Australian Communist Fred Paterson

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ally - Fred Paterson
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ally - Fred Paterson
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Australian Communist Fred Paterson

Fred Paterson – The Early days

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 barrister. However, Fred’s only goal in life was to improve the lives of working people and advance the cause of socialism.

The Far North becomes the  Red North

The stretch of Queensland from Mackay to Cairns was in the 1930s and 40s known as “The Red North”. During this time the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was the driving force behind the Unemployed Workers’ Union. This union provided assistance that helped many ordinary people to survive the Great Depression.

The CPA gained wider support when communist trade union leaders ran strong campaigns which won increased pay and improved conditions for workers in the mines and the cane fields.

In 1933 a deadly epidemic of Weil’s disease broke out in the sugar cane farms. Cane cutters and their families lived in constant fear of the disease. Burning the cane before harvesting was the best way to control outbreaks, but it also reduced the sugar yield, thus reducing the profits of cane growers. Growers campaigned against burning crops, shamefully winning support from both the ALP state government and the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

Communists Strike

Despite the forces stacked against them, the cane cutters went on strike. By August 1935, 2 000 workers had shut down the sugar mills.

The strike was defeated by July 1936. Striking workers were evicted from their quarters and scab labour was widely employed. While the battle had been lost, the war was won when an order for burning cane before harvesting was later handed down by the industrial court.

Paterson explained in his memoir that, for him, practising law was always a part-time pursuit. Most of his time was 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. Fred was a strong ally of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Fighting Racism and Fascism
Fred Paterson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocate.

Fred Paterson’s work in the fight against fascism and in defending unemployed migrants forged his reputation. During the Great Depression, Queensland had the highest number of Italian immigrants of any state. New arrivals, having escaped Mussolini’s fascist regime, often moved north from Brisbane looking for work. 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, Fred stood in solidarity with them.

AWU ‘sells out’ as CPA ‘stands up’

Anti-migrant racism resurfaced in 1931 when cane farmers and the conservative Australian Workers Union (AWU) made 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. 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 in Queensland Politics and fuelled resentment towards the Australian Labor Party (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 ALP, Paterson had enough influence on the council to make real improvements for local people. This 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.

Fighting ‘The Ban’ and Winning Bowen

The Communist Party was banned in 1940 and so it became an offence for Patterson 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.

In the campaign for the seat of Bowen in the 1944 state election, Paterson defeated the ALP incumbent Dick Riordan. Paterson declared in one of his first speeches to parliament in 1944, “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”.

Paterson Attacked

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 – despite Hanlon being a former railway worker himself – refused their claims. Workers struck in response.

Determined to defeat the strike, the State Government launched a propaganda campaign against the rail workers. Indeed they accused 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. On St Patrick’s Day 1948, while taking part in a rally of railway workers, Paterson was attacked by a plain clothes policeman. His skull was bashed in with a police baton. His injuries were so severe that he was not expected to survive.

ALP and capitalist press join forces

The day after the bashing, the Courier Mail quoted the ALP Premier expressing indignation at the demonstrators’ behaviour and admiration for the police. Hence, the article called the events “a deliberately provoked brawl by the communist element which saw defeat staring it in the face. I have reports of their [police] tolerance, patience and care in handling people during this difficult period”.

The violence marked the end of Paterson’s political career. He struggled to recover from his injuries. The ALP government also redrew the boundaries of his electorate, making it un-winnable for him.

Paterson’s story of struggle and resistance guarantees his place as the only Communist ever elected to Parliament in Australia.

Socialism

By Rob Pyne

Quadriplegic, Former MP, Councillor & Political Campaigner: Rob is an Eco Socialist who shares ways to survive & fight capitalism. #socialism #championoftheunderdog Occupation: Online Editor Employer: Champion of the Underdog! Book: Struggle and Resistance in the Far North

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