Politics Opinion

Eggs: Queensland's weapon of choice for political dissent

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Steven Miles becomes the latest in a conga line of egged Queensland politicians going back more than a century, observes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

DURING THE ANNUAL Brisbane Labour Day March on Monday, 6 May 2024, it happened again — the Queensland tradition of throwing eggs at politicians. This time, the Queensland politician who had an egg thrown at him was Premier Steven Miles — by a pro-Palestinian protester.

The first egging

The first egg-throwing at a politician in Queensland was at Prime Minister Billy Hughes on 19 November 1917, when he did a ten-minute whistle stop at the Warwick Railway Station in Queensland to talk in favour of the passing of the second conscription referendum.

On 28 October 1916 and again on 20 December 1917, the Federal Government, led by so-called “Little Digger” William Morris “Billy” Hughes, held referendums to introduce conscription for military service overseas. In both cases, the proposal was narrowly rejected.

Hughes passionately argued his case to the Australian public and put the matter to a referendum on 28 October 1916. It was narrowly defeated, with 51.6 per cent voting “No”. Hughes was forced to leave the Australian Labor Party, which was vehemently opposed to conscription. He promised that he would not revisit the conscription issue unless it looked like Germany could prevail in the war.

Conscription remained the flashpoint of Australian politics in 1917 as Britain continued to demand more cannon fodder. Political advertisements dominated the press and Hughes even made a film to push his case.

Caricature of Billy Hughes from the Australian Worker magazine, 1917. (Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, via moadoph.gov.au)

As a result, Australia was divided again by the conscription debate for the second time during World War I. As Australia’s casualty list grew and enlistment numbers fell, Hughes called for another referendum. The campaign was just as heated as the first, with popular opinion sharply divided.

The second referendum was conducted in an atmosphere of violence quite unusual for Australia at that time. Tens of thousands of supporters attended rallies for and against the proposal. Debates were stymied and people were arrested because of strict censorship regulations. In such a passionate, sectarian-influenced and emotionally charged atmosphere, eggs and other missiles were regularly thrown at speakers.

During 1917, Queensland became a chief battleground in the second conscription referendum and it was where Prime Minister Hughes sensed imminent insurrection.

Then-Queensland Premier T J Ryan, son of an illiterate Irish labourer, was a vocal opponent of Hughes and conscription. Hughes visited Brisbane in late November 1917 and ordered police to raid the Queensland Government Printing Office and confiscate copies of State Parliament’s Hansard, which he said was full of subversive anti-conscription speeches.

Outraged with this affront to the Commonwealth, Hughes had Ryan charged with conspiracy to publish a misleading statement. Ryan later replied with a contempt charge against the Prime Minister. It was in the immediate wake of the raids – and with only three weeks left until the referendum – that the tired and anxious Prime Minister headed south to Sydney by rail and stopped in the Darling Downs.

On Thursday, 19 November 1917, Prime Minister Hughes arrived in Warwick. As he tried to give a conscription speech at the train station, an egg was hurled at him. A Killarney man, Patrick Brosnan, upset at Prime Minister Billy Hughes's stance on conscription, threw an egg at him as he addressed a crowd at Warwick Railway Station, knocking off his hat.

I've written previously about the egging of Prime Minister Hughes on the centenary of the 1917 Warwick Railway Station event. It would be an understatement to say that Hughes took the knocking off of his hat by an egg thrown from the crowd as annoying.

Incensed at the attack, Hughes threw himself into the melee and ordered local Senior Sergeant Henry Kenny of the Queensland Police Force, another Irish-Australian, to arrest the culprit.

However, Kenny refused, saying it was out of his jurisdiction and a matter for the Commonwealth. After Kenny refused and Queensland Premier Ryan declined to discipline the policeman, Hughes established a Commonwealth Police Force.

More eggings

On 11 March 1993, Liberal leader John Hewson was pelted with eggs, soft drink cans, apples, tomatoes and broccoli during a rally in front of Brisbane City Hall, with Hewson catching one of the eggs.  

On 16 March 2019, far-Right Queensland Senator Fraser Anning had an egg cracked on the back of his head by a 17-year-old schoolboy due to his blaming of Muslim immigrants for the Christchurch mosque shootings. Anning then punched his egger twice. And so emerged “egg-boy”.

Not to be outdone, King Charles III was egged at Luton Town Hall in 2022. He seemed unfazed.

So, why throw eggs? Perhaps it’s the visceral splashing as the egg cracks and distributes the egg white and yolk all over the intended politician, or maybe an egg fits nicely in a palm (and can be effectively hidden). Certainly, the explosion of yellow yolk on a head or suit usually gets a big reaction.

Whatever the deeper-seated reasons, the yolk's on them.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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