FCAATSI conference in Canberra

Chapter 2

Young Fun and Fighters for Justice

If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.
― Ernesto Che Guevara

Life on Main Street

Tom Pyne had worked as a wood machinist for Queensland Rail, a car salesman for Advanx Toyota and done some building work to fill in the gaps. In 1978 he decided to try his hand at private enterprise. There were two petrol stations in Edmonton, one on the south end of town owned by George Lee and one at the north end, owned by his brother Dennis. The brothers had come to Australia from China many years previously. However, by the end of the 1970’s Dennis decided that he had experienced enough of Far North Queensland and wanted to move to Sydney. Tom was great mates with George and when he found out Dennis wanted to move, he decided this was an excellent opportunity and promptly signed a three-year lease to run the business that was registered under the name, ‘Tin Sang & Co.’ The shop was on our main street, The Bruce Highway, as all businesses were, to get the benefit of the passing traffic.

I am not sure if it is just me or if we all have a certain clarity about what happened when we were 12, yet have trouble remembering what happened last week, but I can remember the shops along the highway like it was yesterday. I remember how they looked, how they smelt and the people who ran them. They were, from north to south:

  • Neil Gill’s Butcher Shop
  • Edmonton Post Office
  • Tom’s Tin Sang & Co
  • TAB
  • Keith Auld’s Chemist Shop
  • Terry O’Farrel’s Newsagency
  • Jeff Donaghy Butcher Shop;
  • Chellimi’s Bakery; and
  • Gus and Tina Slavik’s Fish and Chip Shop

That was my immediate ‘hood’, then came The Grafton Hotel, The Hambledon Hotel and the two local general stores, Piccones and Cavallaros. Further south was the Police Station and George Lee’s petrol station. Piccones was owned by the town’s most successful business-person, Lou Piccone. It was similar to the supermarket of today. Cavallaro’s was a more ramshackle old store, run by two Italian brothers, Dino and Alfie. It had a wide array of goods, with the smell of freshly ground coffee in the air and for me, shopping there was a real adventure.

Our business, Tin Sang & Co., included two petrol bowsers out the front, a small general store inside and a house out the back where we lived. Living in the commercial heart of a small country town would have been dull for many, but it was exciting for a young boy to move into a house just behind the shops in the main street. While it seems decidedly small time now, the increased activity and the movement of people in and out of the shop was a new and energising experience for me. However, the greatest thrill was finding what we called the “Lolly Cabinet” which stood in the corner of the shop and held everything from freckles (small round pieces of chocolate covered in hundreds of thousands) to the one hundred-gram Cadbury chocolate bar which was enough to make a 12-year old’s eyes pop and tummy rumble. It was at this point I decided my future was in the service industry, the self-service industry!

Alas my father was far too generous to be a big success in private enterprise. I can still recall how he would give away fruit and vegetables to customers and extend credit to people he should not have. However, he was a man with an optimistic attitude who would always land on his feet. During the 70’s he served as a Councillor on the local council which was known as the Mulgrave Shire. He would later make a quick transformation from private sector survival to a highly successful career in public service. This was to prove a good career move as his outgoing nature and ability to communicate made him perfect for local politics.  However, the years spent running ‘the shop’ were without question our favourite time.

The Floods of 1977

One summer’s night in 1977 we experienced rainfall the like of which I had never known. The rain was hitting our roof heavily when I went to bed and it just kept coming down throughout the night. By the morning the drain behind our house had burst its banks and a foot of water was flowing through our yard. Thankfully the house was on cement stumps a foot and a half high. However, none of the shops were. My parents quickly opened their shop and moved as much of the stock as they could to higher shelves. I remember mum saying, “Tom, the pumpkins are floating out the door” and reflecting on the surreal nature of the comment, as dad sloshed towards the door to reclaim his floating pumpkins.

The adults handled the flooding without too much drama (and without any opportunistic politician needing to tell them how ‘resilient’ they were).  For us children it was all an exciting adventure. I remember getting my kayak and paddling up and down the drain at the front of all the shops, but rather than it being a drain, it had turned into the deepest part of a much bigger pool, lying to the west of the submerged Bruce Highway.

