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The Red North: How the Communist Party of Australia was ‘naturalised’ in north Queensland

 

 

The following speech was given by Carmel Shute at the Melbourne launch of the new Resistance Books edition of Diane Menghetti’s The Red North: The Popular Front in North Queensland on April 4, 2018.

 

April 24, 2018 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Before I get started, I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation on whose traditional land we are meeting and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

 

It’s a strange old night. We’re meeting in the Blue Room [of the Multicultural Hub] but down the corridor in the Purple Room are the Fabians. In the old days, ASIO and the Special Branch would have had a very busy time!

 

I take great pleasure in being here tonight as I had been complaining just a month or so ago how someone had run off with my copy of The Red North by Diane Menghetti as well as my Fred Paterson oral history tapes though what I would ever do if the tapes were ever returned I don’t know as who has a tape recorder these days? I certainly don’t. However, the book as a technology has survived since 1439 and shows no signs of extinction despite rumours to the contrary.

 

So imagine my delight when I discovered that Resistance Press had reissued the book which was originally published in a pretty basic edition by the James Cook University History Department in 1981.

 

The publication has a particular urgency today as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is attempting a comeback in Queensland.

 

One Nation is drawing on a rich tradition of right-wing politics in Queensland. Probably most of us all remember the days when we dismissed Queensland as the Deep North, a bastion of provincialism and unswerving reaction where the antipathy towards leftist or even small “l” liberal ideas became more pronounced as one headed towards the Tropics.

 

Many of us will remember the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, its racist policies, its ban on ‘the right to march’, its declaration of a state of emergency during the 1971 Springboks tour and the many other travesties it committed against the Queensland people.

 

I was one of many Queenslanders who fled south in the seventies and eighties. In this outpost we formed what we jokingly referred to as the Queensland Expatriate Society (Melbourne Chapter) and ran events such as the alternative Commonwealth Games which featured the Joh Bjelke-Petersen Pushing the Peanut with Your Nose Race and the Flo Bjelke-Petersen Memorial Pumpkin-Scone Throwing Competition.

 

However, as Menghetti’s pioneering book outlines, Queensland was not always so regressive. Few Australians, indeed most Queenslanders, know that the stretch of Queensland from Mackay northwards was known as the ‘Red North’. As a ‘southerner’, that is an inhabitant of the south-east corner of Queensland — and also a history student at the University of Queensland in the early seventies — I certainly never had an inkling of the outstanding anti-fascist campaigns and industrial struggles waged in the north in the 1930s and 1940s. We couldn’t study Australian history until third year and Queensland history was most notable in its absence.

 

It was only through later contact with the ‘Old Left’ in Brisbane that I heard tales of the ‘Red North’. I heard about the legendary Communist leader, Jack Henry, who started out as a cane-cutter.

 

At the end-of-year parties at the People’s Bookshop in Fortitude Valley, I met Fred Paterson, the only Communist to have been elected as a Member of Parliament in Australia — not just once but twice! He was elected to the seat of Bowen in 1944 and then again in 1947. To get rid of him, the Queensland Labor Government engaged in some tricky gerrymandering which separated the four strong communist centres in his electorate. In one of life’s little ironies, the wider gerrymandering instituted in 1949 ultimately kept the Labor Party (ALP) out of government for nearly three decades.

 

Even inside the People’s Bookshop, Paterson wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. I once asked him why and he told me that it was to protect his fair complexion from the sun but, most importantly, it gave him a sense of security in case he was ever attacked again. On St Patrick’s Day 1948, Paterson was observing a procession of striking railway workers in Brisbane when he noticed a detective attacking a marcher. He took out his notebook to write down the details but before he could, he was struck by a baton by a police officer and nearly killed. He was forced to take three months off Parliament and never fully recovered. Even though he was a serving MP, there was never an inquiry into the assault and no one was ever prosecuted.

 

Thanks to Menghetti, we can fully appreciate the extent to which North Queensland in the thirties and forties led the rest of Australia in internationalism and the strength, breadth and creativity of its working-class organisations.

