Parliamentary Mace: keep it or lose it?
A fool’s bauble? Oliver Cromwell thought so. That’s what he called it, when dispensing with Parliament in 1653.
A relic of barbarism? Labor’s Parliamentary Speaker, Norman Makin, 1929, wasn’t using it.
Thomas Jefferson, and Tom Paine, would agree. Junk the Mace. Maybe even junk the institution. Rip it up and start again.
American Revolutionary Jefferson believed in the right of every generation to tear down the systems of government they’d received and start again. Every eighteen or twenty years he thought would be about right.
Why, should he and his associates be the only ones to enjoy the intense political joy of writing and formulating a constitution, of building a new society?
Tom Paine, believed both royalism and aristocracy should be torn down. ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’ he wrote, summing up the case for revolution as debate about how best to make and run a society swirled and churned about in the late 18th century.
To be truly democratic, society needed a revolution. Throw it out. Clean slate. Start again. Build it all anew, this time from the ground up, with only reason and common agreement to guide you.
Against this we have an institution. Parliament. In origin about as democratic as a medieval bashing stick.
In origin, the King could adjourn and dissolve it largely at will, and the Mace itself was a physical expression of the King’s sovereign authority and power.
Whilst the mace lay on the parliamentary table in the House of Commons, Parliament was in session. When it was not, there was no Parliament. There was no power to make, shape, change and protect a polity and its people.
The King was the real engine of power which made the Parliament go, and the Mace was a sort of ignition key.
Yet in the centuries since, Parliament has transformed totally. The transformation has essentially revolved around who really controls the Mace – the executive, sovereign power of the nation.
It took two Revolutions, a decapitated king (and another deposed), a civil war and much other grief besides in the seventeenth century for England’s Parliament to wrest supremacy decisively away from the King.
By the time Australia was founded in 1788 the parliamentary Speaker, controller of the Mace, was no longer the King’s agent in Parliament, but one of Parliament’s own.
And, following the logic of some deep, exquisitely inverted symbolic irony, the more the King lost direct, sovereign power, and lost control of the Mace, so did the appearance of the parliamentary Mace itself alter. As the King lost supremacy in real political life to Parliament, so did the Mace’s crown swell up in size and visual significance.
Then the fight got wider, as those excluded from a direct say in the nation struggled to win the right to themselves participate in Parliament.
In 1832 the prospering middle classes of the British nation won the right.
The working classes attempt – Chartism – was rebuffed, only to be won in the Australian colonies.
Eureka’s rebels were largely Chartists. The difference here was that the rights were won.
Then, a few decades later, Australian women were the first in the world to win the right to both vote and stand for election to Parliament, in 1902.
What had been won, effectively, was the right for all to wield the Mace.
To turn the key in the engine of power, to make the engine head in new directions, respond to new hands.
Now the Mace denotes Parliament’s real source of power in a democracy –the people, the voters. An object of power, it remembers a long fight to wrest it out of the King’s and others’ hands. It remembers also the emancipatory potential of legitimately constituted authority. It tells of the way a core institution can alter, change and adapt, as well as protect, sustain, and rule.
In a settler nation, where questions of authentic sovereignty are vexed and recurring, it’s worth asking: is this really the sort of thing we want to ditch?