Inside Story

The double-decker election campaign

Up against cumbersome major parties, Bob Katter’s Australian Party has fielded a better-than-expected group of candidates, writes Jane Goodall. But the leader has steered the fledgling party into trouble

Jane Goodall 19 March 2012 2230 words

Bob Katter speaks to the media in front of his double-decker campaign bus during the Katter’s Australian Party convention in Brisbane last month. John Pryke/AAP Image

WHEN Shane Knuth defected from the Liberal National Party to join Bob Katter’s newly formed Australian Party in October last year, he told the Sunday Mail that he could no longer tolerate being forced to support policies that ran counter to the interests of his constituency. “True democracy,” said the member for Dalrymple, meant representing the views of the electorate.

A speech Knuth made in May last year gives an indication of what he believes is at stake. “When I was first elected member for Charters Towers in 2004, Moranbah was a town that thrived on a deep sense of community involvement and social participation,” he told state parliament. “The whole town was involved in whatever was happening. But the mining boom saw a massive increase in a non-residential workforce which has resulted in a decline in social interaction and community participation.” Knuth called on the government to oppose current plans for a 100 per cent fly-in fly-out workforce at the Caval Ridge mine.

As the Mackay Daily Mercury reported in September, the plan went ahead regardless:

Queensland Mining Communities president and Moranbah Action Group chairwoman Kelly Vea said yesterday's announcement was a “slap in the face” for the region. “Our community has donated hundreds of hours to being a constructive stakeholder in this process... and it is clear the government has simply acted as a rubber stamp for BMA's $50 billion money tree in the Caval Ridge Mine.”

The state election campaign in Queensland has exposed sharp discrepancies between the views of the major parties and those of the people they purport to represent. Major parties are cumbersome vehicles, of course. They have to incorporate a wide spectrum of opinion within their own ranks while conveying a unified message to the public, and to maintain a consistent set of agendas in rapidly changing circumstances. Any contradictory signs, any veering from the declared line on a major issue, becomes grounds for attack from the opposition.

In this atmosphere, being on message is largely an exercise in avoidance: of issues that may be problematic, language that may offend, views that may conflict with the agreed position. In policy terms, it is easier to attack than to advocate. Once a significant policy has been declared, it is up for challenge from all directions and can become a liability, potentially fatal to the party’s chances at the next election. For a party member to make a statement in contravention of the established policy position is not free speech but a form of treachery.

Last week, Knuth once again found himself compelled to speak out against his party, but at least he had the freedom to do so. His problem this time round was not an intractable policy environment, but one so volatile it was taking impulsive lurches in unpredictable directions – in this case, Bob Katter’s decision to release a campaign advertisement caricaturing gay marriage. Along with Darren Hunt (representative for Cairns), Damian Byrnes (Mulgrave), and Brendan Fitzgerald (Barron River), Knuth voiced his unhappiness about the advertisement publicly.

These four have in common a strong commitment to community and social welfare. Hunt is a former police officer who has been a director of emergency services, Byrnes is a medical practitioner with experience in the reserve defence forces, Fitzgerald has a focus on mental health, disability and child protection, and Knuth was shadow communities and disabilities minister during his time with the Liberal National Party.

The biographies of the seventy-three candidates standing for Katter's Australian Party display an impressive array of qualifications and experience, and some surprising examples of principle-based boundary crossing. Will Keys (Ipswich) is a former general manager at Coles Myer who “finds it completely irresponsible for our governments to allow 85 per cent of the retail dollar to be channelled through two corporations.” Peter Pyke (Toowoomba North), a former state Labor MP, believes that the major parties can no longer operate according to genuine democratic principles.

Democracy is a recurrent keyword in the candidates’ statements, and the issues that unite them include opposition to the sale of state assets, opposition to the Coles/Woolworths retail duopoly, commitment to transport infrastructure that serves remote areas and to regional hospitals and schools, the revival of local industry and agriculture, a moratorium on coal-seam gas mining, and restrictions on foreign investment. These concerns are widely shared in the electorate and the two major parties have manifestly failed to respond to them convincingly.

In an unusually even-handed move, the Brisbane Courier Mail pronounced that both major parties were avoiding the issues Queenslanders most wanted addressed, and proposed to abandon the campaign buses for a more grassroots approach to reporting. By and large it has kept to this resolve, and its coverage has been significantly more thoughtful than at the last federal and state elections. Much of the rural press didn’t even bother to express disaffection; their election coverage has been minimal, and largely devoted to local independents.

Anna Bligh’s government has become irreversibly associated with the sale of assets and the advancement of the coal-seam gas industry, and the Liberal National Party is, if anything, likely to go further in the same direction. Both parties talk constantly about transport infrastructure, but their capacity to deliver better services is severely restricted; neither can find a way to resolve the big picture of statewide transport needs in a way that balances economic and social imperatives. Both are bound by the orthodoxies of global free trade and investment, so neither has the flexibility to adjust policy settings to serve the priorities of local trade and industry. It’s the two-speed economy, stupid. But they are vehicles suited only to the terrain of the freeway, and if the opposition does take government on Saturday it will inherit the legacy of bitterness and cynicism in the regional electorates.

