EJANZH: Sullivan and May on Reconstructing an Agrarian Populist Mentality

By Rodney Sullivan and Dawn May, School of History and Politics, James Cook University.

An analysis of a clash between townspeople and a band of itinerant works in Cairns in 1932 provides a window on an incident which not only gives an insight into the social dynamics in a North Queensland country town but also the construction of a populist mentality. According to Patrick Mullins, populism is a form of radical politics associated with severe development problems” and is often characteristic of regions which are heavily dependent on the export of a limited number of agricultural and mining commodities. [1] Underdevelopment of this type often leads to economic insecurity. Populism in Queensland also has an agrarian base – the belief that the common people, epitomised by small farmers, are the repository of valid community attitudes, values and knowledge. Both Mullins and Reynolds have stressed the capacity of Queensland populism to suppress class as the fundamental line of social and political cleavage. [2] Mullins in particular has developed an historical interpretation of Queensland politics based on class alliances. While this schema might be correct, the evidence on which it is based is thin indeed. The work of Mullins, and for that matter most other commentators on Queensland, lacks attention to the populist mentality which has given Queensland the reputation for having a different political culture from other Australian states.

During the Depression of the 1930s large numbers of unemployed people were attracted to the Cairns region by the prospect of casual work in the canefields and a favourable climate which allowed people to live outdoors in relative comfort. For most of the itinerants, Cairns was the end of the line; prospects for work further north and west were minimal. As they arrived in the northern city in the summer of 1932 most made their way to the showgrounds at Parramatta Park where at least they could roll out their swags in buildings, unused for most of the year except showtime at the end of July. These men lived frugally, on rations obtained with a weekly issue of food coupons. This meagre fare was supplemented with food cadged from local residents. However tolerance of the band of unemployed began to ebb when it was realised that they might jeopardise the staging of the annual show.

Some two months before the event, officials sought an assurance that the grounds would be made available in time to repair buildings and erect additional structures. In mid-June, under pressure from the show committee, the local council unsuccessfully applied to the state government for £300 towards the cost of providing permanent shelter for the homeless. [3] Alternative temporary accommodation in the vicinity of the overseas wharf was suggested by the Town Council but this offer was rejected by the campers: they believed it would undermine their case for permanent shelter. At a meeting of local organisations and leaders of the unemployed held at the end of June, it was suggested that Fire Brigade hoses should be turned on campers to dislodge them. Jack McCormack, one of the leaders of the workless men, warned that if that happened the unemployed “although underclothed and underfed would resist and retaliate”.[4] However, Mayor Collins maintained that the local community had been extremely tolerant and was adamant that nothing should stand in the way of the show. “Make no mistake, if agreeable methods no longer prevail in dealing with the question, there is a limit to endurance. No section of the community,” he warned, “shall be allowed to endeavour to flout the interests of the whole of the community.” [5]

In spite of numerous meetings and appeals to the premier and police commissioner over the ensuing weeks, the 150 Parramatta Park residents remained firm in their resolve not to vacate the grounds and to resist any attempts to forcibly eject them. Police Inspector Coman believed that he had enough men to deal with the situation but thought that the local residents might take the matter into their own hands and evict the campers.[6]

Meanwhile preparations for the show appeared to be well in hand, despite the presence of the campers at Parramatta Park. The Cairns Post reported on 16 July that stalls were being erected and exhibits installed in the main pavilion; electricians were working on lighting equipment; horses had been placed in stalls previously occupied by campers. But tension was mounting by the day, reflected in the departure of some unemployed. Three police officers were on duty for several days but the only incident occurred when a worker scaled a light pole and tore down a red flag which had been flown by a camper. Nevertheless townspeople were advised that a final “working bee” would be held on Saturday and Sunday with the cryptic suggestion that “all citizens are requested to assist in the completion of the preparations of the grounds.”[7]