At this time there was an egalitarian ethos throughout the nation. Class was a notion that never crossed my mind, unless it related to England, usually received through BBC TV shows, re-broadcast by the ABC. However, one group was often excluded from the seemingly boundless opportunities in the region, our First People.

Edmonton Queensland flooding 1977
Edmonton Queensland flooding 1977

Indigenous Assimilation

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. The generations of children removed became known collectively as the Stolen Generation.

Children taken from their parents were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and others were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect were commonplace.

Legislation and state policies served to exclude Indigenous people from participation as equal citizens and saw the removal of many indigenous people from their homes to missions and cattle stations, where their lives were lived under regimes of surveillance and control, with a distinct lack of personal liberty.

Just as Aboriginal people had resisted invasion during the frontier wars, there was also a strong and concerted resistance during the 1950s and 60s. It was non-violent, but very passionate in nature. Primarily this resistance came not through electoral politics, but through Aboriginal people themselves taking on leadership rolls. and agitating for change. One area of resistance where Aboriginal leaders took on strong leadership roles was the trade union movement.

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Resistance
Joe McGinness
Joe McGinness
Joe McGinness

Born in 1914, around 50 kilometres south of Darwin, Joe McGinness was the youngest of five children born to Irish immigrant, Stephen McGinness and his wife Alyandabu, a Kungarakan woman also known as Lucy. McGinness worked as a truck driver in the 20s and 30s, joining the army after the bombing of Darwin. He served with the field ambulance in Darwin, Morotai and Borneo.

During the 1930’s Joe became known throughout the north of Queensland as a fighter for the rights of Aboriginal people. [1] However it was after the war that ‘Uncle Joe’ as he became known, focused on this struggle, most notably taking on the protection laws that gave state governments almost total control over the movements of Aboriginal people and campaigning for the 1967 amendment to the Australian Constitution.

McGinness moved to Cairns in 1951, where he met his second partner, Amy Nagas. He helped care for Amy’s two sons, Raymond and Samuel, and their daughter, Sandra, who was born in 1954. [2]

Like most Australian towns of the day, Cairns had sharp racial divides, with most Aboriginal people living on the outskirts and surviving on intermittent, underpaid work. McGinness was determined to fight the constant discrimination and abuse directed at the local indigenous community, largely by employers and police. After joining the Waterside Workers’ Federation while working on the wharves on Thursday Island, McGinness’ activism expanded. It was in Cairns that his involvement with the union grew with his election to its executive committee.

In 1958, The Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League was formed with McGinness as its secretary. The league worked closely with the local Trades and Labour Council which McGinness described as ‘the only white organisation that showed concern over reported cases of injustice’.[3]

The Cairns league’s activism coincided with an emerging national movement in support of indigenous rights – a national indigenous advocacy body, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, commonly known as FCAATSI. This organisation was formed after a coalition of rights groups met in Adelaide in 1958. McGinness soon became FCAATSI’s first indigenous president, a position he held for 17 years between 1961 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979.

It was not long before FCAATSI won its first victory of national significance. A young indigenous man at the Hope Vale Mission who had consorted with his girlfriend, had been severely flogged by the mission’s pastor and ordered to be moved to Palm Island. McGinness directed a long and intense campaign against the pastor’s actions. The persistence of McGinness and his comrades eventually forced the government to hold an inquiry into the incident, which found that the pastor’s behaviour was ‘inexcusable’. It was the first time this type of misconduct by a mission had been successfully challenged. The win triggered a range of protests against similar incidences of abuse across the country.

