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The St Patrick’s Day bashing of people’s champion

17 March 2012 2,239 views One Comment

SAINT Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate, but it also marks one of the most infamous incidents in Australian political history.

On March 17, 1948, in Brisbane, something very significant happened, something that deserves to be remembered – especially as Queensland gears up for a crucial state election.

On that day, Australia’s first and only Communist Party MP, Frederick (“Fred”) Woolnough Paterson, was savagely bashed by a plain-clothes policeman – almost certainly on the direct orders of authoritarian ALP state premier E.M. (“Ned”) Hanlon.

This brutal attack occurred while Fred Paterson was legally observing a march of striking unionists on the streets of Brisbane.

As a result, the person widely known throughout Queensland as “the people’s champion” sustained serious head injuries from which he never recovered.

This former Rhodes scholar, divinity student and radical barrister – who catered especially for the poor and the dispossessed – was the Communist Party member for Bowen in Queensland’s one-house parliament from 1944 to 1950.

To handle a highly disruptive, statewide railway strike, Hanlon had rushed through the Queensland Legislative Assembly a draconian Industrial Law Amendment Act on March 9, 1948.

This punitive legislation prohibited participation in illegal strikes and imposed extremely severe penalties.

The Queensland Labor premier personally attributed the impetus for the legislation to Fred Paterson’s adroit assistance to striking trade unionists, which, he said, had enabled them to “get around the law”.

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

In Queensland parliament the Communist MLA for Bowen had attacked the act as “the greatest scab-herding, strike-breaking piece of legislation ever introduced by a Labor government anywhere in Australia”.

Even the conservative newspaper The Courier-Mail editorialised on March 10, 1948: “These powers are the most far-reaching ever given to the police in any state in Australia.”

In my 1997 biography of Fred Paterson, The People’s Champion, I revealed that the perpetrator of the assault on Paterson on St Patrick’s Day was a plain-clothes Queensland detective sergeant J.J. (“Jack”) Mahony.

On the afternoon of March 17, 1948, the Queensland ALP caucus met and unanimously decided that no inquiry would be held into the vicious bashing of Paterson, which had occurred earlier on that St Patrick’s Day. Moreover, no charges were laid against Paterson or the detective-sergeant involved. Hence the assault could not be tested in court.

The day after the bashing, the maverick independent MP for the state seat of Mundingburra, Tom Aikens, called the attack on Paterson a case of “attempted murder”.

In the Queensland parliament, Aikens asked the following questions:

“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 did not even mention any detail of the assault, Paterson’s name, or the Queensland detective’s name. Hanlon’s response merely consisted of a gratuitous personal attack on Aikens and his supposed lack of courage.

If such a bashing of an MP occurred in Australia today, there would almost certainly be a 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.

To add insult to injury, in 1950 – at the behest of Hanlon and the Queensland ALP – Paterson’s seat of Bowen was deliberately redistributed out of existence.

Paterson had no chance of winning the state seat of Whitsunday for which he stood. He soon moved to Sydney where, despite his continuing debilitating injuries, he worked part-time as a legal adviser to the Australian Communist Party.

As we approach this year’s St Patrick’s Day, it is hard to disagree with Paterson’s assessment of the significance of his bashing in 1948.

As the Communist Party MP 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 that should be told again and again, to expose the corruption of some members of the police force and the corruption of some government administrators.”

Vale Fred Paterson. Lest we forget.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is the co-authored political satire Fools’ Paradise, set in a fictitious Mangoland during a state election.

The Weekend Australian March 17-18, 2012

One Comment »

  • Geoff Strong said:

    State of being, but not as we know it

    QUEENSLANDERS are different. Fred Paterson would probably have agreed with this assertion. Queensland is after all the only state in Australia to have elected to its Parliament a candidate from the Communist Party. That candidate was Paterson, who represented the northern coastal seat of Bowen from 1944 to 1950, before he was almost beaten to death by a plain-clothes police officer while watching a demonstration during a strike.

    The ALP’s present-day leaders will certainly be hoping Queensland is different, after the party’s annihilation in last weekend’s state election.

    Looking at it from a southern perspective, the default setting for Queensland politics always seems to lie somewhere between the centrist populism of the man in the hat, Bob Katter, and the righteous right populism of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon. Then there was the near police state of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with his brand of folksy rural populism, from 1968 to ’87.

    But these were not aberrations. Queensland politics has always thrown up surprises. Apart from Paterson, there were eccentrics like ”Bombshell” (Frank) Barnes, who represented Bundaberg from 1941 to 1950, wearing a pith helmet and white suit. A former publican, travelling salesman and drunk, he was elected as an ”independent Laborite”, defeating the official ALP candidate.

    Also of that ilk was Tom Aikens, who after time as deputy mayor of Townsville was in 1944 elected to State Parliament, where he went on to found the North Queensland Labor Party, which was not part of the ALP.

    In a council coalition with the communists, he instituted an extensive program of municipal ownership, including an electrical appliance store, a wood depot, a fruit and vegetable mart, an ice-works and a childcare centre.

    But in Parliament he moved further right, dropping Labor from his party name in 1960. By the time he was defeated in 1977 he was nicknamed Tory Tom, vehemently opposing such things as establishing James Cook University in the city.

    Ironically, Aiken’s legacy is now the subject of study by that university under political historian Associate Professor Douglas Hunt. He sees a common thread between all these characters (even Paterson) – simplistic populism. ”Paterson wore his ideology very lightly; he got his support by being seen as a fighter for the little people.”

    Paterson was a barrister who considered studying divinity until being radicalised by a visit to Belfast. His biographer, historian Ross Fitzgerald, agrees Queensland is different, partly because it is more decentralised than other states and Brisbane plays a lesser role than any other capital city.

    The most significant and enduring Queensland political legacy is the Labor Party itself, formed in 1891 in the central Queensland town of Barcaldine, after a shearers’ strike the year before. This was a fairly radical party for the time, having socialism as its key aim through the nationalisation of ”production, distribution and exchange”. The party’s growth was rapid and by 1899 in Queensland it formed the first socialist government anywhere, gaining world headlines. This lasted only seven days but, according to Fitzgerald, that was long enough to look at the Treasury books to get an idea of what the conservatives had been up to with state finances.

    Nationalising private industries might have been dropped from the Labor Party platform decades ago, but privatising state-owned ones still seems to be unforgivable. Anna Bligh’s Labor government did it to important Queensland public assets such as rail, motorways and ports just after being re-elected in 2009 and has now paid the political price.

    Legend has it Labor was founded under a large eucalyptus tree in Barcaldine, named the Tree of Knowledge, which survived into the first decade of this century. Before her electoral thrashing, Bligh visited the shrine built where the tree used to stand. It was probably bad symbolism, because the old tree had been killed a couple of years before by an unknown person who poisoned it with glyphosate, the active ingredient of the herbicide Roundup.

    Given the symbolism of the poisoning and considering what happened in the election two weeks later, Bligh might have been wise to stay away.

    THE AGE, March 31, 2012