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Frontier dreaming

The perils of Katter country

QUEENSLANDERS MAY BE united when it comes to State of Origin football, but up north there has always been discontent about the way Brisbane governs. It is from within the fertile soil of century-old dissent that support for Bob Katter’s maverick brand of politics blooms. This is a populism manifested in calls for north Queensland independence. North Queenslanders have long seen themselves as political, economic and geographic outsiders to mainstream Australia – and Katter’s outsider stance meshes well with them.

In 2016, the world witnessed the UK vote to leave European Union and the outcome of the US elections. Both were the culmination of a long-term trend of declining popular trust in government institutions, political parties and politicians, and in each case the electorate defied the political establishment. For Bob Katter, the lack of political trust in government in Brisbane as well as Canberra has been a political line he has held his entire political career. However, the problem with staying ‘outside the tent’ and shouting in is that the situation never changes, and grievances multiply. The ‘us and them’ approach may bring a sense of community cohesion against ‘the other’ but is ultimately futile in delivering the desired outcomes.

Bob Katter is one of Australia’s best-known and longest-serving independent federal politicians. He is the federal MP for the north Queensland seat of Kennedy, which he has held since 1993. Katter has long been a fixture in a diverse seat that stretches from the Gulf of Carpentaria and Mareeba in the north to Boulia in the south, and from the Queensland–Northern Territory border to the Pacific Ocean. At more than half a million square kilometres, Kennedy has the biggest footprint for an electorate in Queensland and the third-biggest in Australia. In fact, it is more than two and a half times the size of Victoria. Kennedy is Queensland’s heartland, a stronghold for beef and agriculture, fishing and mining. Existing since Federation, the seat is named after Edmund Kennedy, an early explorer of Cape York.

Kennedy can truly be called Katter country. The Katters have always reminded me of the Phantom, the anonymous comic strip hero in a mask and costume whose crime-fighting legacy has passed from father to son for many generations. The individual may change, but but the name remains, and as a result the Phantom is considered eternal. Bob Katter Jnr followed in the footsteps of his father, Bob Katter Snr, who held the seat for twenty-four years. Elected to federal parliament in 1966, Bob Katter Snr held the vast north Queensland federal seat for the Country Party, and then the National Party, until 1990. A highly regarded Coalition politician and minister, in the 1980s Katter Snr had been a leading critic of the ‘Joh for PM’ campaign. Interestingly, his son Bob Katter Jnr had been a member of Queensland’s one-house parliament, representing the Charters Towers-based seat of Flinders since 1974, where he served as Bjelke-Petersen’s minister for Aboriginal affairs. With his flourishing white hair and trademark RM Williams hat, Katter Jnr was one of the few state or federal Country/National party politicians respected by Aboriginal clans and their leaders. Katter Snr died of cancer shortly before the 1990 election, and his seat was won by the ALP. However, his flamboyant son won it back in 1993.

For most of his parliamentary career, Bob Katter Jnr was a National Party MP, until he chose to stand as an independent in 2001, citing his disenchantment with the National Party’s economic policy as his reason for going it alone. Specifically, he was opposed to the elimination of tariffs and subsidies for agriculture, policies he said were killing the sugar, banana and dairy industries that dominate his electorate. He won by a landslide. Much of Katter’s electoral success is due to the fact that he articulates and champions the interests of rural industries and of rural employment against a Nationals brand that has, in his opinion, become captive to the philosophies of free trade, economic rationalism, deregulation and corporatisation. He is ‘old-school’ Country Party. Katter continued to be re-elected as an independent, and in 2010 was one of six crossbenchers who, for a few weeks, held the future of the government in their hands as they debated among themselves who to support in a hung parliament – Julia Gillard’s Labor Party or Tony Abbott’s Coalition.

Katter’s fellow independents Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie ended up backing Labor, along with Greens MP Adam Bandt, enabling Gillard to form a minority government. Katter held his own press conference just before the others announced which side of politics they would be supporting and stated he would be backing Tony Abbott. His move was settled in part by the threat of a Labor mining tax, but also through his own moral principles in staying loyal to his knifed mate Kevin Rudd. Katter has said there was ‘enormous anger’ over Rudd’s axing and his decision would have been different had he still been Labor leader. ‘Kevin’s thinking and my thinking are very similar. I’m very good friends with him,’ he said at the time. Katter’s son Rob Katter, at the time a Mount Isa councillor and next in line in the family political dynasty, said: ‘People have tried to ostracise [my father] and make him look like an outcast for so many years. But if nothing else, even if his twenty points counts for nothing, the pivotal moment has been the acceptance by the trendy urban types down south that times are tough in rural Australia.’

 

THE ISSUE OF independence for the north and the bush continues to bubble under the surface of north Queensland. Katter draws his inspiration and sense of political independence from the ‘hat town’ of Charters Towers, and is tapping into a political stance that has been simmering for over a century. Yet there is another issue of political independence just beneath the surface in north Queensland – the creation of an Australian republic. These two ideals were once cornerstones of progressive political views in the region in the late nineteenth century. (One wonders where the maverick Bob Katter stands on this second question.)

