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
/* Written by peg:greenleft in igc:greenleft.news */
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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".
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