A Communist in parliament: the story of Fred Paterson


By John Nebauer

It's been said that the only honest person to enter parliament was Guy Fawkes (who tried to blow up the English parliament building in the early 1600s). Looking at the major parties in Australia, one is inclined to agree.

But there have been people to enter the Australian parliament not with the aim of "keeping the bastards honest", but to build movements to kick the bastards out.

Fred Paterson was born in Rockhampton in 1897. A model student, he studied theology before volunteering for service with the Australian Imperial Force during World War I. He was sent to France in 1918 and his experiences in the war, including participating in a soldiers' strike in 1918 for improved rations and conditions, helped to radicalise him.

This was strengthened by his contact with the extreme poverty in Ireland in 1920 while a Rhodes scholar. These experiences, alongside the success of the first workers' revolution, in Russia in 1917, led Paterson to join the Brisbane branch of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1924.

A gifted speaker, Paterson trained as a barrister in 1930 and took on numerous cases for working-class clients. He was also involved in a number of important cases for the CPA, notably Liberal PM Robert Menzies' attempts to outlaw the party in the 1950s.

But Paterson is best known as the first and (so far) only Communist elected to a state or federal parliament. He was elected as the member for the north Queensland electorate of Bowen in 1944, and was re-elected in 1947.

A rich tradition

Paterson had a rich tradition of socialist agitation in parliament to draw upon. The most successful exponents prior to World War I were the Bolshevik Party MPs in Russia, who were able to use the Tsarist Duma to both expose the government and draw people into political action.

The role of a Communist in parliament was outlined in a set of theses adopted by the Communist International in 1920. In essence, that role was to expose the limitations of parliament as a path to improved living conditions for working people. Communists in parliament did not aim to gain "amendments" to reactionary legislation, but to denounce the legislation, and use their resources as an MP to help organise mass campaigns to defeat it.

Their role was also to use the parliamentary platform for general socialist agitation. Communist parties were to openly state their political positions, and parliamentarians were bound to support these policies.

These aims and methods were drawn out of the Bolsheviks' experiences in the Duma before the war. (Their success was such that the leader of the Bolshevik caucus in the Duma carried out a great deal of successful socialist agitation, despite the fact that he was an agent of the Tsarist secret police!).

Paterson was an alderman on Townsville City Council in 1939. Jim Henderson, Paterson's 1944 election campaign manager had also been elected to the Bowen shire council earlier in the year (the first Communist elected as a shire councillor in Australia).

Paterson had been the CPA candidate for the federal seat of Herbert in the 1943 election, but was narrowly defeated by the ALP. Paterson polled the highest number of votes in at least three of the seven state electorates which made up the federal electorate of Herbert.

In his memoirs, Henderson pointed out that, unlike previous elections, in which the CPA had called for the election of a Labor government strengthened by Communists, in 1944 the party called for a vote for Communists as better representatives.

A number of factors led to Paterson's election. The first was the strength of the CPA in north Queensland in the 1930s, which was enormously popular during the depression years, helped by its involvement in a number of important struggles, particularly in the sugar industry.

The second factor was the political climate in 1944. The political stocks of the CPA were at their highest, with its membership peaking at 23,000. The popularity of communism was aided by the Red Army's defeat of the German army in Stalingrad.

Another factor was Paterson's personal popularity. He was known not only as a barrister committed to defending working-class people in trouble with the law, but also as a fine public speaker. (Paterson dealt with anti-communist hecklers very effectively. For example, in 1947, while he was addressing a meeting in Townsville on the Soviet Union, a priest interjected: "Have you ever been to the Soviet Union?". Paterson replied: "No, Father. Have you ever been to heaven?")

Exposing the ALP

The CPA campaign was able to expose the record of the ALP incumbent Dick Riordan. Riordan had been a waterside worker in Bowen prior to his election and had been known as a militant.

In his memoirs, Henderson mentions that wharfies on the Bowen jetty had painted in large white letters across the jetty: "Since his election to parliament, Riordan has never crossed this line to see how the wharfies are getting on. He has placed himself on the other side of the fence." It was something Riordan found hard to deny.

The campaign involved a lot of meetings in isolated localities. Both Paterson and Henderson had frequent meetings with fettler gangs in isolated rural areas, for example. But the hard work, and the new political focus on providing an alternative to the ALP, paid off. The final results were Country Party 1043 votes, ALP 2487 and CPA 2917.

Paterson toured the electorate after each sitting of parliament to explain what was happening. This often involved travelling to remote communities on horseback after wet weather had turned local roads into slush, and to some of the islands in the Whitsundays.

Part of his work involved improving the immediate lives of residents. For example, he secured a new playground for Bowen school and after a cyclone in the electorate, he and a group organised by the CPA visited places that were damaged to help the clean up.

Paterson frequently spoke on legislation before parliament. In October 1945, for example, Paterson argued in a debate on the estimates for the state health department that the community and hospital workers should exercise control over hospital administration.

He also argued for a significant increase in nurses' wages. In response to the assertion by another MP that nurses didn't need wage rises because of their love of and devotion to their profession, Paterson pointed out that nurses' wages were at a far lower level than those of public service typists, adding that the answer was not to lower the typists' wages but to increase the nurses'.

