A history of the far left in North Queensland

Remembering the Red North

Curumbilbarra, otherwise known as Townsville, is considered to be one of the most conservative parts of so-called Australia. It’s easy to understand why this is the case: Clive Palmer and Bob Katter both hold offices in Townsville, it’s a home base for many, if not most of the fly in – fly out miners in the region, and it’s also the location of Australia’s largest military base, Lavarack Barracks.

Aside from this, the city looks conservative. One Nation, Palmer United Party (PUP) and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) have billboards on almost every street corner. The offices of Adani are prominently advertised in what would be an otherwise delightful restaurant strip on one of the main streets of town. 

The military is omnipresent — there are several military museums, the aforementioned barracks, a disproportionate amount of war memorials and the frequent sighting of military aircraft, not to mention the live firings that occur on neighbouring islands and bushlands, advertised in the Townsville Bulletin. 

That paper, of course, is the main culprit in perpetuating such conservatism, assumed and actual. The Townsville Bulletin publishes without concern for integrity, ethics or shame: anything from a list of residents due at court to the onlyfans profiles of local women, to advocating for vigilantism in response to a supposed youth crime crisis, can be found in the pages of the Bulletin. 

Recently, the Bulletin has had two main areas of preoccupation. The youth crime crisis, the hysteria of which it is largely responsible for, and the construction of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine, for which it naturally advocates. 

Such conservatism is considered by many to be so innate that any level of leftism is often framed as being something of a southern import. This was naturally not helped by those southern leftists that did in fact travel to North Queensland to resist Adani, the most reviled of which being Bob Brown’s ill-fated convoy. 

But as much as the Townsville Bulletin, and others of that ilk, may want us to think so, leftism in the far north is not an import at all. 

In fact, it was in Bowen — the site of many an anti-Adani dispute — that Fred Patterson, a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was elected to state parliament in 1944, the only member of the CPA to ever hold such a position.

The moment in which Patterson was successfully elected into government is often referred to as the “Red North”, a historic period wherein North Queensland was proliferated with communist, anarchist and anti-fascist sentiment. This was driven by the rise of the Communist Party of Australia and their growing influence in driving the union movement further left. 

It was in the canefields that much of this sentiment was to be found, amongst Italian migrant workers agitating alongside their Australian comrades for better working conditions.

In 1935, cane cutters striked over Weil’s Disease, a condition that resulted in fevers (and in some cases, death). Spread by rats urinating on wet ground and cane stalks, the spread of Weil’s Disease could be prevented by the burning of cane, something farm owners furiously resisted as it resulted in a loss of profits. 

3000 workers went on strike, despite substantial opposition from the Australian Workers Union (AWU), as well as the Brisbane Trades and Labour council who passed a resolution condemning the strike. It ended two months later, thanks to a combination of police force, the use of scab labour, and the efforts of the AWU.

But it was not without victory: a year later, in 1936, the industrial court passed a general order that cane must be burnt before harvesting. Beyond this, the strike was a considerable achievement in organisation and mobilisation for the CPA and engaged a number of community members that were traditionally considered to be a-political — women and migrants, but also allies such as shopkeepers, miners and small farmers. 

The presence of the Communist Party in the unions was what led Collinsville, a mining town 90 km south-west of Bowen, to be termed “Little Moscow” — a name given to communities in the 20th century that held radical communist or socialist beliefs, often the result of the influence of a militant trade union. It was also a large part of their popularity amongst migrants and the working class, which is what ultimately led to Fred Patterson’s electoral successes in 1939 in the Townsville City Council, and later to state parliament in 1944. 

Though the strikes themselves certainly made the CPA, and communist sentiment, popular, it was the mutual aid and relief efforts during and beyond the 1935 strike that curried real favour within the community. Relief kitchens, as well as social and community events, went a long way in broadening the appeal of the strike, and of communist values as a whole. 

These connections were what allowed the rapid organisation and mobilisation of a solidarity movement with the advent of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. 16 of the 21 relief committees in Australia were in North Queensland, and large amounts of funds were raised in aid of republican fighters. In Ingham, where wages were low and unemployment was high, only two families were reported as refusing to donate. 