At half past nine on Sunday morning on 17 July 1932, thousands of local residents joined farmers from the Atherton Tablelands for the proposed “working bee” to clean up the grounds for the show to proceed.[8] [9] While many proved to be no more than spectators, about 500 stepped forward to do their “civic duty”. Though outnumbered some twenty to one, the itinerant unemployed stood their ground. Clambering onto the roof of one of the stalls, the mayor urged all citizens entering the arena to “take means of protection”. “The time has come,” said Alderman Collins, “for us, to show these invaders that we shall be free to walk where we please.”[10] In response the local residents advanced towards the end of the park where the unemployed were moving into massed formation between a row of stalls and cattle pens. The local contingent was led by the mayor, aldermen and businessmen with a squad of 34 police taking up a position between the opposing forces.

Whether the melee which followed would be more accurately described as a “riot” or a “pitched battle”, it is clear that the incident was extremely ugly. Stones, bottles and lumps of iron flew through the air. Clubs bound with barbed wire, iron bars, sticks with razors inserted in the top, cane knives, tent pegs and shovels were freely wielded in the affray. At the height of the confrontation a bomb was hurled from a fence. One observer likened the spectacle to a slaughterhouse. During the worst of the riot which lasted for little more than ten minutes, it is estim ated that 80 people including residents, police and unemployed were injured, some seriously. It is hard to believe that there were no fatalities.

The campers were chased out of the grounds and down the street. Later they were allowed back in small numbers to collect their belongings and told to leave Cairns by the following day or face another assault. Two of the leaders of the unemployed John McCormack and Stanley Keen were taken to hospital with serious head injuries. Five other campers were detained in hospital along with two Innisfail police officers and one civilian, George Brereton. In addition, scores of people were treated by ambulance officers, as out-patients or at the grounds. McCormack, still in hospital, was charged with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm and throwing an explosive substance. On his discharge from hospital another was added: assaulting a police officer thereby doing him grievous bodily harm. [11] Baden Bennett, prominent in organising the campers’ resistance, was detained at Gordonvale when he went to the police station for rations. He too was charged with unlawfully assaulting a police officer. [12]

A total of seven unemployed stood trial in Cairns where evidence was selectively manipulated to attribute violence to the unemployed, the police acting in self-defence. Some of the town’s influential citizens were summoned to give evidence including Bernard Balfe, dentist and alderman, David Headrick, produce merchant and chairman of the United Sports Reserve and William Houston, foreman of the North Australian Brewery and member of the show committee. Four campers including Alfred Paull, John Reynolds and Roderick Mclean and Stanley Keen were convicted of unlawful assault. Imposing the maximum sentence of two months imprisonment with hard labour, Police Magistrate O’Kelly said: You were led by hot-headed fanatics who took the attitude that the police were the aggressors: but there had been no contradiction of the fact that the unemployed attacked the police first. [13]

Three others, John McCormack, Baden Bennett and James Hill, were committed for trial. They applied to the Supreme Court to have the venue changed from Cairns, arguing that they would not receive a fair trial in that town. Townsville was also ruled unsuitable because of its predominantly working class sentiments.[14] The Crown Prosecutor suggested that an impartial trial was more likely to be achieved in Herberton where it was held at the end of October. [15] After hearing all the evidence Justice R.J. Douglas directed the jury to acquit the defendants after their counsel, the radical activist and civil libertarian, Fred Patterson, exposed prosecution inconsistencies.

The Parramatta Park incident of 1932 profiles a mentality, exposed by stress, which was clearly populist in its emphasis on community solidarity in the face of sharply, if unrealistically, perceived external threats. One of the mentality’s most obvious contours was agrarian. It exhibited a hostile reaction to the threatened desecration of the town’s most significant agrarian festival.