Widely covered, the Hope Vale case was McGinness’ first major victory and there would be many more. FCAATSI pursued important law reform, including wage equity cases, and the early push for land rights. However, McGinness is best remembered for his role as joint national campaign director during the lead-up to the 1967 referendum. Driving from town hall meeting to town hall meeting, he was part of a grassroots campaign across the nation.[4] The referendum was FCAATSI’s strongest and most successful campaign. It gave constitutional capacity to the federal government to legislate in favour of Aboriginal people and allowed indigenous Australians to be counted in the census. Supported by more than 90% of voters, it remains the strongest ‘yes’ vote of any Australian referendum.

Joe McGinness went on to be a key figure in the early days of the development of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and while back in North Queensland, Uncle Joe became the regional manager of Aboriginal Hostels in Cairns, and was instrumental in the establishment of many of the major Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in Far North Queensland.[5] Patrick Dodson wrote of Uncle Joe:

“This grand old man has been the inspiration to many of us who have joined in the battle for justice. He has provided wisdom and advice, guidance and correction, humour and hope. His interest, enthusiasm and point of view on the continuing challenges we face against the ignorant and arrogant who professed to know what is best for us or who try to con us in so many ways was always present and available as he encouraged us on.”

Gladys O’Shane
Gladys O'Shane
Gladys O’Shane

Gladys O’Shane was born in Mossman in Far North Queensland in 1919. As an 18-year-old working  at Mossman Hospital Laundry, Gladys met Irish immigrant Patrick O’Shane and they were married in October 1940. The pair moved to Cairns where Patrick became known as ‘Tiger’ O’Shane for his fighting ability when others taunted him for his marriage to an Aboriginal woman.

Tiger found work as a wharfie on the Cairns Waterfront, joined the union and became politically active. Gladys commenced her political life during the 1954 national Waterside Workers’ strike, supporting Cairns wharfies during the dispute. Four years later she showed her passion for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, addressing the Waterside Workers’ Federation Women’s Committee national conference in Sydney. O’Shane informed the audience that the Queensland Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act was ‘as vicious as any Crimes Act’ and that it was the Director of Native Welfare – not the parents – who was the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child in the state. She urged the women to ‘join with us in our struggle for a better way of life’.[6]

Gladys was elected as the inaugural president of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League in 1960. The Cairns league took on cases involving abuse of Aboriginal people, including a young man flogged on Hopevale mission, and a man beaten by police in Mareeba. In these two cases an alliance of unions, the Cairns Trades and Labour Council and the Cairns League succeeded in bringing the offenders to justice and in publicising these cases. O’Shane had a wider influence through the Cairns League’s affiliation with the national body, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.

O’Shane joined the Communist Party (CPA) in 1960, attending Party summer schools where she developed her public speaking skills. In 1964 she was elected to the North Queensland District Committee of the CPA.[7] When she died of a heart attack in 1965, Gladys O’Shane was mourned as a champion of Aboriginal rights.

Communist Fred Paterson

Born in 1897, Fred Paterson was politicised by the First World War. Fred saw workers on each side of the front line massacring each other for no reason, at the behest of a wealthy ruling class.

A prize-winning student, Paterson was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford and could easily have become a wealthy city barrister. However, Fred’s only goal in life was to improve the lives of working people and advance the cause of socialism. Paterson explained in his memoir that, for him, practising law was always a part time pursuit, with most of his time spent working for the party, “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.” Two of Fred’s many clients were Joe McGinness and Tiger O’Shane.

Paterson’s involvement in the struggle against fascism and in defence of unemployed migrants forged his reputation. During the Great Depression, Queensland had the highest number of Italian immigrants of any state, many having escaped Mussolini’s fascist regime. Often, they moved north. As a result, Australia’s first anti-fascist march was held in the Far North Queensland town of Halifax in 1925. While the government cracked down on these radical protestors, Paterson stood in solidarity with them.

Anti-migrant racism resurfaced in 1931 when cane farmers and the conservative Australian Workers Union (AWU) agreed to a deal to give British subjects farm work ahead of Italians. Paterson contested the legality of the deal. In 1933 a deadly epidemic of Weil’s disease broke out in the sugar cane farms and the cutters went on strike. By August 1935, 2,000 workers had shut down the sugar mills and when the state government refused relief to laid-off workers, the CPA in the unions organised fundraising, communal kitchens and accommodation. Although the strike had only limited success, it raised the profile of the CPA and fuelled resentment towards the ALP. Paterson’s support for the cane cutters helped him win election to the Townsville local council in 1939.

