State Member of Cairns Rob Pyne’s resignation from the Labor Party in March 2016, leaving the Palaszczuk government on an equal footing with the LNP in State parliament, soon saw him branded as a product of the “State of Mind” afflicting Far North Queensland – a “cargo cult mentality” as one commentator put it that saw regionalist pork barrelling take precedence over ideas and political realism.
It is widely believed that Queensland has a peculiar “state of mind” – as Humphrey McQueen first put it in the late 1970s – but it is said to get more peculiar, and reactionary, the further you travel north. Today, this is perhaps best embodied by Bob Katter, the eccentric federal member for Kennedy whose mix of agrarian socialism and reactionary social ideas – there are no gays in his electorate, apparently – is said to typify the North’s tepid concoction of state-subsidised conservatism. News today that nine out of the country’s ten most conservative electorates lie in regional Queensland fits well into this narrative.
Yet, to throw Pyne into this “cargo cult” of reactionary opinion doesn’t really work, given his string of progressive policy positions, first sponsoring a bill to overturn Queensland’s disgusting abortion laws, and most recently endorsing his friend and perennial socialist candidate Peter Boyle in the Federal seat of Sydney. His progressivism has seen some compare him to left labour figures like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
So, what to make of this? I think that historically it is important to look not only at North Queensland’s well know conservatism, but its penchant for left wing radicalism. And, as such, how regionalism isn’t necessary reactionary. The first and most obvious example of this is well known – and in fact referred to by Pyne in his remarks after resigning – that of Communist Party of Australia (CPA) member Fred Patterson winning the seat of Bowen at the 1944.
This has been well described elsewhere, but largely came about as a result of the CPA’s strong position during WWII and the mix of migrant workers living in the area, specifically progressive Italians who had fled Mussolini’s fascist rule. But this also needs to be read as a part of a broader labour movement radicalism in the north. In 1919, meat workers in Townsville under the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World seized weapons as part of a protracted industrial dispute. And, of course, North Queensland’s Barcaldine is said to have been the birthplace of the modern ALP.
Yet, this history of white radicalism is also complimented by one – as hinted at above – of ‘coloured’ activism. Separatism has been a hallmark of North Queensland politics since the 1850s – largely motivated by the distance from state capital of Brisbane, as well as a desire in the 1880s and 1890s to import ‘Kanaka’ slave labour from the South Sea Islands to work on plantations. North Queensland elites relied on these workers, and as such wanted out of a federated Australia with a ‘White’s only’ policy.
Racial scientists, after all, saw North Queensland as unfit for white habitation or at the very least, strenuous work. This meant that ‘non-whites’, first ‘Kanakas’ but after deportations in 1902-3, Mediterranean peoples, were a requirement for a productive economy. This made Northern Queensland somewhat of a contact zone, as Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers have recently described of the Northern Territory, where “complex, cosmopolitan relationships” emerged that transcended and undermined the official White Australia Policy.
The IWW’s influence in the north was complimented by others of an anarchist bent, particularly migrants from Spain. Catalan anarchist Salvador Torrents migrated to Australia in 1915, residing on an isolated farm in Far North Queensland from where he penned numerous articles for the anarchist press back in Spain and around the world, as well as acting as an “intellectual and important local figure” for the Innisfail Spanish community. This was an intensely radical community, largely drawn from Catalonia and Andalucía, both centres of anarchist thought and – in an interesting parallel – secessionist movements that continue today. These anarchist migrants would have understood and, indeed, fit well into, a political climate of regional chauvinism, though one defined by the ‘colour line’ between ‘Britons’ and ‘dagos’.
Equally, indigenous Australians have organised militantly in the north, despite opposition from conservative governments. Joe McGinness’s autobiography Son of Alyandabu is a fascinating tale of a life lived in the northern reaches of Australia – working in the highly multicultural pearling industry in Darwin, becoming a leading figure on the Communist-led Waterside Workers Federation in Cairns and forming the Cairns branch of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. McGinness’ story is just one of countless others which speak to the subaltern history of the region.
It is these histories of radicalism which are so often forgotten when we talk of the ‘Deep North’ and present it as inhabited solely by people of Katter’s ilk. These histories of progressive thought – of which Rob Pyne now appears as only the latest incarnation – are vital to understanding the region and thinking politically about this vast State.