It is important to remember that Parramatta Park was the site of the Cairns’ annual show. The cultural and social importance of the event in Queensland should not be underestimated. It was a celebration of agrarian values and the dependence of the town on agriculture and pastoralism. Showtime rhetoric afforded a rare window opening on to the Queensland soul. At its centre was a vista of agrarian-based development in which Queensland could outpace and outshine the other Australian states. The annual show fused, in one gala event, the central myths which sustained Queensland’s identity: the primacy of economic activity, the fundamental value of agriculture and the reflection of unlimited progress, the enduring exceptionality of Queensland in the Australian federation and the State’s beckoning future – rich with this world’s goods. In August 1931, W.J. Afflect, President of the Royal National Association which was about to stage Brisbane’s fifty-sixth show or Exhibition, shied away from the word “depression”, preferring to stress the “lift” the Exhibition would give Queenslanders. The State’s mythology displaced Depression reality, as the Brisbane Courier illustrated:

How many who pass through the turnstiles at Bowen Park will see beyond the noise and glamour the revelation of the greatness of this empire of the never-ending sun. How many who enter what is the very heart of the State will hear in the lowing of the cattle and bleating of sheep the throbbing pulse of the richest State of the Commonwealth marching on to a great and fruitful destiny? [16]

When J.S Kerr, the local member opened the fifty-seventh Rockhampton show the same year he lacked the Courier’s eloquence but still managed to convey its sentiments:

This is a big thing for Queensland and it is the function of such shows as this to demonstrate convincingly the productivity of our land. I repeat this is a big thing for all of us.[17]

Cairns residents held their show in equally high regard. That a group of outsiders would attempt to impede the staging of the annual event served as a catalyst for the disintegration of traditional class cleavages. The Cairns working class, trade unions and even the local unemployed were united in their opposition to the itinerants who had taken up residence in the showground. At the height of the “battle” a leader of the unemployed sprung to the rails of a cattle pen and appealed to “fellow workers to assist their fellow workers” and not to attack.[18] His plea went unheeded. It was evident that Cairns-based unions and political parties were reluctant to be identified in any way with the unemployed at Parramatta Park. In fact the secretary of the local branch of the ALP, who was also a member of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, usually regarded as a radical union, was unable to meet a delegation of unemployed because he was taking his family to the show![19] Another local resident who had spent eight years “on the track” was similarly unsympathetic to the plight of campers at Parramatta Park. As he wrote to the editor of the local newspaper:

If people of any town are generous enough to help feed and clothe the unemployed, who do not even have the claims of being locals in their favour, I think that anyone with an atom of principle would not ask for more and make a nuisance of themselves in trying to force their claims. [20]

The Parramatta Park unemployed held the Cairns civic and commercial elite responsible for the failure of the local workers to offer support or solidarity. George Bliss recalled:

We heard that a prominent local Tory had urged members of the Catholic Church and RSL to get down and do over the unemployed and it was reported that the local brewery manager told his employees: “Don’t come to work on Monday morning until you’ve been dow n to Parramatta park getting into the unemployed.” Managers of big stores, and the timber mills were reported to have made similar statements. [21]

This was simplistic, overlooking the potency of agrarian populism in Queensland at the time. Indeed civic leaders depicted the unemployed as sinister invaders. Their presence in the community was equated with a cancerous growth which, if not removed, would ultimately destroy the host. Justifying the harsh treatment meted out to Parramatta park campers, the editor of the Cairns Post counselled that

…the leaven at work was without any doubt something which if allowed to grow, would have sapped the roots of that well-ordered citizenship and peace of which the city and its citizens are justifiably proud….If the spirit of citizens in regard to rights and liberties and justice and equity once becomes weak and flabby, the doors will be opened to any enormity. [22]

It was also possible to portray the itinerant unemployed as a threat to society by casting them in the role of usurpers of law and order. Parramatta Park residents believed they had a right to permanent shelter arguing that in several other Queensland centres, including Innisfail and Rockhampton, local relief committees through voluntary subscriptions had provided such accommodation. The mayor of Cairns was adamant that this would not happen in his city. He argued that if the unemployed were not prepared to accept alternative temporary accommodation for the duration of the show, they had no right to remain at Parramatta Park. “The hospitality so proverbial in North Queensland amongst all classes and which had been exercised so freely in regard to the unemp loyed,” said Alderman Collins, “was sought and was made an abuse of, by the unemployed demanding everything possible by way of right and not by way of privilege.”[23] These views were widely endorsed in Cairns in 1932. Expressing an opinion in the local newspaper, one resident argued that it was a “piece of impertinence” on the part of the unemployed to refuse to vacate the showground:

If the committee of the unemployed wished to enlist the sympathy of the people of Cairns they should show a spirit of reconciliation and not of defiance and threats. What sort of country would we become if any sections are allowed to dominate an make unreasonable demands upon the people of a city. If Cairns people surrender it would be a wonderful opportunity for agitators to organise these men and before long we would have a small section dictating what should be done elsewhere. [24]

The editor of the local paper was even more strident, outraged that a “lawless” element could have the audacity to disrupt such an important event as the show which was not only worthwhile, but had commercial value and was an “unerring sign of good citizenship”. He added that the success of the show must

…of course, depend on the exhibits; on those educative and satisfying things which illustrate how the country districts help the city, and how the primary and secondary industries combined, make the pleasant whole upon which the people depend…The good that comes from district shows with a wide representation is proved in many ways. One instance of this is the advertisement the districts, the city, the exhibitors and the exhibits gain, from newspaper publicity, as well as the intimate mouth to mouth commendation that is passed down from the individual to individual. All this makes for success on success, and help tremendously to keep a good public spirit flowing in correct channels.[25]

Populist mentalities thrive on divisive myths. This was particularly evident in the Cairns incident. All sections of the local community strongly perceived the campers as a lawless group intent on disrupting the town’s celebration of agrarian values. To some outsiders the image of the unemployed was quite different. Helen Baillie, an English woman visiting North Queensland, read in the local paper about the “exaggerated demands” of the campers and decided to visit them and try to persuade them to “take a reasonable line and to see that reliance on force [was] a wrong principle”. However when she went to Parramatta Park she was “struck by the neatness and cleanliness of the men considering they had such difficulties to contend with”. She discovered that Bennett, one of the leaders portrayed so unfavourably in the local press, was a likeable man and she was “much impressed by his sound principles and common sense”. She also recounted meeting a young man who had walked from Coolgardie in Western Australia to Cairns in the hope of getting work on the Barron Falls Scheme. He told Baillie of the trauma of unemployment and of the “profuse perspiration” which broke out on his skin when he first attempted to supplement his meagre government ration by begging.[26] Indignity and anguish, inevitable fellow-travellers of the unemployed, were conspicuous absentees from the images and rhetoric used to lead the residents of Cairns into violent confrontation with the unfortunate sojourners of Parramatta Park.

While Cairns people indulged in an orgy of applause for the restoration of law and order in the town, outsiders were less congratulatory. Home Secretary, Ned Hanlon, was critical of the residents’ use of police as “basher gangs”, arguing that officials had ignored a legal remedy available to them – an order for ejection against the campers. [27] This advice had been offered weeks earlier but local authorities chose to disregard the instruction from the Crown Solicitor. The Cairns Inspector of Police believed that residents wanted the campers to be “driven out with the baton”.[28] Prevailing rhetoric had cast the unemployed as lawless; the reality was that they were victims of the lawless.

Cairns residents in 1932 had labelled a vulnerable group as treacherous outsiders. The community closed ranks: normal social, economic and occupational divisions appeared to dissolve. Solidarity was strong amongst townspeople, at least temporarily when the situation was finally brought to a head on Sunday morning 17 July. Church goers allegedly left mass early in order to attend a second sacrifice.[29] A paroxysm of violence alone, it seemed, could release the communal tension which had been generated in the community. The option of a legal remedy, an unsatisfactory anticlimax, was swept aside as local residents surrendered to the impulse for violent action.

There can be little doubt that the Cairns Post was a major instrument in the dissemination of negative images of the occupants of Parramatta Park. Their actions were usually described as “defiant”, “domineering” and “demanding”. The leaders of the unemployed were referred to only by their surnames while others involved in the same news item would be dignified by a title such as Mr, Alderman or even initials.