Working with allies from a left wing split within the Labor Party, Paterson had enough influence on the council to make real improvements for local people, including providing cheap stoves for Townsville workers, as well as establishing public libraries, a swimming pool and a public ice works when the military took over the existing one during the war.

The Communist Party was banned in 1940 and so for Patterson it was an offence for him to publicly address a crowd. During a visit to Cairns at this time Patterson used his legal experience and creativity to work around this problem. He addressed a meeting of locals while standing on a table, metres off the Cairns Esplanade. He knew the local constabulary could not enforce the Communist ban on him, because he was beyond the high-water mark, so outside their territorial jurisdiction.

The campaign for the seat of Bowen in the 1944 state election saw Paterson defeat the ALP incumbent Dick Riordan. In one of his first speeches to parliament in 1944 Paterson said, “Socialism is in accordance with the highest and noblest traditions and ideals of mankind. But socialism cannot be imposed upon the people by a minority. It is a movement in the interests of the vast majority and will come into existence only when a majority of the people want it and are organised sufficiently to obtain and maintain it”.

The biggest test for Paterson came in 1947 and 1948 with the Queensland rail strike. Rail unions applied for a flow-on of a pay rise won by metal workers under federal awards. The ALP Hanlon government – with Hanlon a former railway worker himself, refused their claims. The workers struck in response.

Determined to defeat the strike, the state government launched a propaganda campaign against the rail workers, accusing them of being taken in by a Communist plot.

In support of the railway workers, Paterson took shifts on the picket line every morning, offering the strikers legal advice and using parliament to publicly defend the strikers. However, on St Patrick’s Day 1948, while taking part in a procession of railway workers, Paterson was attacked by a plain clothes policeman and his skull bashed in with a police baton. His injuries were so severe that he was not expected to survive.

The day after the bashing, the Courier Mail quoted the Labor premier expressing indignation at the demonstrators’ behaviour and admiration for the police, calling the events “a deliberately provoked brawl by the communist element which sees defeat staring it in the face … I have reports from all quarters of their [police] tolerance, patience and care in handling people during this difficult period”.

Fred Paterson
Fred Paterson

This marked the end of Paterson’s political career. He struggled to recover from his injuries and the Labor government redrew the boundaries of his electorate, making it unwinnable for him. Nevertheless, Paterson’s story of struggle and resistance saw him remembered for his unique place as the only Communist ever elected to Parliament in the in history of Australian politics.

Rugby League Days

Politics was not my number 1 passion growing up, that place was reserved for rugby league. Around this time Edmonton had its own Junior Rugby League teams and some of the local 11 and 12-year olds would tumble into the back of dad’s Toyota carrier van every Saturday and head into town to play the local rivals, Cairns Wests. A group of 12-year old’s tumbling into a van without seat belts or even seats was something we thought nothing of doing back then and no parents expressed any concerns when dad called to take one of their precious children in the back of the van to the footy. We would head north along Mulgrave Road to the rectangular fields which were then in Wesctourt (where DFO now stands) stopping only to collect ice from Cousins Ice to keep the drinks and oranges cool.

One Saturday I was out exploring with friends. Not far from the Hambledon Mill where there were great pools of stinking mess known as the mill ponds. These ponds consisted of liquid waste from the mill. They had a consistency of quick sand and stunk to high heaven. One Saturday, while exploring with friends, I saw an island in the pond I decided to jump onto it. The problem was that it was not an island at all, but a clump of grass growing on a crusty surface. I jumped and went straight through the surface, becoming fully submerged. Thankfully I did resurface and with help from my young comrades made it back onto the bank. Realising it was Saturday, we returned home, making it just in time to head into Cairns for rugby league. The way I smelt on the way into football was indescribable, but it was worth it. It was not just my team mates who were reluctant to come near me.  I had never played better in my life. I scored a few tries that day, two without even having a hand being laid on me. It did not occur to me at the time that the reluctance of defenders may have been due to the fact I smelled like a septic tank.

