- by Peter Wills
- The Guardian
- Issue #1978
Growing up in the rural farming town of Tully in abject poverty, I quickly learnt the difference between the working and ruling class. The rich farmers made huge profits off the often broken backs of their farmworkers that were paid barely enough to survive, who lived payday to payday. Living in poverty, I quickly came to despise the inequalities in the capitalist system, being forced to leave school at fifteen and start work on the railway. I joined the union right away and was given a book on the Russian Revolution by a union representative not long after. After reading it I embraced communism, not fully knowing the theory behind it and lamented that the working class didn’t have a comrade like Lenin to lead them in Australia, the working class I figured needed a working-class hero, someone to inspire them into action, then I heard and read about comrade Fred Patterson – I had found my hero.
Born on the 13th June 1897 on a pig farm at Gladstone, Fred Paterson became the first communist elected to a state parliament in Australia, serving in the Queensland parliament for two terms (1944—1950) – defeated when the Bowen electorate was divided into two separate electorates, Whitsunday and Burdekin. This redistribution was a deliberate act to unseat him. Although he contested the new seat of Whitsunday, he was unsuccessful and lost to a country party candidate. The Menzies government was on an anti-communist crusade at the time and pressured the state government to redistribute the electorate to get Fred out of the state parliament.
Much has been written about Fred’s life in politics, so I am not going to repeat what is already known and readily available. However, his work on the cane fields, supporting and defending cane-cutters – particularly Italian immigrants who faced discrimination from both the ALP government and the AWU, which was nothing more than a right-wing bosses union – is notable. The White Australia Policy was still in force, and a policy was formed that preference would be given to Anglo men for cane cutting jobs at the rate of seventy-five per cent to twenty-five per cent for Italian immigrants – Fred was ably assisted by Jack Henry, a lifelong member of the CPA and northern district organiser, in fighting their equality.
Before the invention of the mechanical cane harvester, all sugar cane was cut by hand. During the 1934-35 cane-cutting season, nineteen cane-cutters died from Weill’s disease spread by rats living in and around the cane fields urinating on the cane stalks and spreading to the cane cutters while handling the cane. It was determined that burning the cane was the best and most effective way to eradicate it, but this was not popular amongst growers who all part-owned the local sugar mill in Tully as part of a co-op. Their resistance to burning the cane was due to several factors all tied into increasing cost of production.
Burning cane reduces sugar content, and the cane needs to be crushed within twelve hours of being burnt before the sugar starts to sour as opposed to twenty-four hours for green cane. These seasons coincided with the record-low sugar price of £8 per ton – well under the cost of production. The record-low price was due to the ramping up of production during the depression years, where international sugar production quota agreements were ignored, leading to excessive supply and diminished returns – setting the stage was set for a showdown between growers and cutters.
Cane-cutters received no support from the conservative AWU or Labor state government who sided with the growers and millers against the cutters. Despite this, and with help from local communists, the cutters organised and went on strike demanding the cane to be burnt. In August of 1935 they went on a nine-week strike. The Labor government’s response was to send armed police into the canfields arresting and shooting at the strikers. Cutters were evicted from barracks and fined £100 for participating in a strike, with police escorting scab labour onto the canefields. The AWU tried to stop the strike but was unsuccessful with local workers organising themselves in opposition to the bosses’ union.
Eventually, the workers won the day with the state arbitration commission ordering all cane be burnt before cutting in 1936. The AWU tried to claim credit for this, but the fact is they did nothing to help the workers. The fight was led and won by local communists like Fred Patterson and Jack Henry organising the cutters into powerful groups.
In spite of the dirty tricks campaign by the Labor party during the 1944 state election, Paterson – assisted by staunch comrades like Jack Henry and the cane-cutters (particularly those of Italian descent) – went on to win the then-seat of Bowen. Patterson is still highly regarded amongst the Italian communities in the northern cane towns of Queensland.