 

Menghetti’s book focuses on the communist-led ‘Red Front’ in the period 1935-1940. The North Queensland Communist Party of Australia (CPA) actually achieved its greatest strength and influence in the 1940s, when Paterson was elected. But, as the The Red North makes clear, its successes in that decade are impossible to understand without a thorough analysis of how communists worked in the northern area of Queensland in the 1930s, in what the CPA classified as Region 9.

 

The ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPA in the late twenties and early thirties had had a devastating impact on the fledgling North Queensland organisation. Ted Tripp, the local Communist leader, was purged and the adoption of a rigid ‘social fascist’ line towards the ALP had decimated or extinguished a number of CPA branches. The ‘social fascist’ line was relaxed after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and Communists were able to win increasing support for their militancy in the mines and on the cane fields. Under the capable leadership of Henry and Paterson, the CPA in North Queensland was in the process of recovering by the mid-1930s.

 

However, its rapid growth from 1935 was the result of more complex factors: greater opportunities for industrial militancy; a conservative state Labor Government and an even more conservative leadership of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), often derided as Australia’s Weakest Union or Australia’s Worst Union. Other factors were the presence of large migrant communities, particularly the Italians, who became increasingly active in response to the rise of fascism in Europe; the distance from the ‘South’ — both Brisbane (Region 2) and the CPA’s power centre in Sydney (Region 1); and the creative application of the ‘united front’ policy. All these forces combined to foster the evolution of a distinctively ‘indigenous’ style of political work.

 

The decision to form a ‘united front’ of the working class was not formally taken by the Queensland branch of the CPA until January 1936. It was, of course, very much in keeping with the declaration of the Communist International the previous year to subordinate world communist activities to the fight against international fascism. As Menghetti notes, “this new line scarcely more appropriate to Australian conditions than its predecessor; neither ‘revolutionary conditions’ not ‘fascist threat’ provided an adequate description of the political situation in this country”.

 

However, it did allow CPA policy and trade union policy to be determined more or less nationally and, most importantly, stressed the necessity of co-operating with social democratic forces. In any case, Communists in North Queensland had started to build a ‘united front’ well before the policy was formally initiated.

 

The real turning point was the Weil’s Disease strike of 1935 which was immortalised in Jean Devanny’s 1936 novel, Sugar Heaven. Weil’s Disease was the popular name given to fevers caused by three varieties of leptospirae which were prevalent in northern Queensland cane fields. The virus was spread by rats urinating on wet ground or cane stalks, and sometimes proved fatal. Burning cane was the only known method of preventing its spread. However, burning was opposed by canegrowers on the grounds that the sugar content was reduced and some stands would be lost completely if not harvested immediately after the burn — despite a clause in the sugar workers’ award which specified lower rates for workers harvesting burnt cane.

 

At the beginning of the 1935 crushing season, the AWU had won an agreement to burn the can in the Ingham district only. In all other areas, cane was to be burnt only on the written order of a health inspector. Fear of Weil’s disease was intense and heightened by the discovery of infected rats in the Cairns and Innisfail districts. The sugar cane workers were mostly seasonal workers, not afraid to take militant action for short-term gain. Meetings, initially called by Communists in the industry, quickly voted to declare all unburnt cane ‘black’. Within a few weeks, more than 2000 cutters and mill-hands had gone on strike.

 

Menghetti argues that the efficiency and speed with which the separate districts were organised suggests that “the Communist Party had orchestrated the strike in advance of the season”. The Brisbane Trades and Labour Council certainly thought so, for it passed a resolution condemning the CPA for its tactics, and the right-wing AWU of course opposed the action.

 

It was a bitter strike lasting more than six months — the industrial court ordered secret ballots and cancelled all cane-cutting agreements in the Mourilyan area; the AWU used strong-arm tactics; 150 police were sent up from Brisbane (shades of the 1891 shearers’ strike); striking workers were evicted from their quarters and scab labour was widely employed. The strike was defeated. However, in July 1936, a general order for burning the cane before harvesting was handed down by the industrial court.