Paterson did not limit himself to the parliamentary arena, however. He continued to be involved in many campaigns, and used his parliamentary position to assist them. His involvement in the 1948 railway strike was a prime example.

1948 rail strike

In the May 1947 election, state ALP leader Ned Hanlon promised to upgrade Queensland's rail services, yet by 1948 only four new locomotives were in operation and many of the older engines were worn out, putting extra strain on rail workers.

In September 1947, Queensland rail unions applied to the Queensland Arbitration Commission for a flow-on of a pay rise won by metal workers under federal awards. The rail workers were also waiting for the result of a previous claim for weekend penalty rates.

The Hanlon Labor government refused both pay increases. After direct approaches from the unions, Hanlon offered six shillings and 10 pence. The workers' demands were for 16 shillings for trades workers and 11 to 13 shillings for others.

On December 12, the Combined Railways Union's recommendation of strike action was approved by mass meetings across the state. The strike began on February 13, 1948.

The Hanlon government was keen to attract investment. In addition, the state's coal industry had suffered a slump in sale prices and was keen to keep wages down. One of the biggest customers for coal was the Queensland government and its railways and the strike directly confronted the Labor Party's desire to keep wages down to help boost industry profits.

The Hanlon government launched a massive propaganda campaign against the rail workers, and accused the CPA of causing the strike. This was aided by Queensland's conservative establishment press — the February 12 Courier-Mail headline was "Red grip on rail strike tightens". Hanlon took to the airwaves to denounce the "red menace" and stated that the strike possessed all the elements of a civil war.

The state government's attack on the strike was helped by the federal Labor government led by Ben Chiefly, who declared strikers ineligible for commonwealth social security benefits.

Within parliament house, Paterson defended the strikers, arguing: "There comes a time in the life of every man when he comes up against what he considers to be an injustice so grave that he cannot tolerate it, and he begins to kick.

"If he is in an organisation, he kicks in an organised way. That is what the trade unions have done on this occasion — the workers who have struck are taking what they believe to be effective measures to control their interests."

Paterson also did picket duty every morning, and advised the picketers about their legal rights. The police had the power to move people on, he said, but they had no power to tell people where to move on to. Paterson organised picketers so that they moved continuously around the block, leaving the police powerless to intervene.

Paterson explained in an interview in 1974: "I used to go on picket duty at Mayne junction [a tram depot — the strike had spread to Brisbane's tram services] and the detectives would come along and tell the picketers to move on and I'd say to the pickets 'Now you move on, obey their order, but their order is simply to move on, they have no power to tell you where you must move ... Move on and go back to where you were!' And this bamboozled and incensed the police who were there."

After declaring a state of emergency, the government introduced the Industrial Legislation Amendment Act. This act prohibited participation in supposedly illegal strikes and gave the police power to enter any home or building, to disperse any gathering and to arrest without a warrant. The onus of proof in trials rested on the defendants.

Hanlon declared: "The people who are trying to prevent a settlement of this dispute and prevent obedience to the order of the courts are being advised by a legal mind well versed in finding means for getting around the law." He later told parliament, "this bill might have been called the Paterson Bill".

Paterson attacked the bill in parliament, and made much of Hanlon's past as a rail worker. He reminded the government that in a debate during the 1927 rail lockout, Hanlon, then a back bencher had said, "If I were in the railway service today I would absolutely refuse to handle the sugar [declared black], or take the job of any man who had been suspended or dismissed for exercising his union conscience". "Yet today", said Paterson, "we find the premier doing the same as the late Honourable William McCormick did then, or a worse thing".

A life-long vision

Paterson had no illusions in the arbitration system, understanding that its role was to suppress militant action. During the parliamentary debate he constantly emphasised the view that "I have no faith in the court as an instrument in improving the condition of workers".

Paterson's efforts on the pickets almost cost him his life. On St Patrick's Day, on his way to court to defend six strikers arrested under Labor's bill, Paterson stopped at a march of strikers.

He noticed a detective bashing one of the workers with a baton. He called on the detective to stop and was starting to take notes when he was struck down from behind. He fell unconscious and was rushed to hospital. Hanlon decided that no inquiry was necessary.

Paterson was unable to work for many months and lost his seat in the 1950 election.

In part, this loss was due to the political climate developing in Australia with the Cold War. However, the Hanlon government also gerrymandered the Queensland electorates, splitting Paterson's electorate in half. Paterson continued his work with the CPA until his death in 1976.

Fred Paterson was an excellent example of a socialist in parliament. He made no bones about the fact that he did not represent that homogenous mass politicians refer to as "the people". In one parliamentary session, he stated: "So far as I am concerned, in this House I represent and stand clearly for one class and one class only — the useful people in this community, not the useless parasites who fatten on their lifeblood."

For Paterson, a parliamentary platform was a means of organising the working class to take politics into their own hands. It was part of his broader struggle to bring about a society in which "the degrading spectacle of man has no place, where all work for the good of all, where the function of the machine is to release man from labour, and not to make a monetary profit from those machines, where man freed from labour is at liberty to follow cultural pursuits, where the fear of want is banished and the law of the forest is no more."