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Bob Katter plays hard in crusade for the bush

24 August 2010 2,125 views No Comment

BOB Katter, independent member for the vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy, is a man of high principle and many contradictions.

Most present-day Australians do not remember that his father, Bob Katter Sr, the MP for Kennedy from 1966 to 1990, was originally a member of the Labor Party until the great Labor split in the 1950s, after which Katter Sr joined the Country Party.

Similarly, most people do not realise that Bob Katter’s three great political heroes are ex-Country Party leader and federal treasurer “Black Jack” McEwen, the founder of the National Civic Council B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria and most importantly ex-Queensland Labor premier and federal treasurer E.G. Theodore.

The one quality that McEwen, Santamaria and Theodore have in common is that they were all strong advocates of protecting Australian jobs and primary and secondary industries, especially in regional and country areas.

These are matters about which Katter, 65, is passionate, as well as about protecting agriculture from foreign pests and introduced diseases; about guaranteeing water supply; and opposing privatisation, deregulation and “economic rationalism”.

In many ways, Katter has much in common with old-style, socially and culturally conservative, Labor Party protectionists from the 1950s. Significantly these days, Katter, who before taking up a political career was involved in cattle and the mining industry, proudly labels himself as an “economic nationalist”.

A member of Queensland’s one-house parliament from 1974 to 1992, Katter — born in Cloncurry of Lebanese descent — served in various ministries in the long-lasting National Party government of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen from 1983 to 1989.

In 1993, Katter transferred to federal parliament in the House of Representatives, holding Kennedy for the National Party until 2001. Totally disillusioned with the ALP, the Liberals and the National Party, which he regarded as “having sold out the farm”, from 2001 until the present Katter has been a hugely popular independent who gained almost 75 per cent of the vote last Saturday.

Whether Katter, perhaps acting in unison with his two NSW regionally based fellow independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, will support the ALP or the Coalition is a moot point.

Although extremely antagonistic to Barnaby Joyce and to Warren Truss, Katter and his socially conservative north Queensland electorate would seem to have personally much more in common with his fellow Roman Catholic Tony Abbott than unmarried atheist Julia Gillard. These factors are important to Katter, as are his opposition to same-sex marriage.

While Katter has announced his strong support for some form of national broadband that can benefit north Queensland and country Australia, in terms of key policies he would also seem to favour Abbott and his Western Australia-based deputy Julie Bishop.

Moreover, Katter has little respect for the state ALP government of Anna Bligh, who he regards as having squandered the strong economic and fiscal legacy left to her by Peter Beattie and Bjelke-Petersen.

His likely support for the Coalition is especially likely because Katter, a vociferous climate-change sceptic, is strongly opposed to Gillard’s mining tax and to Labor’s schemes to control carbon emission.

What really matters to Katter are: what can benefit his electorate of Kennedy; what can help Queensland continue to progress and prosper; and what can protect employment and primary and secondary industries. Again, an Abbott-Bishop government may be more aligned to his point of view.

Katter is both a hard man and a hard man to read. He delights in telling a story about his late father. Driving a battered old ute with his windows down through the boondocks outside his base of Charters Towers, Katter Sr heard an Aboriginal woman who gestured towards him, call out “Pig!”. Putting his head out the window, Katter Sr responded “Bitch!” — and drove straight into a wild boar. Apocryphal or not, Katter says the moral of the tale is that it is easy to be misunderstood.

Hence, while some tea-leaf readers might think that Katter’s support for a national broadband might suggest that, this time, he might side with Labor, it seems clear that if he were to support one side or the other, at minimum he must receive a cast-iron guarantee against the importation of foreign fruits, including bananas, oranges and tomatoes.

Katter would also require significant government support for the sugar industry, including ethanol fuel subsidies; less government intervention in issues such as fishing and gun control; and, perhaps most importantly, an end to the retail monopoly of Coles and Woolworths so that primary producers in north Queensland and elsewhere can receive fair payment for their produce.

The author of 33 books, Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.