The highlight of 1978 for myself and some of the other rugby league mad boys was the 40 kg rugby league tournament for Far North Queensland. The concept behind the 40 kg competition was that children of the same body weight would be competing against each other, this was done to avoid the unfairness of the fact some boys, grow much quicker than others and you have little boys completing against rather large lads.

The coach of our team was an ambitious Gordonvale school teacher by the name of Warren Pitt. He was a hard taskmaster for us kids and he later became the Member for Mulgrave in the Queensland Parliament and a Government Minister.  It was a joy to play with the other boys many of whom were a year older than me and who I had looked up to over previous years (as young boys do) including Captain Brian Clarke.

I played in the same competition the following year and at the presentation night I was named ‘Player of The Carnival’. Of course I was very proud at what was to prove the highlight of my rugby league career. However there is something depressing about peaking in your favourite sport at the age of 12. My slow decline in the sport continued to the age of 22, when I spent a year as a B grade player for Ivanhoes (a season I was unable to complete due to a bad back). I did manage an A Grade game for Southern Suburbs and a Foley Shield Game for Cairns in the interim, but that is cold comfort when your childhood dream is to play for the mighty St. George Rugby League Club. Like many youngsters I was captivated by the St George teams that went on to win Premierships in 1977 and 1979.

Mulgrave Under 40kg Rugby League Team (Rob Pyne centre of front row)

What I do remember about those days in Edmonton was a powerful sense of community. Memories of driving with dad every Saturday in winter and picking up young friends like Marcel McLeod, Robert Stone, Nicky Bromley and other local kids and taking them in to play rugby league. Those years were innocent, and they were fun. How sad it is that to do this today you need insurance cover, a blue card and even a coaching licence. We were blessed to live in such carefree times.

Making Trouble in Town

Anyone close to me during my pre-pubescent years probably knew I was a pyromaniac. Thankfully not an arsonist, but definitely a pyromaniac. Considering this, living behind a petrol station was probably not the healthiest place to grow up.

A 44-gallon drum of petrol with a hand pump was located at the back of the shop. Looking at it one day I reflected on how magical it was that fire would follow any pattern you drew, as long as you drew it in petrol. I took the nozzle out of the hand pump and drew a large figure 8 on the ground. Then I took a match and lit it up, watching as the flames followed the pattern I had drawn, just like a string of falling dominos. Unfortunately, the flames did not stop at the end of what I had drawn. They followed the drips and drops all the way back up to the nozzle of the hand pump, which was now engulfed in flames.

The next thing I remember was hearing mum screaming and two of the store owners Neil Gill and Joe Chellemi arriving on the scene. With no thought to his own wellbeing Chellemi grabbed a rag and held it firmly over the end of the nozzle. His logic was simple, a fire needs oxygen, so if I cut off the oxygen the fire will stop. I could not fault his logic, but I still remember his actions in walking up to an almost full 44-gallon drum of petrol with flames coming out the pump was one of the bravest things I had ever seen.

Behind the police station was a fenced lot where the police stored motor vehicles that had been confiscated for one reason or another. I remember jumping the fence a few times to play in the cars. On one such occasion I realised many of the batteries had nice clear marbles inside. I found as many as I could to make me ‘king of the kids’ the next day at school. One day on such an escapade, I was in the back of an old car when I found a bag under a driver’s seat. When I pulled it out it was full of 10 and 20 cent pieces. Myself and my young mates felt like we had won the lotto and were quick to scamper away from the police station and down to the shops to feast on chips and lollies purchased with our ill-gotten gains.

Before Bentley Park

It feels a little strange these days when I am in Bentley Park and visit the massive Bentley Park School. It seems only yesterday that area was little more than two short dirt roads, Robert Road and McLaughlin Road. I knew the area well, as there were two local families with rugby league loving sons living there, the Stones and the McLeods. The McLaughlin Road I remember was no more than a few hundred metres long and two well-known residents were Ron Macleod and Dr. McLaughlin.

