MONAHAN, George Henry (1873–1944)
Clerk of the Senate, 1920–38

George Henry Monahan, fourth Clerk of the Senate, remains the longest serving holder of that office. His parliamentary career at state and federal levels spanned the ten years prior to Federation, the establishment of the Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne in 1901 and the move to the provisional Parliament House in Canberra in 1927. He felt at first hand the effects of war and depression on national government.

Monahan was born on 30 December 1873 in Orange, New South Wales, son of the Reverend Joseph Monahan, and his wife Isabella Jane, née Young. His father was second minister to the superintendent of the Orange Circuit of the Methodist Church. In 1888 Monahan spent a year at the recently founded Sydney Boys’ High School, the family then living at Kogarah in southern Sydney. An accomplished tennis player, Monahan would represent both New South Wales and Victoria in interstate championships. After moving to Melbourne he had become a member of the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club of which he was elected an honorary life member in 1915, the year he won the club’s gentlemen’s singles championship. A team-mate in the 1909 Victorian side against New South Wales was Norman Brookes, renowned Davis Cup player and Australia’s first Wimbledon men’s singles champion. Later in life, Monahan continued to list tennis as a recreation. He was a well-known member of the Public Service Central Staffs’ Tennis Association, instigated in 1909 by R. A. Broinowski.[1]

Monahan spent his entire working life of forty-eight years and nine months in parliamentary service, commencing as a junior clerk with the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales on 17 March 1890. In May 1901 he took a significant drop in salary (from £428 to £360 per annum) to join the Senate Department as Clerk of the Papers (and accountant), one of only ten staff in the fledgling department. By assisting the Attorney-General’s Department with the proofreading of Acts, Monahan was able to supplement his income—with the approval of the President of the Senate. Promotion came in 1908 when Monahan was appointed Clerk of Select Committees, Usher of the Black Rod and secretary of the Joint House Committee at a salary of £475 per annum. From July 1915 he was Clerk-Assistant and on 28 August 1920 he became Clerk of the Senate at a salary of £1000 per annum.[2]

The division of parliamentary administration into five departments in 1901 survived challenge by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher in 1910, and arose again as an issue in October 1920, when a select committee was appointed to inquire into the position of Senate officials in relation to the Commonwealth Public Service Act 1918. When the select committee questioned Monahan about his administration of the Joint House Committee, he drew attention to a direction from the President, H. T. Givens, that he was to restrict his evidence to matters within the committee’s terms of reference, namely the position of Senate officials. Monahan described the duties of parliamentary officers as varying ‘from time to time, and according to the Parliament’s activities’. Givens argued strongly for maintaining separate departments. A majority of the committee recommended that the Senate retain control of its own officers but that classification matters should be handled by the Public Service Commissioner. These recommendations were reflected in the Public ServiceBill1921, which preserved the five department structure, a structure that persisted until 2004, when three service departments were amalgamated into one.

Another administrative controversy arose in 1921 when the Appropriation Bill contained a £250 increase in the annual salary of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, without a corresponding increase for the Senate Clerk. Debates on the issue in the House canvassed the arguably more onerous duties of the House Clerk, but the Senate insisted on the principle of equal salaries. Following an informal conference of representatives of both houses, the Senate view eventually prevailed. Given the effect of proportional representation on the Senate from 1949, it could now be argued that the comparative onerousness of the Clerks’ duties has been reversed.[3]

A highlight of Monahan’s career was the move to the new seat of government in Canberra and the opening of the provisional Parliament House in 1927. Monahan had visited Canberra in October 1925 (accompanied by the Usher of the Black Rod, Robert Broinowski) in order to determine furniture and storage requirements for the new house. The first Clerk of the Senate to serve in Canberra, Monahan participated in the great events of 9 May when the Parliament was officially opened by the Duke of York. As Clerk, he read to the members of both houses assembled in the Senate chamber the King’s commission to the Duke to inaugurate proceedings at the new seat of government, a lengthy document running to more than two columns of Hansard.

One of the effects of the Depression was the reduction of salaries for those on the government payroll. The Financial Emergency Act 1931 brought about the reduction of Monahan’s salary from £1200 to £1046; this raised the vexed and technical question of whether his 4 per cent superannuation contribution should be calculated on the higher or lower salary. Monahan had earlier won a dispute with Treasury allowing him to make a larger than usual contribution to his superannuation fund on the basis of a complicated issue relating to his former service in New South Wales and the effect of section 84 of the Constitution. On that occasion, the Solicitor-General and Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Sir Robert Garran, had advised in Monahan’s favour but this time Garran’s advice was that Monahan’s contributions should be based on his salary as reduced by the Act, thus affecting the ultimate size of his pension.