When small-town high streets are boarding up, people in remote areas lack access to essential services and whole regions are held hostage to international corporations whose commitment to Queensland extends no further than their profit margins, Katter and his team may have got their policy settings much better tuned to the urgencies of the moment.

They started out in this election campaign with high expectations, claiming that they were all set to be the alternative government, or at least the next opposition, and mustered an extensive field of high-quality candidates only seven months after the party was formally established. Peter Pyke was impressed with the two-day induction program they were offered, which included lectures from leading economics commentators and political theorists. “I was startled by that,” he says. “As an ALP candidate, I had never been treated to such an informative exercise.”

For Pyke, who left school at fifteen to be trained as an electrician and subsequently had a career in the police force, education has become “a life-long passion” and integral to his own political philosophy. More education, less regulation is his formula for a well-ordered civil society, and he is influenced in this view by the writings of Geoffrey de Q. Walker on the rule of law. Another influence is John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), with its portrayal of the democratic ideal as “a potent form of wishful thinking” that, in its origins, “required human beings to think of themselves afresh, to live as they had never before lived.”

There is a whiff of this radical sense of purpose in the way Pyke talks. He’s proud of serving a political leader who wants to turn back the rivers – a reference to Katter’s advocacy of the Bradfield irrigation scheme for which Peter Beattie also showed some enthusiasm during his time as premier. There is a vision of Queensland as restored to the thriving agriculture terrain it once was, and as a newly conceived social economy, with an increased and better distributed population, vibrant local government and diversified local commerce. Campbell Newman’s notions of “Can Do” Queensland are tame by comparison.

It is easy to stereotype minor party fervour as wacky and naive, but where the mainstream alternative is an exhausted realpolitik, incapable of refreshing its own responses to the major challenges of the times, an injection of catalytic energy is called for. But Katter himself isn’t making it easy for journalists and commentators to take his new enterprise seriously. On one level, a touch of carnival has always been part of the style. There’s an element of role play: the wide-brimmed hat, the permanent grimace, and the tendency to talk as if he is literally spitting chips, casting himself as the only spokesperson for sanity in a mad world.

One of the first campaign stunts was the acquisition of a London double-decker, whose arrival was guaranteed to upstage that of any other party’s bus on the campaign trail, especially when it was belting out rock ’n’ roll. The chosen anthems were AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” (Katter’s tongue is rarely out of the cheek), and “Bad Boys,” recorded by the party’s state leader Aidan McLindon, who spent some of his teenage years as lead singer with a post-punk band. Media coverage of the Katmobile went up a notch when Pyke was driving it through the centre of Toowoomba and was copped for noise pollution by a vigilant police officer. As a former officer himself, and one given to whistle-blowing, Pyke has had contentious relations with some branches of the Queensland police, but he professes a special respect for the Toowoomba force. He had a meeting with them the following day and drafted an agreement. “Noise abatement legislation is so broad you could drive a double-decker bus through it,” he says. (Or not?) “Robust electioneering has to be allowed.”

THAT principle came under another order of pressure with the release of the “gay marriage” advertisement. Political campaign advertising has surely become one of the most dismal forms of public communication, but this hit a new low. It was crass and, more unexpectedly given Katter’s parliamentary experience, politically obtuse: it distracted attention from a whole raft of industrial and economic issues on which he and his candidates were well equipped to make the running. Whatever did he think he was doing?

If the goal was publicity at any price, he may have achieved it. The ABC alone must have given several dozen free runs of the video over the next forty-eight hours in order to illustrate the expressions of condemnation coming from all sides. If Katter was trying to create a further spin on the underdog story, he was likewise successful. Every commentator in the business was taking a free kick at him. But Katter, for all his pantomime country ways, is a sophisticated man who should surely have been aware that recalling the worst tactics of One Nation was not going to help his party’s cause. It was a betrayal of the genuine ethic of public and community service that motivates the majority of his candidates. Yet he appears entirely unembarrassed at the response, and McLindon has given an assurance that they have every intention of putting more cats among the pigeons.

There are cultural issues here, and in particular issues of taste. If it was Katter’s idea of a joke (and I strongly suspect it was), Les Patterson might appreciate the humour. Both Katter and McLindon have track records as stunt men. McLindon got his first real dose of media attention when he gatecrashed the 2005 Big Brother final with his band and gave the contestants a tongue-lashing for allowing themselves to be exploited before an audience of voyeurs. The crash-or-crash through approach has something to be said for it in an environment where no one is prepared to speak out, but it’s a risky principle to combine with any earnest agenda for the future of Queensland.

Katter is, among other things, a walking paradox, an old school right-winger stumbling through an election campaign on two left feet, and his misjudgement here is a reminder of why minor parties tend to fail their most earnest supporters. There is such a thing as discipline in politics, and if the major parties exercise it to the extent of suffocation, minor parties – especially new ones – just don’t have enough of it. Another paradox may be emerging here: the party that fought so hard to have Katter’s name restored to the ballot papers may find he is its greatest liability.

Less than a week before the election, there is no clear indication of how the party’s chances have been affected by the ad, but Shane Knuth has a fair chance of retaining the seat he won by a 5.2 per cent margin in 2009. His nearest rival then was a One Nation candidate. In another irony, Aidan McLindon won the seat of Beaudesert against Pauline Hanson in 2009. In both electorates, voters have surely given enough indication that they do not want a return of One Nation politics. •