Every so often, the usual internal party shenanigans at Parliament House ratchets up a notch. Monday, February 20, 1978, was such a day.
Prime minister Malcolm Fraser had been re-elected at the end of the previous year. He was about to unveil his legislative agenda. But the excitement gripping Parliament, as members prepared for yet another opening day, had nothing to do with the prime minister.
When the House of Representatives met the next day, its task before getting down to debating legislation was to elect, in separate ballots, its speaker and a "chairman of committees" (in effect the deputy speaker).
The Liberals had decided to nominate Sir Bill Snedden for speaker. He had served as speaker since 1976. Their Coalition colleagues (then known as the National Country Party, now the National Party) had the right to select the chairman of committees.
In the course of Monday, the Nationals (let's call them that for convenience) decided to nominate Clarrie Millar, a Queensland MP, for the position. Millar, unlike Snedden, had not been a presiding office in the preceding parliament. He had no relevant experience whatsoever.
Therein lay the source of Monday's angst.
The Nationals' ranks included a man who, unlike Millar, was experienced. Phil Lucock, the member for Lyne since 1952, was chairman of committees from 1961 to 1972, and again from 1975. In this role, Lucock had gained an impressive command of the House standing orders. He had good emotional intelligence, too. He treated all MPs with fairness and care. Labor members, in particular Gough Whitlam, had a soft spot for him.
But on February 20, 1978, Lucock's avuncular charm counted for nothing. His party room dumped him in favour of Millar. Lucock learnt of his fate 20 minutes before the axe fell.
The chatter around Canberra was that Lucock stood in the government's way. He was seen as 'too impartial' a presiding officer.
Two sub-groups, journalists discovered, drove the conspiracy. Millar's fellow Queenslanders in the party room thought Queensland was missing out on recognition and jobs in a party dominated by NSW. The party's leader and deputy leader - Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair - hailed from NSW, as did Lucock.
The putsch garnered extra support from younger MPs outside of Queensland. They felt the time had come to replace Lucock with a younger person. Millar, aged 52, met this criterion.
Anthony knew nothing about the plot until it was sprung on him. His deputy, Sinclair, didn't lift a finger. Sinclair had been leader of the House since 1975. His job was to push government legislation through the chamber. The chatter around Canberra was that Lucock stood in the way. He was seen as "too impartial" a presiding officer. This was a bad thing.
Lucock, in oral history testimony, later identified Sinclair ("a little bit pig-headed") as one of the few members he had trouble getting on with.
After he was dumped, Lucock left Canberra to be with his wife, who was hospitalised in Sydney. But there was still time enough for other people to plot against the plotters. Millar's nomination need to be approved in a ballot of all members of the House of Representatives.
Lucock's numbers man in the party room, Frank O'Keefe, phoned him in Sydney and urged him to stand in the ballot. Lucock sent a telegram back, saying he agreed to stand.
Labor threw its support behind O'Keefe. In the past, it had always nominated a candidate against Lucock. This time, it would support him.
On Tuesday, February 21, the House voted. Snedden won the ballot for speaker by 82 votes against 38 for Labor's candidate. Labor then nominated Lucock for the position of chairman of committees. Millar prevailed by 62 votes to 52. Hard heads estimated that 17 government members had failed to support Millar.
Labor MPs were angry that Lucock's telegram concurring with his nomination and explaining his absence was read out only after votes were cast. Had Lucock been present in the House, it would have required only five more members to have switched sides for there to have been an upset result.
Miller was elected, yet Lucock's fate is still pertinent today. Blowback from the sunshine state has disrupted many a non-Queenslander's intentions, as Bill Shorten, the most recent victim, would agree.
And then there's the question of Lucock being dumped because he was "too impartial". The fairness - or otherwise - of House speakers must figure in any government's Machiavellian calculations. The risks to that office's control of the chamber are real.
What happened to Lucock back in 1978 is a cold case that deserves to be revisited. It involved fault lines that have not gone away.
- Stephen Holt is an ACT writer. firstname.lastname@example.org