Not many men wear three-piece suits anymore; they look distinctly old-fashioned. But Bob Katter does, and there he is, on the front of this book, complete with the famous hat, striding through a field of stubby grass.
Katter would probably, of course, be pleased to be thought of as old-fashioned. The core theme of this book is that the people, the economy, the country, the whole damned world used to be better. And he doesn’t just mean the days of, for example, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in whose government he held a series of ministerial positions before moving into the federal seat of Kennedy in 1993, following in his father’s footsteps. No, he goes much further back; one of his heroes is ‘Red Ted’ Theodore, who was a Queensland Labor premier (1919-25) and also a major figure in federal politics.
Katter devotes chapters of the book to the Depression and World War Two; major historical events by any means, but whether they should be so dominant in the thinking of someone active in the politics of 2012 (and born in 1945) is another matter. True, one should understand and appreciate history, but that does not mean continually harking back to The Good Old Days. It’s the sort of attitude that gives conservatism a bad name.
It is, indeed, not at all clear that Katter is a conservative, despite the fact that he was a member of the National Party until 2001. Certainly, he fits squarely into the pattern of rural socialism championed by Jack McEwen (another Katter hero), and all of his solutions seem to involve direct government action, either imposing a tariff or some other form of protection, giving a subsidy, or setting up another agency specifically to push aside market forces.
Katter has never lost faith in some very old ideas, such as using massive government funding to irrigate the Queensland interior or even to create whole industries. He has no problem with Big Government, nor with the taxes or borrowing that it invariably requires; he seems to assume that any such undertaking will generate enough profits to cover the costs and plenty more as well.
Katter sees these sorts of projects, as well as the idea of an economy thriving behind monumental protectionist walls, as suitably ambitious, but it is not at all clear that he understands the economics involved. He seems to see protection only from the perspective of those businesses being protected. Tariffs function by increasing the costs of goods to consumers; they are really just another form of taxation.
Katter repeats the McEwen argument that ‘nursery’ tariffs could be used to help an industry get to the stage of being internationally competitive. That was the theory, but the practice was usually that the industry being protected became dependent on the support, and eventually lost any will to innovate. There was, after all, a reason for protection being wound back, and that was because eventually the costs become greater than the benefits.
Katter can honestly say that he did not move away from the National Party as much as it moved away from him. His take on Australia’s political history may be passionate but it often borders on the weird. Does it really make sense to say that Menzies was ‘a man without great appeal to the people of Australia’? Does Katter really believe that ‘Howard’s deference to Peter Costello played a pivotal role in his election defeat in 2007’? These comments make one wonder not only if we are all talking about the same country but the same planet.
This should not be taken to mean that Katter is stupid, xenophobic or terminally uninformed. He often presents some interesting and important ideas, such as in the chapter on adopting some of the policies of Brazil. His tendency to couch his views in unequivocal terms should not be taken as close-mindedness, nor as a lack of tactical nous. Reading the book, one can see why he appeals to a certain segment of the Australian community. In a world which often seems too complex to deal with, he offers solutions that are clear and simple (or at least appear to be). His sense of conviction looks very different, and in many ways preferable, to the reversals and evasions that make up so much of Australia’s political conversation, and his boots-and-all approach is a refreshing change from the methodology of focus groups and spin.
One way or another, Katter looks like a near-permanent part of the landscape. And this raises a problem for the Coalition and the ALP, both of which have a section of their constituency that would find Katter’s view of the world attractive. Given the current disenchantment of many people who think of themselves as being on the Left, the danger is probably greater for the ALP. If Katter and his infant party can build a base in north Queensland and then extend into comparable areas, the ALP will find it even harder to rebuild from their demolition at state level and their looming federal defeat.
Maybe, maybe not. But this book should be at least read by the tacticians of both parties, so they know where Katter is coming from. Yes, he can be exasperating, cantankerous, and straight-out wrong. But he should not be ignored.
Derek Parker is a freelance writer based in Melbourne and a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.