By Ross Fitzgerald
On 17 January 1930, during a general discussion about the conservative Queensland government’s industrial conciliation and arbitration act amendment bill in the Brisbane Domain Paterson addressed a lunch-time gathering on the relationship between the law and the working class.1 He was arrested two days later on a charge of sedition, brought against him by AE Moore’s country and progressive national party state government. Had Fred Paterson been found guilty, he would have been unable to practice law. An impoverished law student is an unlikely target for such political harassment.
However, this was the beginning of the depression. The world’s capitalist economies had plunged into crisis and, despite its lack of a manufacturing base, the Queensland economy was severely affected. As well, the communist party (CPA) had begun to behave much more militantly, and was being portrayed in the media as being poised to strike, viper-like, at the bosom of Australia’s well-being. Sensitive to any criticism of the social and economic system, the state government was supposedly acting to protect itself. The subject of Paterson’s address in the domain, ‘the law and the working class’, specifically brought the legal system into the area of critical public discussion.
To conservative members of the Queensland political and legal fraternity, such ‘seditious’ utterances from an intending lawyer created grave misgivings. Fred Paterson was arrested on 19 January 1930 just a few weeks before his final bar examination, which he failed.2 Up to this point, he had always passed his law exams with ease. In his memoirs, recorded shortly before his death in 1977, he candidly admitted that his failure in one exam paper at the time may have been deserved in that his defence of himself at the sedition trial completely occupied his time: ‘I am prepared to admit that my failure in one paper … may have been a just decision. I had neglected my law studies to prepare my defence’.
The charge against him was that in the Brisbane Domain on 12 January, 1930 he advisedly spoke and published seditious words, namely:
If the workers shed a little blood in their own interests as they did for the capitalists in the war they will be emancipated. They should take the law into their own hands. Although I hope that I will not have to shed any of my own blood, if the necessity arises, I am willing to do so in conjunction with the workers as a whole. But before I do so the workers will have to be thoroughly organised to have a successful issue. There was no harm in the spilling of blood in the late war in the capitalist’s interests so why could it not be spilt in the worker’s interests, who could not be much worse off than they are now?
During his trial on 16 April 1930, Paterson sat at the bar table.5 The crown prosecutor, FW (Fred) O’Rourke, called two young constables, ET Rooney and P Collins, as witnesses to the alleged seditious utterance. To secure a conviction for sedition under Queensland law, the evidence had to be given by at least two witnesses. The two policemen who allegedly witnessed Paterson’s speech both recounted over 200 consecutive words without a word of difference and without the aid of notes. The words complained of were, the officers stated, used in the domain when the industrial conciliation and arbitration act amendment bill was being discussed. Several other constables were present, but none made any notes.
In reply to a question from the crown prosecutor, Collins said that he did not form the opinion that Paterson was trying to break the law. Paterson neither confirmed nor denied that he had uttered the words. His defence rested on the proposition that no individual, let alone a pair of constables who had allegedly not attended the meeting with the deliberate intention of charging him, could listen to an hour-long speech and recall a select ‘seditious’ passage word for word, yet at the same time not be able to repeat accurately any other statements made before or after the offending remarks.6 Paterson said in court:
Sedition is a serious crime, next on the criminal code to treason, yet the crown comes along here with the most unreliable evidence … Would any of you, the jury, go to a political meeting and on returning home remember the exact words used without the aid of notes? … The original Siamese twins were born together, lived together, ate together, slept together, but the police variety think together.
He added: ‘Behold the Siamese twins of the Queensland police force.
They were not born together, they do not eat together, they do not sleep together and probably they will not die together. But they remember exactly together, and they forget together’.8 After a retirement of less than fifteen minutes the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and Paterson was discharged.9 As his eldest son, John Paterson, recalled, his 47 Fred Paterson father often remarked that the ‘not guilty’ verdict was returned in the sedition trial before the jury had had a free meal. This was uncommon in the years of the depression, as many jurors would delay giving their verdicts until after they were served the standard free hot luncheon or dinner.
The Brisbane Truth of 20 April 1930 headed its report on Paterson’s trial thus: ‘Police Siamese Twins. Rhodes Scholar Scathing Indictment of Crown Evidence, Acquitted of Sedition’. For years afterwards, the two unfortunate constables were known as ‘the Siamese twins’ of the Queensland police force. In what the Brisbane Truth referred to as a ‘sensational speech’ in his defence, Paterson told the jury:
We are living in a modern age, and I speak when the opportunity offers. If I am guilty ever of sedition I am prepared to take the consequences, but I am not guilty in this case … It is not I but the crown, and its method of giving evidence, which is on trial at the present time.
As prosecuting counsel, O’Rourke responded in court that Paterson had an idea that he had been singled out for ‘extinction’ by the crown, but ‘from his address to you it will be seen that he is a man who might easily be led away and who might use words not always advisedly’.12 The trial judge, chief justice Sir James Blair, gave what Paterson later called ‘a viciously vindictive summing up’, telling the jury that as trained witnesses the police officers would have no difficulty in remembering the words allegedly spoke in the domain that day. As he had previously had run-ins with him at the University of Queensland, Paterson wasn’t surprised at Blair’s vindictive summation to the jury.
The possibility of a conspiracy between the conservative state government and the Queensland bar association to prevent Fred Paterson from practising as a barrister must have crossed the minds of many who knew him. Indeed Paterson later argued that he had evidence from a former fellow student at Brisbane Grammar School, the prosecutor himself, that the trial was a set-up.
As Paterson put it:
The crown prosecutor was Fred O’Rourke, an ex-Brisbane Grammar School boy, and one who believed in the real liberal principles — liberal with the small “l” of the legal profession. On the day of the trial Fred O’Rourke asked me to attend his chambers. I did. He told me that the trial was purely a political trial; its aim was to get a conviction to prevent me from becoming a barrister.
Paterson’s claim about the political nature of his trial is lent extra credence when one considers the degree of complicity shortly afterwards between the agents of Moore’s state government and the federal conservative opposition in pursuit of the ALP federal treasurer, EG (‘Red Ted’) Theodore, over the Mungana mines allegations.