 

Nevertheless, as Menghetti shows, the strike was, in many senses a victory for the working class. The struggle was an extremely broad one, involving entire communities in the north. It drew in normally apolitical groups like women and migrants, and even won the support of many small shop-keepers and a number of smaller growers who were often former cutters themselves.

 

One of the defining issues was that the AWU refused to provide relief and its policy was to divide strikers into the smallest possible groups and then conduct secret ballots. Communists, in contrast, stressed rank-and-file control and unity of the four mill areas. They were prominent in organising relief kitchens, accommodation and social activities. And, unlike the AWU which advocated ‘British’ preference when it came to labour hire and regarded the sizeable numbers of Italian workers as Communist dupes who did not understand the issues or ‘language’, CPA members recognised Italians as fellow workers whose rights had to be respected.

 

Communist activists always ensured that leaflets were available in Italian and that Italian workers addressed meetings as well as translating speeches. Meanwhile, the AWU still upheld its 1930 ‘preference agreement’ with the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association and the Queensland Cane Growers’ Association which allowed migrant workers to comprise no more than 25% of mill workers and cutters.

 

Menghetti argues that it was in the relief kitchens that the differences between the AWU and the CPA became most apparent. Relief committees were set up in all local centres and sought the broadest possible support — from the shop-keepers, smaller farmers (often Italian in origin), the miners of Collinsville and Scotsville and the ‘progressive’ section of the Queensland public.

 

Women became active in relief committees, organising entertainment (the men did the cooking) and Italian migrants were, for the first time, involved both socially and politically. Italian gang cooks ran the Mourilyan relief kitchen and Devanny reported that the militant cooks “harangued” the men in Italian as they ate. The taste of Italian food was not, however, nearly so novel as the “almost unprecedented sight of Australian girls dancing with Italian men”.

 

Old prejudices were not overcome overnight, of course. As Carole Ferrier points out in her 1999 book, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, Devanny complained that North Queensland comrades “while making cause on economic issues … refused to accept ‘niggers’ and dagoes’ as equals on personal and social grounds” (Ferrier, p. 137).

 

Devanny also wrote how one North Queensland Communist said to her about her novel, Sugar Heaven: “You made a big mistake putting in that love affair between the Italian and the Australian woman … No Australian woman would have an affair with an Italian.” Devanny’s later rejoinder was: “I could have told him later that the prototype of the woman was his own wife.”

 

Despite isolation, poor educational standards and the apathy of the ALP, Communists and anti-fascists were able to use the skills and the support they gained during the strike to mount a powerful solidarity campaign when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Of the 21 branches of the Spanish Relief Committee set up across Australia, 16 were in North Queensland. And of the 40-odd Australians who went off to Spain to fight, at least nine were from the region. Despite low wages and widespread unemployment, large sums were raised to aid the Spanish Republicans. Support was so strong that in Ingham only two families were reported as having refused to donate.

 

The broader anti-fascist movement, which waxed and waned down south, was similarly energetic in North Queensland. The first anti-fascist demonstration in Australia, in fact, occurred in the tiny sugar town of Halifax in 1925. After 1935, anti-fascist migrants, including anarchists, achieved a “new level of cooperation” with the CPA, which in turn, Menghetti says, increasingly won Italians, Yugoslavs and Spaniards to its ranks. Italian anti-fascist clubs in northern towns affiliated nationally and by 1939 were numerous and strong enough to hold a coordinating conference in Townsville.

 

The Weil’s Disease strike gave perhaps an even more dramatic fillip to the women’s movement in North Queensland. Menghetti argues that its strength and independence was somewhat of a paradox since “neither local party members nor the northern community were more liberal in their attitudes towards women than other Australians”. She suggests a number of explanations for this, including Henry’s “shyness of women”, but only a few seem pertinent.

