FFF – Non potes tangere

DISCLAIMER: This FFF is inspired by (completely ripped off from) the fortnightly ‘About the House’ newsletter of the Australian House of Representatives.

This week’s question comes in the wake of a rare event in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, in which Member for Brighton Kemptown, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, picked up the Mace and attempted to remove it from the Chamber. This prompted quite a few people to ask us, via Twitter:

Has this ever happened in Australia?

Let’s start with some context – what was Mr Russell-Moyle trying to accomplish by picking up the Mace? According to the UK Parliament’s website, ‘The mace in Parliament is the symbol of royal authority and without it neither House can meet or pass laws.’ So essentially, what Mr Russell-Moyle was trying to do was shut down the UK House of Commons by removing its source of authority. As you can see in the video, the Mace did not leave the Chamber (though Mr Russell-Moyle did, after being ejected by Speaker John Bercow) and so no lasting harm was done.

In Australia, we’ve only been able to find records of one Member grabbing the Mace, and the circumstances are somewhat strange. The year was 1914, and numbers in the House were tight. Prime Minister Joseph Cook ‘could control the House of Representative only by the casting vote of the Speaker or the chairman of committees’. The tight numbers led to a number of late sittings, and for some Members, opportunities for hijinks.

In May of 1914, the House saw a rare example of a Parliamentary sitting day extending across three actual days, with a sitting starting on Thursday the 21st and concluding on Saturday the 23rd. In the midst of this marathon sitting, Member for Capricornia William Higgs had an idea for a practical joke – he would hide the Mace. Members returned from a break on Friday the 22nd to find the symbol of the Parliament’s authority missing from its usual mount on the table in the Chamber. An attendant later found the Mace underneath a bench on the Opposition side of the Chamber. In Hansard records, Higgs makes a great show of having no idea what could have happened to the ‘bauble’ – a reference to Oliver Cromwell’s reported reference to the British Mace as a ‘fool’s bauble’.

Unfortunately, Higgs’ prank appears to have fallen victim to either poor timing or biting off more than he could chew. In the same period of time in which the Mace was hidden, the Speaker’s copy of May’s Parliamentary Practice (the UK House of Commons’ version of House of Representatives Practice, which Australia used until we produced our first Practice in the 80s) was removed from the chamber and later found in a coal and wood receptacle, with the Speaker’s series of reference notations throughout the book completely removed.

Worse, some keys were removed from doors to the Chamber, preventing attendants from locking the doors at the end of a division call. The ‘irregular conduct’ was deemed so serious that Prime Minister Cook announced that he would form a Select Committee into the behaviour– a move that appears to have caused Higgs to confess to the removal of the Mace, pre-empting the Prime Minister giving notice of a motion to form the Select Committee. Higgs told the House that he had removed the Mace ‘acting in a spirit of frivolity’ – a spirit we can only imagine was emboldened by the extreme length of the sitting ‘day’.

The 5th Parliament was dissolved – leading to Australia’s first ever double dissolution – later in 1914, however the Select Committee on Irregular Conduct and Interference did have time to table an interim report on the matter in June of that year. The report made no findings, but did note that the only occupants of the Chamber at the time the Speaker’s copy of May was removed were Member for Gwydir William Webster, and Higgs himself. Both men denied having anything to do with the removal of May, and the inquiry was not followed up in the 6th Parliament, so the true culprit behind this irregular conduct remains unknown.

While Higgs is the only Member we can definitively say has interfered with the Mace, he’s far from the only one to regard it with some measure of derision. Speakers McDonald and Makin ordered it removed from the table during their tenures – House of Representatives Practice notes that it was therefore absent in 1911–13, 1914–17 and 1929–31. According to Practice, Makin referred to the Mace as ‘a relic of barbarism’.


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