Dr. McLaughlin lived in a large property opposite where Bentley Park School is now. He lovingly referred to it as ‘Mango Park’. It was appropriately named with mature mango trees appearing at regular intervals along the long driveway into the property. Doctors had no forced retirement age and Dr McLaughlin spent many of his years in semi-retirement and is said to have written the occasional script at the bar of the Hambledon Hotel. He could also tell a good yarn, and one story I remember him telling me and my good friend Allan (Dick) Whittington, was told while we were painting two rooms in his house at Mango Park.

It emerged that Dr. McLaughlin had given helpful advice to a non-English speaking cane cutter, who complained of occasionally getting insects in his ear. The suggested treatment involved shining a light directly into the ear. The insect, being attracted by the light, makes its way towards the light, thus vacating the ear-drum. What the good doctor did not know, was that his cane cutter patient did not have a torch, preferring to use candles when in need of additional light. So when a small beetle found its way into his ear, he had his wife hold a candle over his ear to attract the beetle. With the base of the candle shadowing the ear, the good man’s wife did what may have seemed appropriate at the time and turned the candle on its side to let in the light. Instantly hot molten wax flowed from the candle and filled her husband’s ear. I remember Dr McLaughlin roaring with laughter as he described the enraged canecutter chasing his wife down the road, swearing in a foreign tongue, with a cane-knife in one hand, as his ear was held by the other hand. Listening I felt horror at the thought of a woman being chased by an angry man with a cane knife, but was assured no damage was done. Dr. McLaughlin certainly was a local character, as was another man who had become known by many as ‘Chairman Tom’.

Chairman Tom

My father’s time as a service station owner and jolly grocer had been enjoyable to him and the whole family, however it was his work as a Councillor on Mulgrave Shire Council during this period that was most satisfying to him. In 1979 the then Chairman of the Mulgrave Shire, the greatly respected Mr Ken Ali announced his retirement and tapped Tom on the shoulder suggesting he should run to replace him. He did this and was duly elected. It wasn’t a full-time position at the time, but over time he made it one.

Rob Pyne and Tom Pyne (1981)
Rob Pyne and Tom Pyne (1981)

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Our lease expired in 1980 and our family moved back to our home at 88 Mt Peter Road. The move coincided with my dad’s increasing obligations to local government and my own transition to high school. The closest high school was Gordonvale State High.

The thing I remember most about those days was the carefree feeling of not being under pressure from the clock, of not needing to be having stuff done and be under such pressure to perform.

Many unfortunate experiences took place in the post war decades, most notably the unjustifiable treatment of our first peoples. This included the theft of land and the tragic removal of children. It was oppressed people themselves, with inspired leadership that led to better days. Whether it was McGinness and O’Shane fighting for the human rights of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or Fred Patterson fighting for the rights of people starving during the depression or for immigrant cane cutters to access safe work in the cane fields, class struggle was the precursor to better days.

Thinking of growing up in Edmonton brings back memories’ days spent out in the environment, swimming, exploring and adventuring with friends. It was a time of injustice for many, but that was not my story and my story is the only one I can recount. For me those days in the seventies and early eighties were the good old days.

Grafton Hotel, Edmonton (cane train lines in foreground).
Grafton Hotel, Edmonton (cane train lines in foreground).

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

[1] Newsletter of the Federal Council for Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, January, 1967.

[2] Heroes in The Struggle for Justice, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/joe_mcguinness.html

[3] Heroes in The Struggle for Justice, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/joe_mcguinness.html

[4] Heroes in The Struggle for Justice, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/joe_mcguinness.html

[5] Heroes in The Struggle for Justice, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/joe_mcguinness.html

[6] Maritime Worker, 11 November 1958

[7] The Militant Monthly, https://www.auscp.org.au/gladys-oshane

The Fight for the Underdog