The Fascinating Historical Sidebar To Super Saturday

The weekend’s by-elections open a window to a piece of forgotten history.

As Labor faces the likely loss of at least one seat in this weekend’s Super Saturday by-elections, you will hear many pundits stressing how rare that is.

It has been 97 years and seven months since an Australian government has gained a seat from the opposition at a by-election. The swings, traditionally, go against governments.

But it is worth going back to the last time it happened.

In 1920, the Labor MP for Kalgoorlie, Hugh Mahon, became the first and only Australian politician to be expelled from Parliament for “sedition.”

He was never formally charged. In fact, he was permitted for stand for the seat again on the Labor ticket. With his narrow loss at the subsequent by-election, he became a footnote in history as Billy Hughes’ Nationalist government won his seat.

Former Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Hugh Mahon’s treasonous language had come in a rabble-rousing speech he gave after an Irish nationalist died on a hunger strike in London’s Brixton Prison. Terence MacSwiney was a poet and playwright, the Lord Mayor of Cork and an advocate for non-violent resistance whom Mahatma Gandhi credited as an influence on his own emerging philosophy.

MacSwiney was revered by the Irish, who were at that time fighting for independence from Britain.

So when the Irish-born Hugh Mahon stood in front of a crowd in Richmond, Melbourne, emotions were high. The words that turned out to be fatal to his political career came when he called Britain “this bloody and accursed Empire.”

It was too much for Billy Hughes. Some 60,000 Australians had just died fighting for that same Empire. In 1920, the shattered survivors had barely made it home.

Members of the 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion making a wagon track from planks of wood at Chateau Wood during World War One (AAP Image/ Supplied by Australian War Memorial)

Hughes accused Mahon of sedition and disloyalty. After a vote in the Chamber, Mahon was expelled, never to return.

Mahon’s story reminds of when Australia’s deepest faultline, at least for the Anglo-Celtic population, was between Protestants and Catholics. That lasted into the 1960s.

Hugh Mahon deserves being remembered for one other reason. He may have been no admirer of the Crown, but he was ahead of his time when it came to Australia’s First Peoples.  He unsuccessfully sought a Royal Commission into the treatment of Aboriginal people in WA. He also pushed for constitutional changes so the Commonwealth could make laws to benefit Aboriginal Australians.

Turnbull will be hoping history doesn't repeat. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)

That change finally came but not until the referendum of 1967.

As for Billy Hughes, winning the 1920 Kalgoorlie by-election did him no lasting good. At the subsequent federal election, his Nationalist party lost its majority and his turbulent Prime Ministership was over.

Not an historical detail we can expect Malcolm Turnbull to remind us of, should he win any seats this weekend.