MAHON Hugh

Position
Acting Attorney-General
Years active
During 1916
Portrait of Hugh Mahon (1857-1931), by Swiss Studios, 1900s. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23198631.

HUGH MAHON 1857–19311

Born on 6 January 1857 at Killurin, near Tullamore, King's County,2 in the midlands of Ireland, Hugh Mahon was the thirteenth child of farmer James Mahon and his wife Anna, née McEvoy. Beginning his education with the Christian Brothers, at the age of 10 he went to the United States of America with his family. There, in the tough working conditions of the time, he learned the printing trade. Returning to Ireland around 1880, Mahon worked as a reporter at New Ross in Wexford. In 1881 he was imprisoned for two months with other political activists in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, but was released with suspected tuberculosis. Fleeing to London and again under threat of imprisonment, he decided to emigrate. Travelling under an alias as a paid agent of the Irish National Land League, he sailed for Australia in March 1882.

Until September 1883 he helped manage a tour of the eastern colonies by Irish activists, brothers John and William Redmond, to raise funds for the Land League. Mahon then took up a career in newspaper publishing. In New South Wales he edited papers in Goulburn, was a political reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and briefly owned a newspaper at Gosford. At Manly on 24 September 1888 Mahon married a Melbourne woman, Mary Alice L'Estrange. When she returned to Melbourne for the birth of their second son, Mahon sold his business to follow her and worked in Victoria as a freelance journalist.

Leaving his family in Melbourne temporarily, Mahon moved to Western Australia in 1895, during a period of extremely rapid population growth in the gold fields east of Perth. Acquiring interests in local newspapers, Mahon became editor of the Coolgardie Miner, settled for a time at Menzies as the proprietor of the Menzies Miner, and was later editor of the Kalgoorlie Sun. Increasingly politically active, he used the newspapers to denounce his rivals, and gained some notoriety from a series of libel actions.

Somewhat discredited after standing unsuccessfully for the new colonial seat of North Coolgardie in 1897, Mahon was continuously critical of the government led by Western Australia's first Premier, John Forrest, who had been elected when the colony was granted self-government in 1889. Mahon supported the Separation for Federation movement which, with its core constituency in the gold fields strongly tied to the eastern colonies from which many of the populace originated, threatened to secede from Western Australia if Forrest continued to delay committing the colony to Federation.

Following successful referendums in the other colonies in 1898 and 1899, delegates from all the colonies (with the Western Australian accompanying them as an observer) arrived in London in March 1900 to negotiate the passage of the Constitution Bill through the British Parliament. Ultimately given the opportunity to vote in a referendum on 31 July 1900 – three weeks after the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was assented to by Queen Victoria – Western Australians chose to federate with the eastern states. With the signing of the Proclamation delayed until 17 September to allow for this result, Western Australia was enabled to become part of the Commonwealth of Australia at its establishment on 1 January 1901. Standing as a Labor candidate for the federal seat of Coolgardie, Mahon was successful at the election on 29 March and took his place in the first Commonwealth Parliament which opened in Melbourne on 9 May 1901.

Valuable to the Party as a long-term member of the House of Representatives, for his articulate diatribe in debate and his consistent passion for the Irish-Catholic cause, Mahon was a member of the earliest Labor ministries. Regarded as a competent administrator, he served as Postmaster-General in the brief Chris Watson3 government of 1904, and as Minister for Home Affairs under Andrew Fisher in 1908-09, but (by a narrow margin) missed being elected by the Labor Caucus for a ministerial position in the 1910-13 Fisher government. Mahon was a member of two royal commissions, on ocean shipping services in 1906 and on the pearling industry in 1912-13. When his Coolgardie electorate was abolished in a redistribution in 1913, he lost the new seat of Dampier, but returned to parliament at the end of that year after standing unopposed in a by-election for the seat of Kalgoorlie.

In the Labor government led by Fisher from 17 September 1914 – later by Billy Hughes from October 1915 – Mahon was first an Honorary Minister and then from 14 December 1914, Minister for External Affairs. On occasion he acted as Attorney-General, including during 1916 when he contributed several advices to the Opinion Book, eight of which on various topics were selected for publication in Volume 2. A reluctant participant in the move to expel Prime Minister Hughes from the Labor Party over his stance on conscription, Mahon resigned from Cabinet on 14 November 1916. He lost his seat in the May 1917 election, but regained Kalgoorlie in December 1919.

At odds during his parliamentary career with those contemporaries who deemed him bitter or lacking in humour, Mahon was uniquely expelled from parliament at the end of it. After the death in Ireland of a prominent nationalist who had been on a hunger strike, Mahon made a vitriolic attack on British policy in Ireland, and on the Empire, at a public meeting which also called for the establishment of an Australian republic. In rancorous debate on a motion moved by Hughes – by then leading a Nationalist government, in power with the general support of the Country Party – Mahon refused to defend himself in the House of Representatives. With only the outnumbered Labor members dissenting, it was resolved that Mahon's conduct had been seditious, disloyal and inconsistent with his oath of allegiance and he was expelled on 12 November 1920. He contested the subsequent by-election in Kalgoorlie, but was beaten by the Nationalist candidate.

Mahon, who was managing director of the Catholic Church Property Insurance Company between 1912 and 1931 and an adviser to Archbishops Carr and Mannix, remained influential in the church and the Irish national movement. He took a long overseas trip to Europe and Ireland in 1921, returning home in June 1922. Survived by his wife and four children he died aged 74 on 28 August 1931 at Ringwood, Victoria, and was buried in Box Hill Cemetery. In a controversial incident, during the customary condolence motion in the House of Representatives on 16 September 1931 one member, recalling the expulsion, refused to concur with those praising Mahon's public service and intellectual fearlessness and dissociated himself from the formal expression of regret.4 Joining in the tribute, Hughes acknowledged that he and Mahon had not always seen eye to eye, but professed unceasing respect and admiration for Mahon's high ideals, administrative capacity, outstanding skills in parliamentary debate and fervent love of his country.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • HJ Gibbney, 'Mahon, Hugh (1857–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mahon-hugh-7460/text12993, accessed 21 May 2012.
    • Helen Irvine (editor), The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999.
    • Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, 1956.
  2. Renamed County Offaly after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formation of the Republic of Ireland in 1921.
  3. John Christian (Chris) Watson was the first Labor Prime Minister, from 27 April to 17 August 1904.
  4. Australia, House of Representatives, Official Hansard, No. 38, 1931, 16 September 1931, pp. 3-5. The dissenter was Roland Green, Country Party, Member for Richmond, NSW. Hughes at that time was in the United Australia Party (UAP) and Member for North Sydney.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 687

INCONSISTENCY WHETHER STATE HAS POWER TO…

Opinion Number. 695

WAR PRECAUTIONS: PRICE FIXING WHETHER…

Opinion Number. 697

COMMONWEALTH'S POWERS OF INQUIRY: INTER-STATE…

Opinion Number. 707

COMMONWEALTH BANK: COMMONWEALTH IMMUNITY FROM…

Opinion Number. 708

FREEDOM OF INTERSTATE TRADE STATE…

Opinion Number. 718

CUSTOMS DUTY ENTITLEMENT TO DRAWBACK: OWNER…

Opinion Number. 719

DEFENCE: PRICE FIXING WHETHER COMMONWEALTH…

Opinion Number. 728

PARDONING POWER CONCURRENT SENTENCES FOR…