Charters Towers was once a frontier gold town – and one of the major centres of radical republicanism in the colony of Queensland. Settled in 1872, Charters Towers developed into a thriving reef-mining centre. In 1877, with a population approaching four thousand, it was declared a municipality and, by the 1880s, it was one of the major Australian gold-reefing fields. The boom of the 1880s, with an extraordinary influx of British capital that amounted to about five million pounds, had transformed the Queensland economy. The flood of money and employers hungry for profit encouraged the growth of strong trade unions. When relations between employers and workers became strained, the labour movement often blamed the interests of British capital. From here, it was a short step for many workers to advocate for a republic and separation.

On 3 February 1890, a meeting had been held at the Charters Towers School of Arts to form the Australasian Republican Association. Among its leading members were three future Labor members of the Queensland Legislative Assembly: John Dunsford, Charles MacDonald and the future Labor premier of the colony, Andrew ‘Anderson’ Dawson. These three had been part of a radical circle formed around Dunsford’s bookshop, which gave Charters Towers residents an opportunity to read works by radical and ‘freethinking’ authors such as Henry George, an advocate of land nationalisation; Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man; and Karl Marx. The Australasian Republican Association advocated an independent Australian nation and, through this, an idea of what it meant to be Australian that was separate from the British Empire. The editor of their journal, the Australian Republican, was one of the great republican firebrands of the era, FCB Vosper. He proclaimed: ‘A grand United Republic under the Southern Cross which, profiting by the experience and errors of others, shall be as pure and perfect as it is possible for things human to be.’

He believed republicanism was an expression of the civic individual, and not subservient to factional politics or religion. During its heyday in the 1890s, Charters Towers was the second town of Queensland with a population approaching thirty thousand. Since Rockhampton, the nearest major town, was a long boat journey away, all the services necessary to civilisation in a very large area of Queensland were concentrated in Charters Towers. It was perhaps this isolation that fostered the nickname ‘the World’.

 

THE EXPERIENCE OF gold mining moulded the outlook of the residents of Charters Towers well into the twentieth century. However, during the 1950s the community drifted to the conservative side of politics. It is from this tradition that Bob Katter draws his support. A long-time resident of Charters Towers, Bob Katter personifies the independent stand taken by the town since the 1960s. He is reflecting the bush feeling of independence from urban dwellers: the bush is where the ‘real’ Australia continues to reside. However, Katter is also drawing upon the strong narrative of an alternate northern capital located in Charters Towers and its long story of independence.

In 1852, John Dunmore Lang had proposed in his Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia the division of the future colony of Queensland into three. In the wake of the formation of Queensland as a separate colony in 1856, it was widely believed that further subdivisions would take place. Since the establishment of Queensland as a separate colony, secession movements have arisen first in northern and then in central Queensland. Before federation, secession movements even sent representatives to England to pursue their case. During the 1890s, the separation movement was especially strong in Charters Towers with the establishment of a Separation League.

Since Federation, numerous efforts have been made to push the Queensland government into action. Groups who wish to see Queensland subdivided into new states have organised conventions and petitions to further their goals. At times they have even been close to achieving their aims. In 1910, the Queensland parliament passed a motion proposing that Queensland be divided into three distinct states. However, the motion was never enacted and, despite the efforts of many, those advocating splitting Queensland into smaller states have never again come so close to success. A lack of political will – both in Canberra and Brisbane – the existence of anti-secession groups, as well as divisions within new-state supporters have all contributed to the retention of a single state. The North Queensland Self Government League proposes the division of Queensland by the 22nd parallel, with the boundary of the new state running just south of Sarina on the coast to the Northern Territory border between Boulia and Mount Isa. It also proposes the capital should be at Sellheim, near Charters Towers, to overcome rivalry between Mackay, Townsville and Cairns.

Historically, those in northern and central Queensland districts have felt neglected by a distant government. A related longstanding gripe of secession supporters is that wealth is transferred to the capital instead of being used for the benefit of the area in which it is generated. In 2010, Katter stated:We have been economically massacred in the north...it’s the tyranny of the majority being in South-East Queensland – the winner takes all.’

Proponents hoped – and, as Katter’s statement reveals, continue to hope – that the further division of Queensland would lead to enhanced government and bring economic benefits. At the 2010 North Queensland Local Government Association meeting the fight for independence intensified, with ninety-eight of one hundred delegates voting in favour of the motion. At the time Bob Katter called for a referendum on the issue at the 2012 council elections.

 

IT IS MORE than fifty years since Geoffrey Blainey published The Tyranny of Distance (Macmillan, 1966) and almost fifty-five since Geoffrey Bolton wrote A Thousand Miles Away (Macmillan, 1963), the first large-scale history of north Queensland. In these titles, much of the independent streak and the suspicion north Queenslanders have towards the people in Brisbane can be sensed. A perceived loss of local control over many facets of governance becomes a source of significant political grievance for north Queenslanders.

