The St Patrick’s Day bashing of people’s champion
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 AustralianÃ‚Â March 17-18, 2012