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Date: Mon, 4 Dec 1995 19:13:19 -0500
Sender: Progressive News & Views List <PNEWS-L@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU>
Subject: Communist takes office in Australia
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Australia's first Communist MP

By John Nebauer, Green Left News
4 December 1995

In 1944, Fred Paterson was elected as the member for Bowen in the Queensland parliament. He is the only communist to have held a state or federal parliamentary seat in Australia.

Paterson was born at the Gladstone Meatworks boarding house in 1897, the sixth of 11 children. He did very well at school, going on to begin a degree in classics at the University of Queensland in 1916. He joined the AIF in 1918, going to France in May of that year.

In Fred Paterson - a Personal History, Paterson wrote, "When I left for overseas I would have been regarded as conservative in many of my beliefs, a fairly loyal supporter of the established order, though I was very critical of some of its aspects, especially its poverty".

Two strikes within the AIF in which he took part began to change his thinking. The first was in England; soldiers refused to go on a route march until food was improved. The second occurred in northern France after the armistice, troops refusing to parade until food was improved. Both strikes were successful.

Russian Revolution

The October Revolution of 1917 did not greatly impact upon Paterson's consciousness for some years after the event, but he was involved in defending a radical Church of England clergyman's right to expression at a public lecture in Brisbane in 1919, during which the clergyman stated, "The workers will never be free until the organisation and control of industry are placed in their hands".

In January 1920, Paterson went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, completing a BA in theology. He originally intended to study for the priesthood. However, as a result of contact with extreme poverty in the East End of London and a number of other experiences, by the time he sat for his honours degree in 1922, his belief in Christianity had faded.

Soon after his return to Queensland, Paterson joined the Communist Party. By 1924 he was he was giving introductory lectures on Marxist economics and psychology in Ipswich. In 1925 he began working for the Workers' Education Association, which included lecturing on working-class history and addressing union and job meetings to increase WEA membership.

Paterson began to study law in 1923, being admitted to the Bar in 1931. Initially based in Brisbane, he was briefed to go to Townsville late in 1931 to defend two Italian workers against charges of assaulting the Italian consul. Townsville at the time had a very large Italian community, many of whom had migrated to Queensland to escape fascism.

Paterson was also involved in the anti-"British preference" campaign. During the early years of the Depression, the AWU, the Australian Sugar Producers' Association, the Queensland Cane Growers' Council and the RSL responded to the high rates of unemployment in the sugar industry by refusing cutting tickets to Italian cutters, a preference agreement being signed in June 1930. A vigorous campaign, led by the Italian anti-fascist community and the Communist Party, put an end to the agreement.

Paterson moved to Townsville in 1933, where he continued his legal work. But law was only a part-time career. "Between cases I did an enormous amount of work for the Communist Party, addressing meetings all over North Queensland from the coast to the Northern Territory border. Even when visiting a town on circuit court work, I would often address a public meeting at night. International politics, national, state and municipal politics, civil rights, police oppression, trade unions, wages and conditions, democratic rights were only some of the subjects discussed at these meetings."

Mass struggles

The Communist Party experienced tremendous growth in the 1930s, particularly in north Queensland during the Popular Front period (1935-1939). A number of important struggles helped to widen the CPA's influence in the north. These included the sugar workers' strike of 1935, the anti-fascist movement, particularly in the Italian community, and the Spanish relief campaign.

The sugar workers' strike was sparked by a severe outbreak of Weil's disease, which was spread by rats urinating on the wet ground and on the cane stalks; it infected the cutters through cuts received while handling cane trash. It caused fever, muscular pain, depression and, in severe cases, internal haemorrhaging and death. Within the first month of the 1934 cutting season, 36 new cases were reported, two proving fatal, and in August 80 cases were reported in 10 days.

The problem could be solved by burning the cane prior to cutting, at the cost of slightly lower sugar yields. In October 1934 the Industrial Court ordered the burning of cane in several fields, and the cutters agreed to receive one shilling less per ton for cutting burned cane.

However, the growers opposed the decision. At the end of the 1934 season the Canegrowers Association succeeded in having the burning orders rescinded. The AWU managed to have the order reinstated for the Ingham area, but elsewhere burning would occur only on the written order of the health inspector.

The Communist Party increased its influence through its work in the strike committees and in strike relief work, while the AWU, which covered the cane fields, had little contact with its members and in a number of cases attempted to block relief efforts.

World War II

The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 and the USSR's war with Finland had an impact upon the CPA's support in north Queensland, but this was overcome with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. By 1943, many people saw that the USSR bore the brunt of the anti-fascist struggle in Europe, and this increased the political stocks of the CPA.

It was in this political context that Paterson conducted his electoral work. He was elected an alderman in the Townsville municipal elections of 1939, the first Communist alderman in Australia. In the same year, Jim Henderson became the first Communist shire councillor when he was elected to the Bowen Shire Council. Paterson was re-elected in 1943, coming second out of 10 aldermen.

Paterson had contested the state seat of Bowen on two occasions before 1944. In the mid-1940s, the Communist Party had strong branches in Bowen, Proserpine, Collinsvale and Home Hill, where election committees were established. In addition, the CPA had members and supporters in most of the small towns throughout the electorate, as well as a strong membership amongst railway and waterside workers.

The other candidates were Riordan, a former waterside worker, from the ALP, and Hancock, a local farmer for the Country Party. Meetings were arranged throughout the electorate, and party members canvassed effectively in the farming communities. One booth in the farming area of Euri Creek recorded three votes for Riordan, two for Hancock and 20 for Paterson. Speakers visited and leafleted various work gangs throughout Bowen.

The final result was Hancock 1043 votes, Riordan 2487 and Paterson 2917 (the voting system at the time was first past the post), Paterson winning 16 of the 29 booths.

Propaganda role

Paterson gave up most of his legal work to concentrate on his work as an MP. This involved parliamentary speeches which both attacked government policy and took up socialist propaganda. In addition, Paterson visited all centres of the electorate and addressed public meetings on parliamentary matters. He proved popular enough to keep his seat in the 1947 state elections.

As an MLA Paterson, unlike his ALP counterparts, actively supported all kinds of struggles. He regularly did picket duty in the morning before going to parliament during the 1948 statewide railway strike. Paterson also gave the picketers legal advice and tried to prevent illegal police interference.

On St Patrick's Day in 1948, Paterson was trying to stop a cop bashing a member of a strikers' demonstration when a police officer struck him from behind. He was rushed unconscious to hospital in an ambulance, and was unable to do any political activity for some months.

Paterson's electorate was gerrymandered for the 1950 state election, being divided up into a number of other electorates. In addition, the 1950 campaign took place in the shadow of Menzies' "Red Bill" which meant that communists were, among other things, to be prevented from holding public office. Under the impact of the Cold War, Paterson lost his seat.

After this electoral defeat, Paterson went to Sydney to help fight the Red Bill. He was also involved in important industrial disputes, including the Collinsdale mining disaster royal commission of 1954-55, at which management tried unsuccessfully to smear Communist Party miners with charges of sabotage.

Fred Paterson died in 1977, after a lifetime of devotion to the Communist Party. In an interview in the mid-1970s, he said, "As an ardent communist I have been motivated by a much higher and more noble vision: the vision of a world where ... the fear of want is banished and the law of the forest is at last no more".

First posted on the Pegasus conference greenleft.news by Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption inquiries: greenleft@peg.apc.org

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