The appeal of populism occurs when someone has the ability to cast themselves as an outsider to a rotten political establishment. This appeal strengthens when the focus is placed on the local and the parochial. When the world is against us we circle the wagons to keep out the attackers, and look to ourselves and our own for support and guidance. In An Incredible Race of People (Murdoch Books, 2012), Katter spends most of the book skipping between his history telling and his hero-worship of EG Theodore, aka Red Ted, union leader and Queensland Labor premier, while attempting to define his version of Australian mateship: ‘The spirit of defiance, the idea of “us and them” of the Ned Kelly variety.’

Russel Ward, in The Australian Legend (OUP, 1958), argued that national identity or the ‘Australian spirit’ wasintimately connected with the bush and that it derived rather from the common folk than from the more respectable and cultivated sections of society’. For Ward, mateship was forged in the hostile environment of the bush and was adopted by the rural unions of the shearers and miners in their famous struggles against the pastoralists during the 1890s. Ward’s ‘bush legend’ was collectivist and democratic in politics. Theodore was also another outsider from north Queensland who fits Ward’s ‘bush legend’ mould.

It wouldn’t be a big stretch to imagine the political career of Theodore is what Katter had dreamed for himself when a younger politician. Theodore’s political career has been described as one of great promise unfulfilled, the ‘best prime minister we never had’. Shortly after he arrived in north Queensland in 1907, Theodore became the state president of the Australian Workers’ Union. In 1909, aged only twenty-four, he was elected a state Labor MP for the Chillagoe district, which was to remain his base during his political career.

His rise was rapid. He earned the ‘Red Ted’ nickname from conservatives for his confrontationist approach when he was treasurer of Queensland under Premier TJ Ryan. This led to him becoming premier of Queensland from 1919–25. In 1927, Theodore moved into federal politics. His status as an outsider in Sydney Labor politics was a permanent problem for him, but he soon made his mark in federal parliament, becoming treasurer and deputy prime minister in the ill-fated Scullin Labor government, before a Queensland royal commission judicial report into the state Labor government’s acquisition of the Mungana mines found fault with his conduct. As a result he was forced to stand down as federal treasurer in July 1930. However, when it became apparent that the Queensland government did not intend to charge Theodore with any offence, Scullin re-appointed him as treasurer in January 1931. This brought him face to face with the greatest economic crisis in Australian history. As a result of the economic struggles of the Great Depression, the Scullin government lost the election of November 1931.

Perhaps for Bob Katter, leading his own federal political party is the culmination of a very long-held political ambition at the end of a very long political career. Maybe it provides Katter with a sense of closure. Like Theodore, Katter also entered Queensland politics in his twenties, became a state minister, and moved to the federal arena. Theodore has been described as a visionary proto-Keynesian for his proposal during the the early 1930s to expand credit to farmers and small business through the issue of ‘fiduciary notes’ that could be redeemed after the Depression. Such Keynesian principles are at the heart of Katter’s economic proposals today.

 

UNTIL RECENTLY, KATTER’S constituents have seemed to be captivated by his charisma, energy and frankness. What they seemed to value most about him was not whether he delivered on what he promised but his ability to attract attention (for them). Kennedy is a diverse region, but its voters are united in their resentment at being ignored. And so Katter, in all his hat-wearing, gun-toting glory, became an ambassador for the independent political people of Charters Towers and the wider electorate of Kennedy. He reflected north Queenslanders as they liked to see themselves.

Kennedy was thought to be an easy victory for Bob Katter and Katter’s Australian Party, which was registered with the Australian Electoral Commission in September 2011. During the 2012 Queensland state election, the party won two of the seventy-six seats it contested, with the Charters Towers-based Shane Knuth holding the seat of Dalrymple and Rob Katter winning Mount Isa. On 25 November 2012, the party was joined by Liberal-National MP Ray Hopper.

However, at the 7 September 2013 federal poll there was a big swing against Katter. The LNP reduced Katter’s very safe seat from 18 per cent to that of a marginal, and he was forced to rely on preferences from the ALP in order to retain it. As a result, Katter no longer holds Kennedy with an iron grip. As Katter says, an LNP advertising campaign linking him to Labor over preference deals took its toll. The suggestion of collusion with a big political party went against the grain. The voters of Kennedy had shown for election after election how much they valued the perception – if not the reality – of independence from the politics of the south.

But perhaps a deeper reason for the collapse in support from Charters Towers and the wider Kennedy area was the emergence of the KAP itself. Once Katter was no longer just their Katter, tilting at windmills on their behalf, but was now riding out across the nation blustering everywhere, the support he once enjoyed soon evaporated. Once he changed from ‘our Bob’ to ‘Australia’s Mad Hatter’, the well-spring of Charters Towers began to dry up. He was looked upon with suspicion as a southern collaborator. These are lessons he will need to reflect upon, otherwise this may well be his last term in office.


From Griffith Review Edition 57: Perils of Populism © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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