What’s what in Parliament: The Mace

If you’ve ever watched the proceedings in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom or Canada, any provincial legislature, or the Houses of Representatives of Australia or New Zealand, to name but a few legislative bodies, you may have noticed the ceremonial Mace resting on the Table, or perhaps being carried into or out of the Chamber.

The Mace today is the symbol of the Speaker’s authority. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages, when maces were an officer’s weapon used to break through chain-mail or plate armour. The Sergeants-at-Arms of the King’s Bodyguard were equipped with maces, which were stamped with the Royal Arms and carried by the Sergeants in the exercise of their powers of arrest without warrant. Because of this, they became recognized symbols of the King’s authority. Maces were also carried by civic authorities.

As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.):

Royal Sergeants-at-Arms began to be assigned to the Commons early in the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Sergeant’s mace had evolved from a weapon of war to an ornately embellished emblem of office. The Sergeant-at-Arms’ power to arrest without warrant enabled the Commons to arrest or commit persons who offended them, without having to resort to the ordinary courts of law. This penal jurisdiction is the basis of the concept of parliamentary privilege and, since the exercise of this privilege depended on the powers vested in the Royal Sergeant-at-Arms, the Mace—his emblem of office—was identified with the growing privileges of the Commons and became recognized as the symbol of the authority of the House and of the Speaker through the House.

Each body which uses a Mace has a guardian of the Mace. In the UK House of Commons, and the Australian House of Representatives, this is the Serjeant-at-Arms, as is the case in Canadian House of Commons and provincial legislature (although in Canada, we spell it “Sergeant-at-Arms”). In the UK House of Lords, the guardian of the Mace is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or simply Black Rod), in the Australian Senate, it is the Esquire Bedell. I won’t attempt to name them all – the point to remember is that each body has a guardian of the Mace.

Practice surrounding the Mace varies in each jurisdiction. In the United Kingdom and in Canada, the Mace is considered integral to the functioning of the House; indeed, no business may be conducted in the House unless the Mace is present, and this has been the case since the 17th century. In the UK House of Commons, on each day that the House is sitting the mace is carried to the chamber at the head of the Speaker’s procession by the Serjeant-at-Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table. Interfering with the mace constitutes gross disorderly conduct and is a contempt of the House.

In the Canadian House of Commons, at the opening of a sitting of the House, the Mace is laid across the foot of the Table with its crown pointing to the government side of the House. When the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, when the Speaker is not present, it is placed on brackets below the foot of the Table. During the election of a Speaker, the Mace rests on a cushion on the floor beneath the Table. During a sitting, it is considered a breach of decorum for Members to pass between the Speaker and the Mace. Members have also been found in contempt of the House for touching the Mace during proceedings in the Chamber. When the House is adjourned, the Mace is kept in the Speaker’s office. During longer adjournments and recesses, it may be displayed in or near the Commons Chamber, although this has not occurred in recent years.

In the Australian House of Representatives, the standing orders require that, once the newly elected Speaker has taken the Chair, the Mace, which until then remains under the Table, is placed on the Table. This is the only mention of the Mace in the standing orders. In practice the Mace is placed on the Table by the Serjeant-at-Arms when the Speaker takes the Chair at the commencement of each sitting and it remains there until the Speaker leaves the Chair at the adjournment of the sitting. The Mace remains on the Table if the sitting is suspended for a short time, but the current practice is for it to be removed during an overnight suspension.

The Mace traditionally accompanies the Speaker on formal occasions, such as his or her presentation to the Governor-General after election, when the House goes to hear the Governor-General’s speech opening Parliament, and on the presentation of the Address in Reply to the Governor-General at Government House. As the Mace is also a symbol of royal authority, it is not taken into the presence of the Crown’s representative on these occasions but is left outside and covered with a green cloth, the symbol being considered unnecessary in the presence of the actual authority. When the Queen arrived to open Parliament in 1954, 1974 and 1977 she was met on the front steps of the provisional Parliament House by the Speaker. The Serjeant-at-Arms, accompanying the Speaker, did not carry the Mace on these occasions.

It is normal practice for the Mace to be used when the House of Representatives is sitting. However it was not considered essential for the Mace to be on the Table for the House to be properly constituted during the period when the Mace lent by the Victorian Legislative Assembly was in use, and during this time there were periods (1911–13, 1914–17, 1929–31) when the Mace was removed from the Chamber completely (on the instructions of the Speaker).

In New Zealand, during a sitting with the Speaker or one of the Speaker’s deputies in the chair, the Mace remains on the Table of the House. When the Speaker leaves the chair for the House to go into a committee of the whole House, the Mace is placed under the Table. While the Mace has become a corporate symbol of the House in New Zealand as well as in the United Kingdom, it is no more than that. The House had no Mace at all for the first 12 years of its existence, and although the absence of a Mace is not usual, it does not prejudice the continued sitting of the House or affect the validity of anything done at that sitting.

As stated above, in the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons, at least, interfering with the mace constitutes gross disorderly conduct and is a contempt of the House. There have been a few examples of Members misbehaving with the Mace. In the UK House of Commons, in 1976, Conservative MP Michael Heseltine famously seized the mace after a particularly heated debate. The government was attempting to steer its Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill through the Commons.

The Bill was hotly contested, with Michael Heseltine leading the Conservative opposition. The vote on an amendment had been tied, and was lost on the Speaker’s vote. The vote on the main government motion – which one would have expected also to be tied – was in fact carried by the Labour Government. At this, some of the Welsh Labour MPs began to sing ‘The Red Flag’. Heseltine, infuriated by the traditional Labour Party anthem, grabbed the mace and held it over his head. He was restrained by Jim Prior, replaced the mace and left the Chamber. The Speaker suspended the sitting until the following day. The next morning Michael Heseltine apologised unreservedly for his behaviour.

In the Canadian House of Commons, on October 30, 1991, angry at having missed a vote, MP Ian Waddell (Port Moody–Coquitlam) attempted to take hold of the Mace as it was borne out of the Chamber at the end of the sitting. The Member’s actions were judged to be an attempt to obstruct the House, as well as a challenge to the Chair’s authority to adjourn the sitting. A prima facie breach of privilege was found and a motion was adopted calling the Member to the Bar to be admonished by the Speaker. On April 17, 2002, angry with the outcome of a vote on his private Member’s bill, MP Keith Martin (Esquimalt–Juan de Fuca) took hold of the Mace. This action was considered to be in contempt of the House and a prima facie breach of privilege was found. On April 23, 2002, the House adopted a motion calling not only for the Member to appear at the Bar of the House, but also to apologize for his actions. The next day, Mr. Martin appeared at the Bar and apologized to the House.


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