 

The movement’s founders were the wives of strikers and had taken the initiative in 1935 in Innisfail to form the first Women’s Progress Club. There was “no directive from the District Committee”. The burgeoning women’s movement was also strongly influenced by Devanny who was a militant feminist and Communist and, according to Menghetti, had “some standing in the southern Party”. It may also have benefitted from the more relaxed, less authoritarian attitudes in the north.

 

After Devanny’s tour in 1935 on behalf of the Movement Against War and Fascism, Women’s Progress Clubs proliferated throughout the region. Officially, ‘non-sectarian’ and ‘non-Party’, they were heavily influenced by Communists or the wives of Communists. After 1937, the Clubs sent delegates to the annual district Conferences of the CPA and their activities often reflected CPA policies. Politically, Menghetti says, the Clubs were a “fairly typical front” but displayed “an unusual degree of independence for a contemporary women’s organisation”.

 

They interspersed their political activities with both feminist agitation and “traditional pursuits” — hospital visiting, exhibitions of horticulture and handicrafts and arranging social functions. This approach was so successful in Collinsville that representatives of the Ladies Home League and the Ladies Hospital Guild were out in force for the arrival of J.B. (Jack) Miles, the CPA National Secretary, in July 1936. The Collinsville Country Women’s Association (CWA) sent a representative to CPA conferences, and in 1942, the Gladstone CWA circulated a petition calling on the federal government to lift the ban on the CPA instituted in June 1940.

 

Menghetti says that probably the most successful issue pursued by the Women’s Progress Clubs lay in lobbying for public utilities and initiatives relevant to women and children such as a free library, relief work for unemployed boys, a children’s hospital in Townville, free milk for school children and a ladies ‘retiring room’ in the city.

 

At least among working-class people, such activities gradually eroded the image of the Communist Party as “sinister and foreign”. The CPA was the driving force behind the Unemployed Workers’ Union and helped provide much of the practical assistance which enabled working people to survive the Depression.

 

Menghetti argues that another important factor in weakening the ‘Red Bogey’ in the north was “the unusually extensive social life of the Party”. Dances, balls, card parties, picnics, bazaars and discussion groups provided entertainment through the region – though some of these activities, such as the Spanish Relief Queen, might be frowned upon these days.

 

Here in Melbourne, the late CPA member Ruth Crow was a keen advocate of this approach — what she called “socialism through socials”.

 

Crucial in promoting the work of the CPA were the large number of local bulletins and, after May 1937, the North Queensland Guardian whose inaugural editor was Paterson. The paper adopted a consciously broad approach — it omitted the hammer and sickle from its banner and sought (and obtained) advertisement from local shop-keepers. It stressed the compatibility of Christianity and communism and included “Turf News”, a children’s column, a women’s section, and recipes as well as covering local events and national and international news. Circulation topped 8000 copies.

 

By the late 1930s, North Queensland (Region 9) was the biggest ‘red’ area outside the Sydney district (Region 1). Its electoral support increased, the CPA often working closely with the ALP in contesting elections. As early as 1936 Fred Patterson won 81.2% of the state vote in Collinsville but it was not until 1939 that he was elected to Townsville Council. At the same time Jim Henderson became a councillor for the Collinsville Division of the Wangaratta Shire. Paterson was re-elected in 1943.

 

Paterson himself, of course, was another reason for the popularity of the CPA in the north. Paterson grew up in poor circumstances on a pig farm at Gladstone, the sixth of 11 children. He won scholarships to Rockhampton Boys Grammar and then Brisbane Boys Grammar where he was dux and won one of 20 open scholarships to Queensland University. After serving in France, Paterson won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he studied theology. The world was at his feet but after witnessing the shocking poverty of Ireland and parts of London, he became a Communist, joining the CPA in 1923. In North Queensland, working as a barrister, he became what his biographer Ross Fitzgerald call’s “the people’s champion”, defending workers, anti-fascists, Aboriginal people, and the unemployed, often for no fee. He was prominent in fighting racist employment practices in the sugar industry.

