In recent times allegations have flown regarding Members of the NSW Parliament being drunk in the House, and this has led to speculation about declining standards of behaviour amongst our leaders.
But we needn’t worry too much – the Parliamentarians of today are mostly model citizens compared to many of their 19th century counterparts.
Cyril Pearl in his “Wild Men of Sydney” described the NSW Parliamentary scene of the 1880’s as anything but an edifying spectacle.
NSW Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney c 1895. (Charles Kerry Photograph)
“Violent behaviour and violent language were condoned or scarcely rebuked; fights between members were not uncommon and the sight of a drunken statesman falling off his bench during a debate excited amusement rather than indignation”.
The association between alcohol and legislation was a strong one and regarded as entirely normal. Pearl recounted that “…..a timid proposal that grog should be banned in the Parliamentary refreshment room was easily defeated”.
Sir John Robertson, Premier of NSW on five different occasions during the 19th Century, remarked that “None of the men who in this colony have left footprints behind them have been cold water men”. Sir John restored the financial affairs of the Reform Club, when as President, he advised the members that “We must drink the bloody club out of debt”.
Sir John Robertson, Premier of NSW, c 1880. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
The newly elected Adolphus Taylor told his supporters in 1882 that “Mudgee is represented by three good drinking men – myself, Sir John Robertson and David Buchanan”.
But perhaps the most notorious drunkard in the House was John Norton, editor and owner of the “Truth” newspaper and Member for Sydney-Fitzroy in 1898. On one occasion, during Parliamentary debate, he was removed from the House for “shouting drunkenly, to Mr. J. C. Watson, “Damn and f.. you” , and on the last night of the session he was so drunk that he urinated on the floor of the Chamber. Pearl recorded that he was then “dragged out by two constables to the accompaniment of salvos of ripe oaths and the crash of broken glass…”
John Norton, Member for Fitzroy, c 1898.
(City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/315
Such lamentable scenes now belong in the past and the average politician of today is a hard working and effective contributor to Australian society. Any lapses that may have occurred over the last few months would barely have raised an eyebrow in the Parliament of the late 19th Century. The election of women Members to the House has undoubtedly helped raise the standards of behaviour in this respect.