Sex, drugs, and Bob’s on a roll
THE new Australian Party could soon set a Katter among the pigeons. Party founder, the Queensland independent federal MP for Kennedy, Bob Katter Jr, is aiming to influence the cross benches in some states but he’s also after a slice of the traditional conservative vote and a sliver of the Greens vote as well.
While he’s offering voters a mix of rural socialism, nationalism and protectionist economic policy, he’s also wrong-footed not just the National Party but also the Liberal Party by calling for more personal freedom and civil liberties. Bob Menzies and John Gorton promoted such freedom but sadly it’s something eschewed by most Coalition leaders since.
It remains to be seen how far Katter will take his personal-freedom message, but already he has it circumscribing areas of life once quintessentially Australian (fishing and boiling the billy, to mention a couple), now disappearing in a volcanic cloud of political correctness. He’s cleverly tugging at the heartstrings of economically conservative but socially relaxed voters who have had enough of the nanny state. A few Greens voters who enjoy the bush lifestyle but are fed up with interventionist nonsense in the name of environmentalism might also hear his message. Laws that stop people from fishing in their local estuaries do little to save the rapid decline of the world’s oceans. What Australia needs is some tough action on pollution run-off and on commercial fishing on the high seas. Laws that ban people from lighting small fires in the bush to boil a billy or burn a few gum leaves are just as ridiculous and do little to stop rising CO2 levels. Neither do they do much to prevent bushfires, which are mainly the work of deranged arsonists, faulty power lines and sometimes even passing trains.
There is no doubt that in the past two decades the amount of legislation created to control people’s personal lives has expanded, with hardly any deletion of ancient laws. For example, while we have laws governing speed cameras and motorways in every state, lawyer friends tell me Western Australia and Queensland still have laws on the statute books prescribing that the owners of a horse and cart should proceed with a red lantern after dark. As well, a whole raft of anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-ageist discrimination legislation, while no doubt well intentioned, eats away at the rights of free speech and the sort of satire that ought to thrive in a democratic society.
Opposite Katter at the other end of the political spectrum is the Australian Sex Party, which also has civil liberties and personal freedoms high on its agenda. It wants to decriminalise drugs for personal possession, abolish outdated government censorship laws on entertainment and legalise abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. While it may not support all of Katter’s personal freedoms, especially on firearms, it would probably support many of them. At this point, Katter would appear not to support gay marriage, given his promise to walk backwards to Bourke if anyone could find a gay voter in his electorate. Clearly he is playing to the media, and he needs to do a bit of navel-gazing about his attitudes to sexual censorship and drug law reform if he is not to alienate younger voters in his target audience. These days, many of them may well enjoy a joint after the round-up as much as they like a beer.
At 65, Katter is eligible for an old-age pension and he needs a pop-culture makeover to stay relevant. He should draw on his father’s legacy. Bob Katter Sr was actually a Labor supporter in Queensland before the great Labor split in the 1950s when he joined the Country Party. He owned a gentleman’s outfitter’s business and a drapery and was by all accounts a man of style. He even had leather business cards. Around the vast federal seat of Kennedy he was no reactionary. As the owner of a local picture theatre he famously tore down the segregationist railings and seating that kept European Australians separate from Aboriginal Australians. It was an act of integration and respect that no doubt infuriated rednecks, but it was typical of what made Katter Sr so successful.
Similarly, and before entering federal politics, Katter Jr was Johannes Bjelke-Petersen’s extremely popular minister for Aboriginal Affairs and commanded great respect and affection from indigenous Australians. These days, Katter Jr needs to tear down the barriers in North Queensland around gays and lesbians, even if it upsets a few of his old mates. Leather business cards might even help with the present cattle crisis. It’s all about members of his new political party being elected, and integrationist policies are in the ascendancy.
Drug-law reform is especially ripe for any self-respecting civil libertarian party. The Greens used to have a solid law-reform platform in this area but as partners in government with federal Labor, they have gone cold on it as they chase “respectability”. The present round of “tough on drugs” rhetoric by the states over synthetic cannabis is a case in point. The Greens didn’t utter a word of protest as Western Australia recently passed laws to ban these substances, with penalties of up to 25 years in jail for supply and fines of up to $100,000 for mere possession. They fine people only $100 for possessing real cannabis! This week NSW introduced similar legislation, following South Australia. Most citizens see through this shallow posturing on an issue that demands scientific evidence and facts rather than moralistic populism.
Synthetic cannabis has been around for a few years but has only recently started to become popular with Australians. After lengthy health investigations in New Zealand, the Kiwis gave it the “legal but restricted to adults” classification. They even gave it a D rating, whereas alcohol is listed as a more serious level B drug. Their expert committee said synthetic cannabis was less harmful than alcohol, and indeed anecdotal evidence everywhere seems to indicate a lot of people prefer it to alcohol and to full-strength hydroponic marijuana, because the effects are mostly milder. There is also evidence that elderly and ill people are buying synthetic cannabis for pain relief.
Self-medication with these substances rather than with the addictive drug alcohol would seem to be a better option for society, but it is the personal-freedom issues around them that could win voters over. If people have the freedom to drink alcohol with all its attendant problems, why shouldn’t they have the same freedoms with cannabis, natural or synthetic?
Australia’s leading expert on drug control and prevention, Alex Wodak, once told delegates at a conference at Macquarie University that drug-law reform hardly ever occurred under left-wing parties and was most likely to be enacted by slightly right-of-centre parties and politicians. It’s an interesting thought. Gorton, Don Chipp and the former Liberal leader in the ACT, Kate Carnell, all fit this model. Katter could do well to think about these issues as well. Conservatives who are sick of being told where they can drive in the bush and where and how they can cast a line are probably not going to be scared off by a party that backs their freedom to self-medicate as they want.
Katter’s popularity in Queensland is legendary. If he can persuade some high-profile candidates to stand for the Australian Party, then Katter and his ilk could make the cross benches interesting, to say the least.
The Weekend Australian, July 2-3, 2011