 

An outstanding public speaker, Paterson addressed hundreds of public meetings. He was often faced with bans. As a way of circumventing these bans, he spoke on a couple of occasions from below the high tide mark on the beach. Once in Cairns he stood on a table in the water!

 

His motto was never to try to win an argument by personal abuse: “Never call an opponent a bastard but set out the facts in such a way as to convince your audience that he is a bastard.”

 

Fred was also very witty. Once when addressing a meeting in Townsville, a priest interjected.

 

“Have you ever been to the Soviet Union?”

 

Fred replied: “No Father. Have you ever been to heaven?”

 

Back to 1939 … Later that year, the Communist-led Red Front suffered a sharp and sudden demise upon the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland. Not even the well-integrated North Queensland CPA could withstand two such shocks in the international situation.

 

The position was exacerbated in June 1940 when the conservative Robert Menzies government banned the CPA. A number of Italian communists were interned. If you would like to find out more about this shameful episode in Australian history, go to Margaret Bevege, Behind barbed wire: internment in Australia during World War II (University of Queensland Press, 1993).

 

After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, support for the CPA grew again. Nevertheless, anti-fascist migrants remained in internment camps and the North Queensland Guardian was never again published.

 

In conclusion, let’s be grateful to late Menghetti for her path breaking book which, 27 years later, still has so much to recommend it. It avoids the institutional approach adopted by earlier works such as Alastair Davidson’s The Communist Party of Australia and Robin Gollan’s Revolutionaries and Reformists. Stuart Macintyre’s 1996 book, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, also takes an institutional approach and only includes a couple of pages on the Red North and very little on the lived experiences of Communists.

 

The Red North is not without a few problems, of course. It concentrates on the sugar-growing areas to the neglect of the mining communities of Collinsville and Scottsville. There are one or two errors — for example the foundation of the Union of Australian Women is given as the later war years and the terms ‘united front’ and ‘popular front’ are used interchangeably.

 

Greater use of the actual words of the people interviewed for the book would have made for a more lively text and it’s a pity that Communists living down south weren’t interviewed, for example Pat Clancy, Ted Bacon, George Bliss, Alice Hughes, Dick Annear and Albert Robinson. And of course, being published in 1981, The Red North was unable to benefit from the books and articles later published about Paterson and Devanny.

 

Still, for an honours thesis, The Red North is an outstanding achievement though it raises more questions than it could possibly answer. Why was the ‘popular front’ so popular in North Queensland as opposed to other parts of Australia? Why did the CPA there achieve a level of naturalisation unheard of in the rest of Australia? What happened in the 1950s to extinguish ‘the Red North’? Why, by the time Menghetti’s book came out in 1981, was there only one CPA branch north of Brisbane? What happened to all those North Queensland Communists, all those “useful people”, to use Menghetti’s term?

 

Have they been obliterated from history as cleanly as Paterson’s name was removed from the park built in his honour in Townsville in 1944? Menghetti concludes that ‘the Red Front’ produced “more substantial long-term gains for the community than for the Party” — and, of course this is how it should be. She reminds us too, somewhat sadly, of Jack Henry’s words: “It was not lost; no, nothing is ever lost”.

 

Thank you.

 

Shute grew up in southern Queensland, in the bush near Gympie. She was one of thousands of Queenslanders who fled south in the 1970s and ’80s to escape from the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime. Shute joined the Communist Party of Australia in Brisbane in 1974 and remained a member until its dissolution, giving the last speech at the CPA’s final congress in 1991.

 

Shute moved to Melbourne in 1976 to pursue post-graduate studies. She is an historian by trade with a particular interest in World War I, World War II and women’s history. She taught history, politics and feminism at four different universities. She has also worked as a union organiser at the ABC and as a media officer at the City of Port Phillip, other local governments and the trade union movement. She now runs her own PR consultancy, Shute the Messenger.

 

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