One hundred years ago, on 11 and 12 November 1920, the House of Representatives debated and agreed to a motion proposed by the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes (Nat., Bradfield, NSW), expelling Hugh Mahon (ALP, Kalgoorlie, WA) from the House. The motion stated that Mahon had:
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.
In addition, the House resolved that Mahon’s seat be declared vacant, and a by-election was accordingly held for Kalgoorlie on 18 December 1920. Mahon contested the by-election for the ALP but lost to the Nationalist Party candidate, George James Foley. Mahon’s expulsion is the only occasion on which either House of the Commonwealth Parliament has expelled one of its members.
Mahon was born in Ireland in 1857 and was a strong supporter of Irish self-government. He had spent two months in a Dublin jail in 1881 on account of his political activism prior to fleeing to London and then to Australia in 1882. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1901 and served in four Labor ministries under Prime Ministers Chris Watson (ALP, South Sydney, NSW), Andrew Fisher (ALP, Wide Bay, Qld) and Billy Hughes (ALP, West Sydney, NSW), as well as serving on two royal commissions during his parliamentary career.
The public meeting cited in the expulsion motion was organised and presided over by Mahon in his capacity as President of the Irish Ireland League, following the death in a London prison of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, on 25 October 1920. MacSwiney had commenced a hunger strike after being arrested and sentenced to prison for sedition and possessing a police cipher code, which eventually led to his death 74 days later. Mahon was reported by the Argus to have stated that ‘Alderman McSwiney’s [sic] poor widow sobbed over his coffin. If there was a just God in heaven that sob would reach around the world, and one day would shake the foundations of this bloody and accursed Empire.’
Debate on the motion proposing to expel Mahon from the House began only four days after his statement at the public meeting, and was agreed to along party lines. The matter was not considered by a committee as the House did not establish a Committee of Privileges until 1944. The debate on the expulsion motion, and the associated motion declaring Mahon’s seat vacant, extended from 2.43 pm on 11 November 1920 until shortly before 5 am on 12 November 1920.
Mahon did not attend the House to defend his conduct, indicating in a letter to the Prime Minister that he was unable to attend due to an accident. The Leader of the Opposition, Frank Tudor (ALP, Yarra, Vic), proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have eviscerated the motion and instead expressed the House’s opposition to ‘all sedition and disloyalty and the subversion of constitutional means for the redress of grievances’. Tudor’s motion also stated that the allegations against Mahon should not be dealt with by the House because they did not concern his conduct in Parliament, and cited the judicature, rather than the Parliament, as the proper mechanism for dealing with a charge of sedition. Frank Anstey (ALP, Bourke, Vic) attempted to move another amendment to the effect that witnesses to the incident should be called ‘before the sentence is put into operation’, but was prevented from doing so by a successful closure motion.
Mahon died 11 years after his expulsion, on 28 August 1931, and the House of Representatives agreed to a condolence motion on 16 September 1931. The affair was still controversial, however, as shown by the decision of one member (Roland Green, (CP, Richmond, NSW)) to take the highly unusual step of dissociating himself from the condolence motion—an action which was described as being in ‘very bad taste’ by another member, Rowland James (ALP, Hunter, NSW). The Mahon expulsion was revisited in the House recently when, on 21 November 2016, Graham Perrett (ALP, Moreton, Qld) moved a motion stating that the House recognises the expulsion of Mahon was ‘unjust’ and a ‘misuse of the power then vested in the House’. Debate on this motion was adjourned and was not returned to.
After the Mahon expulsion, both the House of Representatives and the Senate retained the power to expel their members for almost 70 years until the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987, section 8 of which provides that ‘A House does not have the power to expel a member from membership of the House.’ The removal of this power had been recommended by the October 1984 final report of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. The Committee considered that the power to expel members should be removed on the principled grounds that it is for the electors to determine the constitution of the Houses; that the Houses would still retain sufficient powers to discipline their members; and that section 44 of the Constitution already provided ‘something approaching a statutory code of disqualification’. The Committee considered that the Mahon expulsion was a case of the power to expel being ‘demonstrably misused’, and that it also revealed the unavoidable danger of that power being abused for partisan purposes.