During consideration of the budget and the supply estimates in the House of Representatives in October 1932 the salaries of high-level public servants came again under scrutiny. Although claiming Monahan as a close personal friend, W. M. Nairn, the MHR for Perth, moved an amendment to reduce the Senate Clerk’s salary by £350. If successful, the amendment would have been the first of a series of such amendments to reduce the salaries of senior public servants at this time. Nairn asserted that the Clerk need not be ‘specially skilled . . . He must, of course, be a gentleman of good bearing, and possess tact; but no extraordinary qualifications are needed’. In speaking against the amendment, which was withdrawn, Sir Littleton Groom, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, spoke of the ‘high degree of scholarship’ required: ‘Even persons eminent in the legal profession would not attempt to pose as experts in parliamentary practice and procedure’.

Parliamentary savings were addressed in a more systematic way when the presiding officers requested the Public Service Board to inquire into the organisation of the parliamentary departments. The report, undertaken by J. T. Pinner, a Public Service Board inspector, was completed in early 1933 but not made public, a disability that did not prevent its being debated in both houses. Press reports linked the non-publication of the report with an opinion attributed to the President of the Senate, Senator P. J. Lynch, that it ‘might be regarded as not reflecting the utmost credit on the heads of the various Parliamentary departments and the officers under them’. In the Senate, Lynch declared that the interpretation put upon this statement was not as he had intended, and that the heads, including his own Clerk, were ‘efficient, painstaking, and conscientious’. The hand of Monahan was evident in the unusually detailed account of Lynch’s denial in the Senate’s official record, Journals of the Senate, a record, unlike Hansard, controlled personally by the Clerk of the Senate. The report itself found no scope for large reductions in expenditure, since this could be made only by restricting services for members and senators.[4]

As the Senate’s chief adviser on practice and procedure, Monahan performed his duties with diligence and skill, responding with characteristic composure to whatever situations arose in the Senate. These included the administration of the oath to Sir Robert Gibson, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Commonwealth Bank, when, as the first witness ever called before the bar of the Senate, Gibson gave evidence in relation to the Commonwealth Bank Bill (No. 2) 1931, a controversial episode that resulted in the suspension of Senator J. P. D. Dunn for refusing to withdraw objectionable words.

Another dramatic episode occurred in the following year when the new Senate convened in August, following the election of the previous December. Monahan, in accordance with standing orders, was acting as chairman of the Senate pending the election of the President. During the nomination process, he was required to rule on a point of order taken by Senator George Pearce that Senator Dunn’s speech, supporting his own nomination of Senator Arthur Rae, was not relevant. Monahan attempted to bring Dunn to order but the latter moved a motion of dissent from Monahan’s ruling, followed by a motion from Pearce that Dunn’s motion be determined immediately. Further points of order and discussion on the powers of the Clerk in these circumstances followed. Senator Pearce assisted matters by reminding the Clerk that the motion before the chair must be put immediately without debate. In putting the question, Monahan summed up the position: ‘There being at the moment no President of the Senate, the Clerk takes the place of the President for the time being, in which case I assume that he must administer the Standing Orders as he finds them’.

Senator Dunn’s motion of dissent was lost, a ballot between the two remaining candidates was held and Senator Lynch was elected President by a comfortable majority. The uncertainty regarding the Clerk’s powers on such occasions was resolved by an amendment to standing order no. 16, recommended by the Standing Orders Committee (of which Monahan was secretary), specifying that the Clerk had the powers of President under the standing orders when presiding over the election of a new President.

In February 1930 Monahan gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiring into the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate. In contrast with his previous experience before the Select Committee on Senate Officials in 1920, he permitted himself an expansive view of the terms of reference, giving the inquiry the benefit of his broad knowledge of procedures in other jurisdictions, and his personal views. Supporting the creation of committees, Monahan used the occasion to comment on the increasing domination of the Senate by political parties and the consequent decline in the level of detailed scrutiny, stating that ‘the less party element in the Senate the better, in my opinion, for the Senate’.[5]

The Empire Parliamentary Association (EPA)—from 1948 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—was formed in 1911 and Monahan, as Usher of the Black Rod, was one of four Commonwealth officers in charge of arrangements for a visit to Australia by a delegation from the United Kingdom branch in September and October 1913. Monahan accompanied the delegation to all six states. In July 1927 he became honorary secretary of the Commonwealth branch, following the death of the incumbent, Walter Gale, Clerk of the House of Representatives. Monahan remained secretary until his retirement, joining the Commonwealth delegations to Canada in 1928 and the United Kingdom in 1935 (to attend King George V’s silver jubilee celebrations) and 1937 (at the time of George VI’s coronation). His last conference as secretary took place in Australia in 1938. The EPA was complemented by the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Empire Parliaments, established in 1932 with Monahan’s support.

