By Dave Riley
Norma Nord joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1937. "I was a terribly nervous, highly strung, very sick girl because I had suffered from malnutrition and neglect as a child. As I grew older, I had to overcome all this, so I decided to join a theatre group to combat my shyness.
"As a young girl, I went to all the churches in Brisbane trying to find something to believe in. While I didn't like the churches, I thought they may have something to stimulate my ideas.
"I bought a copy of the Worker's Weekly because I was just getting involved in the peace movement. I found out what was causing the wars and thought, 'Now I will do something about it'. That was when I joined the peace movement. When I met the communists in the peace movement, I began to see that an alternative system was possible."
Nord followed her sisters into Brisbane's New Theatre, and from there gravitated towards the Communist Party.
"When I did classes on historical and dialectical materialism, that seemed just what I had been looking for all my life. I ended up tutoring Marxist theory. It answered so many questions about life, groups, myself, about tactics ... it's a wonderful guide. I found my personal and social philosophy, and it remains my living guide today."
At the time, the CPA was a mass party confident about its future. "We were told, 'In 10 years, comrades, we'll have socialism. Don't buy a house, just pay rent because soon we'll all be living under socialism!'. [Fellow members] Ted and Eva Bacon never bought that little house they lived in — they paid rent all their lives."
Nord was elected to the position of state treasurer during the war years. Despite, or as a result of, being declared illegal, the party grew enormously during this time, so much so that the influx of members proved difficult to keep up with.
"There were so many members that I had an illegal box of membership, and it was too much for me. I had A to L and someone else had the rest. We even recruited people on the dance floor. You'd just say, 'Would you like to join the Communist Party?' and they'd say, 'Sure'. We called them 'Red Army' comrades."
When the party was banned in July 1940, warrants were sent out for its leaders. The Queensland party secretary at the time, Jack Henry, lived in the inner Brisbane suburb of West End.
"The whole of Queensland was looking for the 'wicked leader', but he was protected. We used to meet to pass on the correspondence from the south.
"At that time you only told people what they needed to know. Someone would receive the correspondence, then pass it on to someone else; then someone gave it to me. We always knew the contact, and mine was a girl who worked in the museum. She would give me the letters, and I would meet Henry at the Woolloongabba rail yards in the middle of the night and hand them over to him. That was the way we worked.
"I got so ill one time that I had to go to a doctor who said to me, 'My word, you've been going at a pace haven't you?'. But I couldn't say what I was doing. I was half killing myself!"
Because the party was illegal, Nord kept all her party books in a tin trunk buried in the back yard in the place she rented in Kangaroo Point. The ban on the party did not stop it campaigning.
"We used to work until 3am in the morning. I used to help print a leaflet we called The Spark. I'd then take my bundle and we would letterbox. One night we distributed 5000 leaflets and got home at five in the morning."
Although Nord worked in the peace movement, she was told to set up a waterside workers' women's committee. "Previously it had been a ladies' auxiliary, but we changed that to have a committee in our own right. Then I was told that I should be in the peace movement and I wanted to be in the waterside workers because my husband was a wharfie. I proceeded to do both. I work best when I'm like that.
"The women had won the right to sit at all the mass meetings. When union national secretary Jim Healy came to Brisbane to speak, we women had the right to sit up on stage with him. We printed our own newsletter. We used to speak on the jobs. We would give the retired men a Christmas party every year."
Eventually Nord was removed from the peace committee "because they put the ALP in. They always had the ALP in whether they were good, bad or rotten. You always had to have them there — a token political strength. It didn't really work.
"After the war ended, the men took over from the women and they were sent back into the home to have babies. I was no longer allowed to teach. I was secretary of the party branch in Salisbury. I lived in a housing camp and I had my babies there. I would put my baby in the pram, and with the other child toddling alongside me, we would go up the street because I had a run of 23 Guardians I used to sell. I'd also collect money from members and supporters."
In Salisbury Nord was involved in rent strikes that the party led, the local Progress Association and a program of home based "cottage" lectures — socials with a guest speaker. She also edited newsletters that were distributed by the party at the Evans Deakin shipyard and Commonwealth Engineering.
"I certainly believe that the greatest freedom is in discipline. You've got to work your time out. I think the theory kept me going. When I was really down, I'd read a book, and think: this is right.
"I used to be told by the party males to toughen up. 'You're all right one to one with people, but you are no good on the stump. You are no good at public meetings.' That was right, but it hurt. It wasn't a good way to help people get on the stump. It isn't the way to ask people if they felt very nervous. Nothing like that was ever understood.
"But if you want to do something for society, then you are doing something you enjoy and you'll do it well. Then you'll have your enthusiasm and hold onto it. You can't build anything without enthusiasm. You can't build anything without understanding where you're going. No theory without practice; no practice without theory. I've tried to get a balance on that, but we must not forget that we are dealing with human beings with all their faults.
"I think that we need to constantly remember why we are struggling and why we are fighting. I don't like to get up and repeat what anyone else has said or exactly what I've read. I try to relate it and get something new out of it. And I'm not going to get up and speak unless I've got a new idea to put into the meeting. That means that I don't often get up and speak."
Nord left the Communist Party several years before it folded in 1991. Today she is the secretary of Left Connections in Brisbane and works out of the Grassroots Centre in West End. This year she will be 80 years old. "To me", she said, "Marxist philosophy is a guide to your whole life".