason to Australia and had insulted and humiliated the overwhelming bulk of his fellow citizens.’ The Sydney Morning Herald complained that Mahon had ‘uttered the most vulgar diatribes on the Empire of which this country is a part’.
Like Whitlam in 1975, Mahon put his faith in the electors to right the wrong done to him. As Labor Call put it, Mahon would now be tried by his peers: ‘Kalgoorlie is now placed in the position of being a jury representing the whole of Australia.’ But like Whitlam, Mahon was to be disappointed. At the by-election on 18 December the Nationalist candidate George Foley defeated Mahon following a campaign fought on empire-loyalty grounds. Labor Call declared, ‘The electors of Kalgoorlie have given their verdict. Kalgoorlie has pronounced Hugh Mahon guilty, and there is nothing more to say in the matter.’
But, as with Whitlam’s dismissal, there was more to say. As the joint select committee observed in 1984, when a member is expelled ‘the damage occasioned by his expulsion may render his prospects of re-election negligible’. In Mahon’s case the frenzy of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and empire-loyalist sentiment whipped up by Hughes and his supporters irredeemably poisoned the well.
In 1929 Mahon tried to persuade the newly elected Labor government to pass a motion rescinding the expulsion resolution. With the economy in steep decline towards depression, the party had other priorities.
Loyalists, for their part, also continued to maintain the rage. In 1931, more than 10 years after Mahon’s speech the controversy hit the headlines once again. Following Mahon’s death in August that year, the prime minister, James Scullin, moved in the House the usual condolence motion to mark the passing of a former member. Traditionally only good things are said about the deceased.
However, debate on the motion was interrupted when Country Party member Roland Green, a veteran of the war who had lost a leg in the conflict, stormed out of the chamber after declaring he could not support the motion because of Mahon’s attack on the Empire. To Green and others like him, Mahon’s words still rankled a decade or more after the event – they were still obscene and unforgivable.
On the other side, there are still some today who are seeking to expunge the expulsion resolution. In 2016 Graham Perrett, the Labor member for Moreton, put forward a private member’s motion in the House of Representatives calling for an acknowledgement of the injustice done to Mahon. Notwithstanding cross-party support, Perrett’s motion lapsed.
As a result, the resolution described by the 1984 joint select committee as ‘an abuse of power’ remains on the parliamentary record undiminished and unqualified.
This year on November 11, when minds turn to the dismissal of the Whitlam government, we might spare a thought for that other dismissal a century ago and ask whether it’s time for the House of Representatives to right the wrong done to Hugh Mahon.