Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and an image of deceased persons.
The victories of three Green candidates in the federal elections cast doubt on political certainties.
As the ‘turquoise wave’ in the Blue electorates of Sydney and Melbourne results from the Liberal Party’s drift to the right, the Greens are winning in the city centre, the youth seats of Griffith, Brisbane and Ryan defy simple explanation. After all, isn’t Queensland the “deep north”, a bulwark that assures conservative hegemony?
Read more: Good timing and hard work: behind the election ‘green slide’
While there is of course some truth here, Queensland historian Humphrey McQueen long ago diagnosed this outlook as a “mindset”. Queensland’s ‘mountain dictatorship’ excuses southern critics, in McQueen’s interpretation, ‘to do much about what is wrong in their own states’.
It also conveniently ignores Queensland’s long history of left-wing radicalism, obscuring the continuities that underlie last Saturday’s result.
The red north
Queensland was, of course, the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) which emerged from a wave of shearers’ strikes in the 1890s was the backbone of the party in Queensland, ensuring it remained in power for 40 almost uninterrupted years (1915 -1957).
Racism was the AWU’s modus operandi. He worked diligently to deport workers from the South Seas island in the 1900s, then treated the southern European – and mostly Italian – migrants who replaced them with contempt. As historian Diane Menghetti has explained, this racism was fertile ground for the Communist Party, which established one of its strongest branches in the country among the multicultural sugar cane workers of the Far North, many of whom were refugees from fascism.
Their struggle, particularly for decent conditions in this dangerous industry, was described in Jean Devanny’s 1936 novel Sugar Heaven. It also saw Australia’s only communist MP – Fred Paterson – elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly. Elected twice (in 1944 and 1947), Queensland Labor employed the gerrymander that Prime Minister Joh Bjelke-Peterson would later wield with such aplomb to redistribute Paterson’s electorate.
“A left-wing community”
Considered a cornerstone by the left today, Queensland’s resource sector has long been host to radicalism.
In 1964, an unprecedented 32-week strike and lockout at the Mt Isa mines was led by anarchist Pat Mackie. Soon expelled from the AWU and fired from his job in the mines, Mackie’s militant defiance saw a state of emergency declared in the regional town. Mackay’s leadership sparked national infamy and an attempted deportation to his native New Zealand.
At the same time, Indigenous activists forged ties with white trade unionists that would fundamentally shape Australian history. The Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, an Aboriginal rights organization, was founded in 1960 – a time when such organizations were run by well-meaning white people. The league thrived amid what historian Sue Taffe calls a “left-wing community” in this small Queensland town.
The local branch of the Communist Party, although much reduced since the 1930s, was still an important player in the local unions – especially on the docks. He also promoted the self-determination of indigenous peoples in line with decolonization struggles in Asia and Africa.
Led by Joe McGuiness and Gladys O’Shane, the Cairns league forged a close working relationship with the Communists on the basis that, as O’Shane said:
Stirring up prejudice between people of color and white people…cause[s] divisions among workers, which […] Pause[ing] hard-won conditions.
Many activists, including Eddie Koiki Mabo – a member of the Communist-controlled Waterside Workers Federation – first became politically active in the Cairns League. It should also be noted that in the 2022 election, O’Shane’s daughter Pat edged out the United Australia Party in the far north seat of Leichhardt, as the candidate for the tiny Socialist Alliance.
To understand the successes of the Greens in south-east Queensland, it is therefore not enough to say that Brisbane is a city that has exceeded its state. On the contrary, Brisbane has long reflected the rebellious streak of the wider state.
This is evident in the right to protest campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, actions against uranium and nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and climate marches and Indigenous rights protests today. .
On the contrary, it is fruitful to identify continuities between yesterday and today. The Queensland Greens campaign reflects two vital traditions. One was highlighted by Greens adviser Jonathon Sri:
Queensland is not a conservative state. It’s an anti-establishment state where voters have a healthy skepticism about authority and whoever they perceive to be “in charge.”
Moreover, the campaigns in central Brisbane were not about talking to people, but to them about the material issues affecting their lives. Rental prices, the unaffordability of dental care and, of course, climate change were the main topics of discussion in these campaigns.
By seeking to mobilize as many people as possible around unifying and radical demands, these campaigns testify today to the durability of the heritage of the “Red North”.