More than just a cool title, the Usher of the Black Rod plays a fundamental role in the operation of the Legislative Council in NSW. However we didn’t come up with the role, nor are we the only parliament with an ‘Usher’. If this intrigues you, let us usher you through a brief history, from 1348 to now…
Where did the role of ‘Usher of the Black Rod’ come from?
The first known Usher of the Black Rod worked for the Order of the Garter – the oldest and highest British order of chivalry, founded in 1348 by Edward III. Within the Order, the Usher’s role included carrying the rod of his office, keeping the door, and, on occasion, tapping knights on the shoulder when they were to be degraded or dismissed from the Order. Bear these roles in mind as you read on, as it’s not hard to see the equivalents in our modern-day Parliament..
The Order of the Garter was the prototype for the modern British parliament… which readers will know, was the prototype for the system of representation we have in New South Wales today.
Did you know? Since the Order of the Garter predates parliament, the Usher of the Black Rod is the second oldest role in the parliament – second only to the monarch. In the United Kingdom, the Usher of the Black Rod is now Usher for both the House of Lords and the Order of the Garter.
Why a black rod?
The short answer is, we aren’t exactly sure.
Parliamentary historians like Dr Sylvia Marchant have suggested two possible reference points for the Rod’s origins. The ancient Greeks’ use of a sceptre to denote the authority of judges, priests and military leaders is one possibility. The Roman fasces (a bundle of rods with the head of an axe) is another possible candidate for the Black Rod’s inspiration, since it was carried by the guards of a Consul or High Magistrate to denote their power and authority.
Are there other colour rods?
As well as the Ushers of the Black Rod in Australian, British and Canadian parliaments, there are a number of other rods and ushers. The Scottish Parliament that was dissolved in 1707 had an Usher of the White Rod; the now-defunct Order of the Thistle had an Usher of the Green Rod; the Order of Bath has an Usher of the Scarlet Rod; the Order of St. Michael and St. George has an Usher of the Blue Rod; and the Order of the British Empire has an Usher of the Purple Rod. As you can see, there’s a rainbow of rods out there!
Is it the original rod?
Yes and no. In NSW Parliament we currently have three rods – all of which you can see on display outside the Chamber. The original rod entered use in 1856, the same year that responsible government was established in NSW. It remained in use over the next 44 years, being replaced by the Federation Rod in 1900. The current black rod was first used in 1974 and featured in the now-famous escorting of Treasurer the Hon Michael Egan from the chamber to the footpath of Macquarie Street in 1996. Want to know more about what happened? Read on here.
So what does the Usher of the Black Rod do now?
When the House is sitting, the Usher’s main responsibility in the Chamber is to help the President maintain order in the House. This includes removing members from the Chamber when ordered to do so by the President (read more about when this happened late last year). The Usher also plays a key role in the security of the parliamentary precinct, providing advice to the President on managing demonstrations and the physical security of the building.
Outside the chamber, the Usher of the Black Rod has ceremonial responsibility for visits by the Governor and other dignitaries, including delegations from other parliaments. While COVID has seen the numbers of nternational delegations decrease, the Usher recently welcomed a delegation from the Victorian Legislative Council, including the President, the Hon Nazir Elasmar.
One of the main responsibilities of the Office of the Black Rod in NSW Parliament is the management of the gallery spaces: the Fountain Court and Reconciliation Wall. Both spaces are open to the public to display their artwork, with members of both Houses acting as hosts to artists and groups in their communities. If you’re keen to learn more about what’s on display for the rest of the year, you can find out more here.