How Ben Chifley and Ned Hanlon Broke the Communist Party
Every few years around St Patrick’s Day, historian Ross Fitzgerald “reminds” everyone how the Communist MLA Fred Paterson was “bashed” that day in 1948 during a Brisbane street march.
Fitzgerald started out condemning Queensland’s Hanlon government as being of the awful, long-successful, right-wing Labor type. In 2007 he advanced to the allegation that a police officer may have bashed Paterson on the orders of premier Ned Hanlon. Now he links the event to the corruption that was exposed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry after 32 years of Liberal-Country Party rule.
In an age when an old communist is gaining popularity in the US, the facts inconvenient to this “history” bear retelling. In post-WWII Australia, a major concern was whether troops would return to a life of unemployment and misery like the Great Depression that preceded it. For both national and state governments an essential component was the development of independent industrial commissions under the various Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Acts. These issued rules to ensure dignified pay and conditions, and provided a reasonable method of resolving disputes. Prime minister Ben Chifley and Hanlon were at the apex of this argument. This approach provided a climate of certainty for both employees and employers, resulting in increased consumer and investor confidence, and overall national income. It was very successful. More than 500,000 service personnel were demobilised while maintaining full employment.
With our men fighting fascist tyranny, during the war the Communist Party of Australia moved into the unions big-time. Concerns about a return to the Depression after the war also assisted the election in 1944 of Australia’s one and only communist member of parliament, Paterson, as state member for Bowen. The CPA was committed to social agitation to bring about its own dictatorship, and hated the Chifley-Hanlon system. The real difficulty for the communists was that this form of economic regulation, based as it was on the equal dignity of all human labour, strengthened democratic life. It had to be broken in order to foster the “necessary” revolutionary chaos.
On February 2, 1948, members of a communist-run engineering union at the Ipswich railway workshops went on strike for increased pay rather than wait for an application to proceed before the Industrial Commission. The strike, taken over by CPA secretary Alex MacDonald, widened to include all railway workers, Brisbane City Council bus drivers, watersiders and seamen. Union leaders disobeyed orders to have ballots before directing strikes, and refused to direct a return to work when ordered to do so. Many ordinary union members were angry with this and some went to work driving trains that carried necessities to regional Queensland. The CPA picketed the homes of these members. Tellingly, despite CPA agitation to blockade Queensland, interstate union branches refused to become involved.
Its patience exhausted, on March 9 the Hanlon government introduced legislation prohibiting intimidation by strikers. That same day, members of the major railway union voted to return to work. The strike was ending.
By St Patrick’s Day, many trains were running and the CPA had lost control of events. About 140 CPA members and supporters commenced an unlawful street procession. Paterson said he intervened in the arrest of a marcher and was hit by a baton from behind. He was taken to the hospital unconscious.
He recovered, but the myth is that Paterson was mentally never the same, and as a result could not lead the CPA to its otherwise inevitable political triumph.
On March 23, coalminers voted to supply coal wagons to the railways and by April the strike was over, the Queensland University Radical Club even voting to have communists who caused industrial unrest for political motives jailed or deported.
The defeat of the CPA by Hanlon and Chifley effectively finished it, though its entrails wriggled. Any decent Labor government would have rapidly seen off the CPA from industrial unions, but its “last hurrah” wasn’t until 1975 when metalworkers tried to smash the system under the Whitlam government.
Fitzgerald meanwhile proceeds to “bash” premier Hanlon, a man near 70 years dead, with allegations of criminal conspiracy for which there is no evidence.
The legacy of Chifley and Hanlon lives on in the decent industrial system they protected, and free hospitals (now Medicare), both of which are part of Australian culture and political “no-go” zones. Otherwise, it needs be said there is no credible allegation that Hanlon was corrupt, and Paterson has rightly departed from history with no achievement worthy of recall.
Martin Hanson is a Brisbane lawyer and grandson of Ned Hanlon.
The Australian, March 25, 2020, p 12.