Disorder in the House

The Victorian parliament is in the news a lot these days, mostly for the wrong reasons. Google “Victorian parliament” and the results over the past month frequently include words such as “chaotic scenes”, “turmoil”, “mess”. In this finely balanced parliament, with the speaker under fire from the Labor opposition and from an independent member who holds the balance of power, members are not behaving as paragons of propriety. Yet, so far, no one has accused the members of being drunk.

In New South Wales recently a minister was sacked after allegations that he had been drunk in the house. But Victorians would be quick to point out that they are a cut above that sort of behaviour, pointing to their northern counterparts’ sordid parliamentary past as depicted so colourfully in Cyril Pearls’ racy Wildmen of Sydney (WH Allen, London, 1958). After all, Edmund Barton, speaker of the NSW parliament and later Australia’s first prime minister, was not nicknamed “Toby Tosspot” for nothing. And that colourful Irish-Australian William “Paddy” Crick had once been expelled from the NSW parliament after he had been in his cups and had defied the chairman of the Committee of the Whole. He might have got away with it had he left the house quietly when the chairman directed him, but, as Hansard records, the charge against him of contempt of parliament went on to say “and afterwards having violently resisted the Serjeant-at-Arms when that officer was directed to remove him, and continued such resistance until other officers rendered assistance, causing a great disorder and scandal” (NSWPD, 12 November 1890, p 5188). The report in The Sydney Morning Herald was a little less anodyne: “The attempt at removal was violently resisted, and it required the strength of three or four of the officers of the Assembly to force the member, struggling, resisting, and kicking, outside the House” (SMH 13 November 1890, p. 4). While his fellow members were sufficiently scandalised to vote immediately for his expulsion, his constituents were more forgiving, re-electing him at the by-election held the following month.

It might be said that by expelling Crick the members demonstrated their abhorrence of such behaviour. Indeed, the Herald argued in its report of the incident that the stern determination shown by the house was the most encouraging aspect of the recent attempts at disorder by “a small section of less than half-a-dozen members by whom the whole House of 137 members has been made to bear a reputation of an undesirable kind”. In other words the honour of the NSW parliament was being besmirched by the bad behaviour of a few drunken louts. Interestingly, south of the Murray it was the corollary that led to the expulsion in 1876 of another Irish-Australian member of parliament Belfast-born James McKean. (Is there something about Irish-Australians and expulsion from parliament?)*

McKean’s offence was slandering the Victorian assembly by alleging that members came into the house ‘staggering drunk’. McKean, a lawyer, made his derogatory remarks while appearing for a client in the Collingwood Police Court. During the hearing the magistrate suggested that the legislature should change a relevant law. McKean’s response, which unfortunately for him was reported in the press, was, “Call such a drunk and immoral lot of individuals legislators? Why, the lowest in Collingwood are not so near so bad as they” (VPD, 26 July 1876, p 153). A select committee was established to investigate the matter and, following the tabling of its report, the motion to expel McKean was passed on the voices.

So, while the present Victorian Legislative Assembly might be in chaos, turmoil and a mess, its members have not as yet plumbed the depths of their 19th-century counterparts. But as my mum used to say, “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse”. Let’s hope not.

*Note:

Nine members have been expelled from the lower houses of Australian parliaments, six of them Irish-Australians. Offaly-born Hugh Mahon was expelled from the Commonwealth House of Representatives in 1920 for seditious and disloyal utterances. Five members have been expelled from the Victorian Legislative Assembly, three of whom were Irish-Australians: Leitrim-born Patrick Costello 1861 for electoral fraud; Belfast-born James McKean 1869 for breach of privilege and Edward Finley 1901 for seditious libel. The other two were Scotsman James Butters and Welshman Charles Edwin Jones, both 1869 for corruption. Three members have been expelled from the NSW Legislative Assembly, two of whom were Irish-Australians: William Crick 1890 for contempt of the house and Dublin-born Richard Atkinson Price 1917 for conduct unworthy of a member in making allegations against a minister. The third was Englishman Ezekial Alexander Baker 1881 for conduct unworthy of a member, namely misappropriation of funds. All three were re-elected by their constituents.

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