As the confrontation dragged on, increasingly the epithet “communist” or “red” was used in a bid to further discredit the unemployed. By the time of the clash the leaders were generally depicted as hardened Communists intent on subversion. Alderman Balfe told Council that the campers at Parramatta park were “purely a band of communists and men who were there for the sole purpose of smashing the laws of the country”.[30] Alderman Hoare expressed similar views, arguing that “criminals” had gone to Cairns to “use the unfortunate unemployed for the propagation of their communistic doctrines”.[31]

In reporting details of the incident at Parramatta Park, the local paper blazoned the headlines: “Cairns Citizens Vindicated”, “Homes Defended”, “Pitched Battle Yesterday” and “Ruthless Reds Routed”. The editor believed that Sunday, 17 July would be recorded as a “red-letter day”, not simply a local victory but a “splendid gesture to the whole state”.[32] His editorial described the unemployed as “usurpers”, “impotent”. “insolent”, “invaders”, “insurgents”, “audacious and rapacious highwaymen” and “aggres sors” – all within the space of four sentences! Although these attitudes appeared to permeate the local community, people from outside the state were less convinced. Helen Baillie, the visiting English woman, wrote to the Premier of media bias and complained that the unemployed with whom she had spoken “felt that the Press, the townspeople generally and most of the employed were against them”.[33]

While not all Queenslanders were prepared to endorse the ready violence of the northerners, there were indications that the Cairns mentality was pervasive and persistent. Research into the incident revealed extensive police surveillance and reporting on t he militant unemployed and other alleged subversives. The activities and movements of alleged Communists in Cairns was recorded by the local Inspector of Police:

The Communist John Renfrew Craig, Walter McClure, J. Lane and Donald McLeod, also John Francis Rodgers are still in Cairns and can be seen frequently conversing together on the streets but they do not appear to be openly endeavouring to cause any trouble or unrest amongst the members of the various unions. I have been informed that the Communist Herbert James Moxon is at present at Buchans Point on the main Port Douglas and Cairns Road now in course of construction and endeavouring to collect funds for the purpose of obtaining legal assistance for John McCormack, Baden Bennett and James Hill for their trial.[34]

The assault on the itinerant unemployed by Cairns residents was “an indicator as well as an incident”.[35] It revealed a community prone to violence and deeply hostile to outsiders. Local historians have preserved and perpetuated the Parramatta Park incident as a battle between those who belonged and those who did not. One local historian recounted that “indignant citizens led by the mayor, aldermen and businessmen armed with hastily grabbed sticks” confronted the more anonymous “massed unemployed” with t heir “impossible demands”.[36] Another local writer was more specific. She recorded how “the citizens of Cairns…showed their mettle against rebellious agitators from other parts of the country”, clearly demonstrating the “us and them” dyad, so much a part of the rhetoric that triggered the incident. The image of a cohesive town community under siege from dangerous outsiders could be quickly expanded to include the whole of North Queensland or Queensland itself. It mattered little whether the outsiders were from inter-state or overseas as a piece of local folkloric caution makes clear:

But let it be remembered that the leaders of the rabble who were arrested for their part in the battle were not northerners, not even Queenslanders. McCormack came from South Africa; Roderick McClean and Baden Bennett were from Victoria; and Alfred Paull from South Australia. [37]

The Parramatta Park riot of 1932 is an index of the strength of an agrarian populist mentality in one North Queensland town at one point in historical time. An astonishing level of local cohesion and mobilisation was achieved; its underside was self-righteous violence and a xenophobic stereotyping of outsiders as subversive threats to order and civility. It was a closed non-rational mentality but it had a seductive internal coherence, or more probably atmosphere, as the mass local response shows.

Dawn May and Rodney Sullivan teach Australian History and Politics in the School of History and Politics, James Cook University.


