The hidden tale of north Queensland’s red past

Resistance Books has done a great service by reprinting 'The Red North'.

The Red North: The Popular Front in North Queensland
Diane Menghetti
Resistance Books

Growing up in northern Queensland in a family of unionists, I learnt the bare facts of the region’s radical history as part of the local folklore — Townsville had elected Communists to the local council, and Bowen twice sent a Communist, Fred Paterson, to state parliament.

When I was first “getting political”, my uncle recommended Diane Menghetti’s The Red North — first published in 1981 — but it was out of print and hard to track down.

Resistance Books has done a great service by reprinting The Red North, with a new introduction by Green Left Weekly’s Jim McIlroy (author of his own book about the left in Queensland of the same name).

The Red North examines the history of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in far-north Queensland, from its origins in the early 1920’s. It looks at the CPA’s organising role in the sugar workers’ and canecutters’ strikes of the ’30s, the pre-war Popular Front and anti-fascist struggle, through to the ban on the party during World War II, and a brief epilogue discussing post-war events.

The book also discusses the history of women’s activism in the North Queensland CPA and the relationship between the party and the labour movement, the Australian Labor Party and the regional community.

With most radical histories tending to focus on capital cities and urban politics, it was refreshing to read such a closely-detailed history of the struggle for workers’ rights and dignity in small towns and farming communities.

The CPA was able to win a mass base in the north by opposing existing power structures within the labour movement — chiefly the Australian Workers’ Union and the ALP — and organising workers from a range of backgrounds and industries. CPA organisers were able to direct the workers’ struggle towards the immediate, daily interests of the workers themselves.

One prominent campaign was centred around the demand to burn sugarcane prior to harvest. This was as a hygiene measure to ward off Weil’s Disease, a lethal tropical fever that caused internal bleeding and killed many canecutters. But burning the cane led to decreased yields, and was not popular with the farm owners or sugar mill bosses. The ALP-affiliated AWU executive was hesitant to rock the boat.

As a result of a CPA organising campaign, which included strike action and demonstrations in towns across the north, cane burning was won as a condition of employment.

As the book states: “Perhaps the most important development resulting from the strike was that for some North Queenslanders during 1935 the Communist Party changed from an alien threat into a source of strength and protection.”

The history of the Weil’s Disease strike is an example for today’s socialists. It provides detail on how combining on-the-job organising and community work drew on the social relationships of the region to raise awareness and build support for the workers’ cause.

Attention is paid to the struggle against fascism in the north, including the impact of the Spanish Civil War between fascist and anti-fascist forces in the late 1930s. Due to the large southern European immigrant population in the north, including Italian, Spanish and Yugoslav workers, fascism hit closer to home for the North Queensland CPA than for those further south. Many immigrants in the north, for instance, were Italians who had fled Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

The CPA was able to build a Popular Front Against Fascism. It formed front groups in the community and won respect among the ALP rank-and-file.

Menghetti also details how “a remarkably strong and independent women’s movement” was able to prosper in the north, despite “backward” and “chauvinistic” attitudes prevailing in the region.

Groups such as the Women’s Progress Clubs were formed initially by strikers’ wives. It conducted a paradoxical but effective combination of political organising alongside “traditional” regional women’s work, such as bake-sale fundraising and social dances. Women were also included on CPA organising committees and executive groups, and provided a voice for women throughout the north.

As a result, the CPA was able to mobilise support even from notionally apolitical or conservative groups, such as the Country Women’s Association and, in Townsville, even the president of the Young Women’s Christian Association.

The Red North is highly recommended to anyone interested in Australian working-class politics. Using primary sources and concrete evidence, Menghetti pieces together a picture of rural and regional Queensland politics too easily forgotten in the age of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. It shows an alternative model for anti-establishment politics outside urban centres.

The CPA’s integration of workers’, women’s and community interests almost a century ago stands as a monument to the possible. This work allowed for the election of the only Communist to enter state parliament.

The CPA decayed nationally in the post-war period under the impact of Stalinism, but the imprint of the events of The Red North is still visible today. It can be felt in the union movement and the strong tradition of community organising that sustains environmental movements opposing Adani’s coalmine and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

In the words of CPA organiser Jack Henry: “It was not lost - no; nothing is ever lost”.

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