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Paterson’s curse was the courage of his convictions

21 March 2009 3,518 views No Comment

FORMER divinity student, Rhodes scholar and radical barrister Frederick Woolnough Paterson was Australia’s first and only formally communist member of parliament.

Widely known throughout Queensland as “the people’s champion”, Paterson was the member for Bowen in the Queensland Legislative Assembly from 1944 to 1950, when his seat was deliberately redistributed out of existence.

This week, on March 17, Irish Australians celebrated St Patrick’s Day. On another March 17, in 1948, Patterson, while observing a march of striking unionists in Brisbane, was savagely bashed from behind by a plain-clothes policeman and sustained serious head injuries. This attack, it seems likely, was on the orders of the state Labor premier E.M. (“Ned”) Hanlon.

To handle a statewide railway strike, on March 9, 1948, Hanlon had rushed through Queensland’s one-house parliament the Industrial Law Amendment Act, which prohibited participation in an illegal strike and stipulated heavy penalties. Queensland police were granted power to enter any home or building, to disperse any gathering, and to arrest without warrant; the onus of proof was placed on the defendants. Under the act, which attacked fundamental principles of fairness and justice, the opinion of a police officer was sufficient proof of a misdemeanour. Even the then conservative Courier-Mail newspaper commented on March 10, 1948: “These powers … are the most far-reaching ever given to the police in any state in Australia.”

In parliament, the premier personally attributed the impetus for the bill to Paterson’s handling of the pickets after the receipt of police instructions: “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 round the law.”

In a moment of unusual candour, Hanlon admitted: “As a matter of fact, this bill might have been called the Paterson bill.”

Hanlon argued that Paterson was assisting striking trade unionists to “get around the law”. The new legislation, the premier said, would remedy this situation: “It will enable the police to do things they were prevented from doing under the emergency regulations … The police can move anybody from the vicinity of a workshop. The police can order such persons to move away from the workshop instead of their marching up and down in their hundreds outside the gates.”

When Paterson insisted that the law of Queensland be adhered to and it became plain that, for the government’s purposes, the law was insufficient to the police’s task, it simply legislated to enhance those police powers.

Paterson attacked the Industrial Law Amendment bill as “the greatest scab-herding, strike-breaking piece of legislation ever introduced by a Labor government anywhere in Australia”. Although knowing that the repressive bill was destined to be passed, the communist MLA spoke in defence of the striking railwaymen with passion and eloquence: “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.”

My biography of the communist MP, Fred Paterson, the People’s Champion, deals in detail with his deliberate bashing in Brisbane while he was acting as a legal observer for the marching strikers.

In the light of Hanlon’s publicly expressed antagonism to Paterson, it is significant that, on the afternoon of the day that Paterson was viciously bashed, the Queensland ALP caucus met and decided that no inquiry would be held. Moreover, no charges were laid against Paterson or the detective-sergeant involved. Hence the incident could not be tested in court.

In the biography, I wrote that Paterson’s attacker was a plainclothes Queensland policeman, detective sergeant J.J. (“Jack”) Mahony. Some at the time, including the maverick independent MP for Mundingburra, Tom Aikens, who called the attack on Paterson attempted murder, claimed that Mahony was acting under instructions from Hanlon because Paterson was constantly thwarting Hanlon’s attempts to stop industrial disputation and, in particular, the statewide 1948 rail strike.

The day after the attack, March 18, Aikens asked a three-part question in parliament:

* Is it the intention of the government to prosecute detective Mahony for attempted murder or any other charge under the criminal code for brutally smashing Mr F. Paterson, MLA, with a baton on the head from behind, in Edward Street, yesterday?

* Did Mahony so brutally attack Paterson under instructions from the government?

* If so, what did the government hope to gain by Paterson’s murder or serious injury?

The premier’s reply to this extremely serious charge did not even mention any detail of the assault, Paterson’s name, or the Queensland detective’s name. It merely consisted of a gratuitous attack on Aikens and his ostensible lack of courage. Implying that the questions asked were facetious, Hanlon said of Aikens:

“You can be sure that he was hiding as far away from the scene of the disturbance as he possibly could. Evidently he takes considerable pleasure in inciting other people to take part in disturbances, but when the opportunity comes, the honourable member will not be found in thevicinity.”

It is hard to believe that, if such an event occurred in Australia today, there would not be either an immediate state parliamentary inquiry, a royal commission or a formal inquiry instituted by the Australian Senate.

Yet, in the ALP-controlled Queensland of the late 1940s, an extremely serious assault upon a dissident member of parliament was greeted with an extraordinary official silence.

Paterson never fully recovered from head injuries inflicted in his assault by Mahony. In 1950, Paterson’s Bowen electorate was gerrymandered out of existence at the behest of the Labor Party.

In 2009 it is hard not to agree with Paterson’s assessment of the significance of his bashing on St Patrick’s Day 1948. As he said late in his life (he died in 1977, aged 80): “The story of this action, and the bashing of other people on this day, is one thatshould be told again and again, to expose the corruption of some members of the police force and the corruption of some government administrators.”

Published in The Australian March 21, 2009