His long period as Clerk of the Senate, broken only by six months’ furlough in 1925, came to an end on the last day of 1938, when he was farewelled with goodwill and affection. Among the tributes in the Senate was a letter from the Prime Minister, J. A. Lyons, praising him for his ‘courtesy and efficiency’. After his retirement, Monahan continued to reside in the Canberra suburb of Red Hill from where he could enjoy the privileges of a former clerk, which included access to Parliament House and its refreshment rooms, and use of the library, tennis courts and bowling green. As well as tennis and bowls, Monahan also enjoyed golf.

On 30 July 1908, in a Church of England ceremony at St John’s Church, Melbourne, he had married Eleanor Maltby, daughter of Richard Robinson. Monahan died in the War Memorial Hospital, Waverley, Sydney, on 13 September 1944, survived by his wife and his two sons, Bryan and Patrick. A daughter predeceased him. Following a private service at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium, his ashes were buried in the garden of his Red Hill home. An able custodian of the Senate, he was appointed CMG in the King’s birthday honours list of June 1924.[6]

Rosemary Laing

[1] CPD, 7 Dec. 1938, p. 2786; Orange Methodist Church Diamond Jubilee 1860–1920: Souvenir Programme, Epworth Press, Sydney, 1920, p. 7; The editor is indebted to Sydney Boys’ High School for information; Lawn Tennis in Australasia, Edwards, Dunlop & Co., Sydney, 1912, pp. 232, 235, 242, 246, 252; Richard Yallop, Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club: 100 Years in Australian Tennis, Currey O’Neil Ross Pty Ltd, South Yarra, Vic., 1984, pp. 129, 130; CT, 16 Nov. 1931, p. 4.

[2] G. S. Reid Papers, box 26, folder 16/3/1, MS 8371, NLA; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 399–400; Letters, R. R. Garran to the President of the Senate, Sir Richard Baker, 28 Apr. 1904, Clerk of the Senate, E. G. Blackmore to R. R. Garran, 1 June 1904, Senate Letter Book 1901-1916, Department of the Senate, pp. 113, 123.

[3] Reid and Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament, pp. 408–12, 422; CPP, Select Committee on the Officials Engaged In and About the Senate, report, 1921; CPD, 6 Dec. 1921, pp. 13736–47; Senate, Journals, 6 Dec. 1921; CPD, 9 Dec. 1921, pp. 14219, 14257–9, 14261; 10 Dec. 1921, pp. 14263–70; Senate, Journals, 10 Dec. 1921; H of R, V&P, 10 Dec. 1921; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 3rd edn, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1967, p. 76.

[4] Richard Broinowski, A Witness to History: The Life and Times of Robert Arthur Broinowski, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 2001, pp. 110–11; CPD, 9 May 1927, pp. 3–4; Superannuation Act 1922–24. Case of G. H. Monahan, A432, 1931/1817, NAA; CPD, 19 Oct. 1932, p. 1395, 25 Oct. 1932, pp. 1534–41, 24 Mar. 1933, pp. 550–1, 10 Nov. 1933, pp. 4413–17; Argus (Melb.), 24 June 1933, p. 21; CPD, 27 June 1933, p. 2594; Senate, Journals, 27 June 1933.

[5] CPD, 6 May 1931, pp. 1615, 1621-5, 7 May 1931, pp. 1682-4; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 1st edn, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1953, p. 40; Senate, Journals, 31 Aug. 1932; CPD, 31 Aug. 1932, pp. 3–13; West Australian (Perth), 1 Sept. 1932, p. 12; Argus (Melb.), 1 Sept. 1932, p. 9; Senate, Journals, 8 Sept. 1932; CPP, Standing Orders Committee, first report, 1934; Senate, Journals, 1 Aug. 1934; CPP, Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, reports, 1930.

[6] Visit of the Empire Parliamentary Association to Australia: Itinerary and Views in Each State: September 1913, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1913; Ian Grey, The Parliamentarians: The History of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, 19111985, Gower Publishing Co., Aldershot, England, 1986, pp. 17-18; Broinowski, A Witness to History, pp. 150–1; CPD, 10 June 1925, p. 9, 7 Dec. 1938, pp. 2786–8; Owen Clough, ‘Privileges Granted Retired Clerks-at-the-Table’, Journal of the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Empire Parliaments, no. 8, 1939, p. 204; SMH, 14 Sept. 1944, pp. 4, 10; CPD, 14 Sept. 1944, p. 761; Information provided by Monahan’s family; SMH, 3 June 1924, p. 8; Herald (Melb.), 3 June 1924, p. 8.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 467-471.

MONAHAN, George Henry (1873–1944)

Commonwealth Parliament

Clerk of the Senate, 1920–38

Clerk-Assistant, 1915–20

Usher of the Black Rod, 1908–15

Clerk of the Papers, 1901–08


New South Wales Parliament

Department of the Legislative Assembly, 1890–1901