If you have a question about the House of Representatives, you can ask us! Our research team will stop at nothing to find you an answer, no matter how obscure the topic.
This week’s question starts with an email from a member of the public to the Serjeant-at-Arms, James Catchpole, in a recent sitting week. Having seen an image of the Mace online, the writer asked the Serjeant if they could see some higher-quality images of the Mace, and about what happened when our current Mace replaced the House’s previous Mace in 1951.
This is a question we’ve answered before in an article in the About the House newsletter, so we’ve taken that article and updated it with some new information.
The badge on the Mace sits on top, just below the protruding crown that caps the ceremonial weapon. With the permission of Speaker of the House the Hon Tony Smith MP, we have been able to copy down the inscription on the seal. In abbreviated Latin, it reads:
GEORGIUS VI DEI GRATIA MAG. BR. HIB. ET TERR. TRANSMAR. QUAE IN DIT. SUNT BRIT. REX FIDEI DEFENSOR. COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA.
Translated and un-abbreviated, we have in English:
George the Sixth, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the Lands across the sea which are in the British Dominion. King, Defender of the Faith. Commonwealth of Australia.
This was the Great Seal of the Commonwealth as it existed in 1951, the year in which a delegation from the United Kingdom’s House of Commons presented the Mace to Australia’s House of Representatives. Interestingly, the text on the Seal represents a very specific portion of George VI’s reign – following the passage of the Indian Independence Act, George VI lost the title of Indiae Imperator, or Emperor of India. As such, that title – originally a part of the language of George VI’s Great Seal – does not appear on Australia’s Mace.
The Australian Great Seal, featured on the Mace, features the badge of each of Australia’s six states (a lion for Tasmania, a swan for Western Australia, and so on), surrounding the Shield of the Royal Coat of Arms (featuring lions and a harp).
Though the identity of the monarch has of course changed since we received our Mace (George VI died in 1953, succeeded by Elizabeth II), the text on the Mace has not been altered. This appears to be a decision that varies between different Westminster-style parliaments – the Mace of the Canadian House of Commons, presented to that House in 1917, now features the initials E R (Elizabeth Regina) inscribed, and logically this must have been added to that Mace after 1953.
Regardless of specific badges in use, the Mace is described by House of Representatives Practice as a symbol of royal authority. In cases where the Mace is brought into the presence of the sovereign or their representative, the Governor-General, the Mace is covered with a green cloth, with the understanding that a symbol of royal authority is unnecessary in the presence of the actual authority.
Hansard, of course, provides a record of the moment the Mace came into the House’s possession. Hansard describes the changeover as follows:
Mr. Law thereupon handed the mace to the Serjeant-at-Arms. The Serjeant-at-Arms having advanced to the head of the table, the Deputy Serjeant-at-Arms removed the old mace. The Serjeant-at-Arms having faced the Chair and replaced the new mace on the table.
A photo of the exact moment the new Mace was presented to the House is available on Trove, the digital archive service run by the National Library of Australia.
In receiving the Mace, Prime Minister Robert Menzies discussed the evolution of the meaning ascribed to the Mace by Westminster Parliaments over the centuries. Menzies’ comments, by and large, reflect the House’s current attitude towards the Mace.
Between 1901 and 1951, the House of Representatives used the Mace of the Victorian House of Assembly, which was loaned to the federal parliament by our Victorian colleagues and returned in 1952. This is one of quite a few influences the Victorian Parliament has had on the House of Representatives. In another research article, written with the assistance of the Museum of Australian Democracy, we have revealed that the practice of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition sitting at the Table, rather than on the front benches, is one we appear to have adopted entirely from the Victorian Legislative Assembly. That seating arrangement does not feature in any other State Parliament.
In the passage from Hansard linked above, you might notice Mr Richard Law, the leader of the delegation from the United Kingdom, making mention of Australia having lost a Mace. With respect to Mr Law, we believe he may have been referring to Victoria rather than the House of Representatives. Between 1901 and 1951, the Victorian Mace (in the custody of the House) was not lost – though it was once hidden by a Member acting ‘in the spirit of frivolity’ during a very long sitting day. I believe Mr Law was referring to the incident of 1891, in which the Victorian Mace was apparently stolen and never recovered.