[1] P. Mullins, “Queensland: Populist Politics and Development” in B. Head (Ed), The Politics of Development in Australia. (Sydney 1986), p. 140.

[2] P. Reynolds, “Queensland Politics: Rise and Rise of Populism”, Social Alternatives, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 1986.

[3] Town Clerk to Premier, 16 June, 1932, Premier’s Correspondence, Queensland State Archives. (QSA) The request coincided with a change of government. The Moore government which came to office in 1929 was tossed out in June 1932.

[4] Cairns Post, 1 July 1932.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Telegram to Police Commissioner, 15 July 1932, Premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[7] Cairns Post, 16 July 1932.

[8] There were conflicting estimates of the number of Cairns residents involved in the incident. Telephoning the Police Commissioner immediately after the event, Inspector Coman estimated that there were “about 2,000 of the Citizens of Cairns assembled at the showgrounds as a “working bee”. In a telegram sent to the Commissioner later in the day, Inspector Coman stated that there were about “fifteen hundred citizens assembled at the Show Grounds”. The Cairns Post reported that a “crowd of nearly 1 000 citizens had gathered at the entrance of the gates”. The Townsville Bulletin‘s account of the incident made reference to a crowd of “about 3,000 citizens assembled in the park”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “about 4,000”. It seems likely that most of these were spectators. They Sydney Morning herald reported that about 150 of the citizens, armed with cudgels joined the police and advanced on the campers. By contrast according to the local Cairns paper when the request was made “500 citizens and 34 police clashed with over 100 of the unwanted residents of the showground and blood was spilled.”

[9] The presence of farmers from the Atherton Tablelands was significant. In 1925 in a similar display of outrage and determination Cairns “citizens” and farmers had massed at the wharves to load sugar and timber in defiance of striking waterside workers . During a day long confrontation a number of strikers were manhandled and forced to leave town. The role played by the local press in inciting action against perceived external troublemakers in 1932 was reminiscent of the 1925 disturbance. See D. Hunt, Federal Politics in the Herbert Electorate 1914-25, B.A. (Hons) thesis. James Cook University, 1974, chapter 5.

[10] Cairns Post, 18 July 1932.

[11] Cairns Post, 22 July 1932.

[12] Cairns Post, 21 July 1932.

[13] Cairns Post, 8 August 1932.

[14] W. Lowenstein, Weevils in the Flour. (Melbourne, 1978), p. 176.

[15] Cairns Post, 1 September 1932.

[16] Brisbane Courier, 4 August 1931.

[17] Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 26 June 1931.

[18] Cairns Post, 18 July 1932.

[19] L. Brophy to J. O’Keefe, 21 July 1932, Premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[20] Cairns Post, 15 July 1932.

[21] L. Fox (ed) Depression Down Under (Potts Point, 1977), p. 72.

[22] Cairns Post, 18 July 1932.

[23] Ibid.

[24] J. McDonald to Editor, Cairns Post, 12 July 1932.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Commissioner of Police to Premier, 13 July 1932, Premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[27] Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1932, p. 10.

[28] Commissioner of Police to premier, 13 July 1932, premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[29] George Bliss interviewed by Warren Bowden in 1987. Copy of tape held by North Queensland Oral History Project, School of History and Politics, James Cook University.

[30] Cairns Post, 27 July 1932.


[32] Ibid, 18 July 1932.

[33] H. Baillie to Premier, 18 July 1932, Premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[] Inspector of Police, Cairns to Commissioner of Police, 16 August 1932, Premier’s Dept Correspondence, QSA.

[35] This phrase is borrowed from Robert Wiebe who used it for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May 1886. Though a much bloodier affair, with much wider repercussions, this “riot” displays some significant parallels with the Cairns incident. See. R.H. Wiebe, The Search for Order 1877-1920 (New York 1967).

[36] D. Jones, Trinity Phoenix (Cairns, 1976), p. 466.

[37] M.O. Walmsley, “The Battle of Parramatta Park”, Cairns Historical Society Bulletin No 114, October 1968.