Confronting the Strong
In 1880 the Legislative Council was bluntly criticised. ‘It is not pleasing to an Englishman’, wrote the Mercury, ‘to see what is strong abusing its strength. Yet that may be seen any day in the Legislative Council’. The Mercury was unhappy because even though the Legislative Council had passed a resolution not to agree to pay increase for public servants, it intended to consider every department’s increase individually. This would be merely delaying the inevitable by ‘repeating and re-repeating themselves.’ In short, the press was not supportive of the Upper House at all times!
In addition, just days after this criticism, the Mercury’s editor James Simpson became embroiled with the House of Assembly. Audley Coote (MHA George Town), an ex-seaman, adventurer and financier alleged that Simpson threatened to strike him with a stick. Coote also claimed that Simpson was ‘livid with rage’ because he had challenged Simpson over withholding relevant material from publication. Simpson, however, denied that he had suppressed the publication of a letter from Coote regarding a rifle range at Sandy Bay, but had simply not received the letter. Confronted on his alleged censorship, Simpson had supposedly demanded that Coote withdraw his accusation, which had been made under parliamentary privilege, namely ‘from his seat inside the Assembly Chamber’. Only William St. Paul Gellibrand’s (MHA Ringwood) intervention, by moving in between the two men and saying, ‘Don’t’ strike; make it up!’ had supposedly saved Simpson, claimed Coote.
Simpson was called before the Bar of the House at 4 p.m. on 15 October 1880. There he again denied having threatened Coote, and added that Coote’s claims about Gellibrand’s part in the incident were not ‘intervention’, but ‘invention.’ Perhaps Coote had made a Freudian slip by adding the phase ‘make it up’, because even Gellibrand rejected this version of events, and added that there was not ‘any menace conveyed’ by Simpson. Coote was not in ‘bodily fear’, and, Gellibrand added, the three men continued to walk on up Murray Street after the so-called threat. At least Gellibrand agreed that Coote did continue to harangue Simpson! With such a contrast between their recollections of events the House of Assembly agreed, without need of a division, that Simpson was ‘not in contempt’ of the House. Nevertheless, the Speaker Dr Henry Butler, added that people ought not to confront Members at the ‘egress of the House’.