A large factor in the successes of these projects was the involvement of women, most of whom were the wives of cane cutters, members of the CPA, or outright communists themselves (or a combination of all three). Women’s Progress Clubs were common throughout the region and organised everything from political activity to social dances and hospital visits. In Collinsville, the aforementioned “Little Moscow”, the Country Women’s Association (CWA) sent a representative to CPA conferences, and in Gladstone, the CWA organised a petition to call on the government to lift the ban on the Communist Party. 

It was these activities that Diane Menghetti identified as weakening the “Red Bogey”, in her book The Red North. Menghetti suggests that the “unusually extensive social life of the Party”, as well as the regular publication of newsletters and bulletins, was crucial in undermining the sinister reputation of communist ideology amongst the community. Fred Patterson’s North Queensland Guardian went a long way in furthering this aim — publishing advertisements from local businesses, shying away from overt communist iconography, and advocating for the compatibility of communism and Christianity. 

All this meant that, by the late 1930s, North Queensland had the largest and most active communist population outside of Sydney. 

By the early 1940s, the Red North had faced two major setbacks — the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, and the Soviet invasion of Finland, followed shortly thereafter by the banning of the Communist Party in 1940 by the Menzies government. Menghetti’s history of the Red North, the most comprehensive of its kind, ends about there. 

But that doesn’t mean that the decline of communist industrial and community organising in the North was the end of political activity full stop. The ongoing resistance of Indigenous communities, which began in the North at first sight of European invasion, flourished in the years following the second world war, and remains the most consistent and active form of organising in the area to this day. 

When local authorities attempted to deport Albie Geia from Palm Island in 1957, workers called a strike, which lasted for five days and ended with police raiding homes at gunpoint. In 2004, following the death of Cameron Doomagee in police custody, residents on Palm Island burnt down the local police station, barracks and courthouse. Most recently, Townsville has seen an increase in political vandalism — the hands of a statue of slave trader and town founder Robert Towns painted red, and the words “Black Lives Matter” spray painted on a bridge through the centre of town and at the entrance of the Palmer Street restaurant strip. 

Anarchists Against Poverty NQ, which started organising in late 2019, identify this as some of the most radical activity in Australia full stop. “These have been some of the most radical acts of dissent our country has ever seen, including the burning down of a police station on Palm Island.” They identify party politics, particulalry those of the Greens and Labor, as a thorn in the side of radicalism in the region. “Political dissent has otherwise been captured and pacified by social democrats who may spruik loudly (but mostly do not) about their dissatisfaction with the current system while pursuing reforms which present no coherent systemic challenge.” 

Anarchists Against Poverty have recently opened a shop front and resource centre in South Townsville, conducting mutual aid as well as activism. They see “[providing] immediate relief to impoverished and otherwise marginalised and disempowered people within our community” as the most important part of their work, which is grounded in the principles of mutual aid. They receive support from the local community for their mutual aid project, mainly through the donation of groceries and other goods. According to Anarchists Against Poverty, “the community gives and the community receives.”

Such a strategy, of providing mutual aid and facilitating greater community connection, as well as establishing a book shop and resource centre, is not unlike that of the communists and anarchists in the Red North of the 1930s. “Our praxis does in some ways coincide with what was being done here previously… although our direct action has been for the most part related to mutual aid and alleviating poverty whereas “back in the day” praxis was moreso geared toward workplace organising.” It’s certainly a far cry from Bob Brown’s Anti-Adani Convoy, and other such misguided attempts at winning hearts and minds in North Queensland. 

Anarchists Against Poverty NQ see the spirit of the Red North as being “alive in individuals”, albeit hampered by the dearth of political organisation outside of the Greens, Labor and the unions. They are optimistic at the thought of reviving it “by finding individuals and empowering them through our praxis.”

Looking through the political history of North Queensland, particularly that of Indigenous organising and activism, I share their optimism. The North is not as conservative as detractors would have you believe. 

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