I saw independent Queensland MP Bob Katter being interviewed on the TV the other morning (I think on Channel 7’s Sunrise program), talking about his new rural populist “Australian Party". Katter’s base tends to be the people and small towns that are slowly being destroyed by globalisation and as a result his politics tend to be a weird mix of socialist / nationalist economic prescriptions combined with cultural conservatism (which has some similarities to the grassroots part of the Tea Party movement in the US, but without the fetishisation of free markets and the Republican party establishment pulling the strings behind the scenes).
Katter didn’t say anything new, but there was an interesting segment where the interviewer tried to derail his usual rant about how globalisation is hurting his constituents (which Katter resisted for a while by simply continuing to talk over the top of her interruptions) - a topic which simply isn’t allowed to be discussed in public it seems.
Once she’d managed to halt his stump speech she performed the classic mainstream media trick of trying to change the subject to an irrelevant culture war red herring, asking him how his supporters felt about boat people (refugees arriving by sea and/or illegal immigrants). To his credit, Bob simply blew her off, saying his supporters couldn’t care less about boat people - they were purely focused on the cost of living and their economic future.
Of course, Bob is opposed to carbon taxes and most other forms of environmental protection, so he’s clearly not much of a solution, but good on him for this particular effort anyway.
The Business Spectator has a fairly mainstream interpretation of the Australia Party’s prospects - Katter's moment has arrived.
In the midst of prosperity, then, Katter is sees political opportunity. While Treasurer Wayne Swan talked yesterday of Asian economies "growing markets for our services too – like finance, tourism and education, and for higher-end manufactured goods" Katter will target electorates that are seeing lower-value added industries crumbling.
He wants to protect agriculture because he knows the bilateral free trade deals we've signed with major trading partners are too often one-way streets for Australian farmers. While we allow genuine access to our markets, he argues, big players like the US and Japan find behind-the-border means to corral theirs – a problem greatly magnified by our sky-high dollar.
Katter's solution is to turn the clock back 30 years and rebuild trade barriers. That's no solution at all, but the idea will have a deep political resonance in communities that are watching farmers walk off the land, processing facilities closed down and debt, gambling, drinking and suicide problems escalate.
I must admit that I admire Katter's passion. Last September during the 17 day interregnum, I was wedged into a corner of Katter's office, alongside something like a hundred journalists, to hear his heartfelt concerns about every policy area under the sun. And whatever you might think of his atavistic policy agenda, hearing Katter speak about his constituents on suicide watch, or his deep affection for struggling indigenous communities, is very moving.
The Australian Party's pitch to voters in next year's Queensland election, and at the next federal poll – if he can find candidates to fly the AP flag – will tap into deep emotions.
He wants to break the Coles and Woolworths duopolies; cancel and possibly reverse recent privatisation of government assets, especially in power generation; block the carbon tax; get more ethanol into the nation's petrol tanks; rebuild protectionism for certain agricultural and manufacturing sectors and force Australian governments to buy products made at home.
Those are all strongly emotive topics. And on each, Katter's policy pronouncement would threaten grave damage to the Australian economy – making many more families worse off than at present.
But as a strategy for winning key seats, particularly at a federal level, it just might work.
It'll shake things up alright. But the collateral damage could be huge.
Guy Rundle at Crikey has a more in-depth look at the Katter phenomenon, noting it suffers the usual shortcomings of mixed right-left populist movements - Crazy Katter’s cut-price, fried policy chain
Bob Katter stood up on Friday and spoke for those sidelined, excluded and marginalised from politics, the real Australians who work hard and pay their taxes, and don’t ask for more than a fair shake. The plain-spoken rough diamond … oh look, this can’t be sustained.
Last week, crazy Bob Katter brought the crazy to federal politics, launching “Katter’s Australian Party" before a backdrop featuring the outfit’s new logo in dizzying red-and-white array — modelled, it would appear, on that of a cut-price, fried chicken chain.
Katter had eschewed his trademark hat, which keeps the sun off, and his head cool, the absence of said headgear perhaps explaining why he started calm and engaging, and then went off like a bottle rocket.
“The happy days are at an end my friend," he said smiling and laughing, and then his face hardened like Anthony Perkins hearing the shower start. “THE HAPPY DAYS ARE OVER MY FRIENDS! HAPPY DAYS! OVER!" he snarled, making everyone jump back a step or two.
The presser continued pretty much in this vein over all Bob’s favourite lines, promising a repeal of any carbon tax, attacking Anna Bligh’s privatisation plans, busting the supermarket Big Two, umm ethanol in everything, and the return of the tariff wall. It’s the usual grab-bag of policies that right-wing populist parties always rely on — a mix of right and left themes, put together without any real thought to a consistent line. In this case the ad-hoc nature of the outfit is more extreme than ever.
After all, even Pauline Hanson’s crazy outfit pitched itself towards the universal, calling itself One Nation — albeit one nation of white people. But by now the AEC must have run out of generic names, because the whole thing has to be branded “Katter’s Australian Party", which is scarcely a pitch towards a long-term future.
La Hanson herself, no doubt busy plotting a run for a spot on the Wendouree Tidy Town Committee, has already endorsed the party, but it’s a measure of how confused politics currently is that few of Katter’s principal positions come from the culture wars that John Howard put at the centre of right-wing politics. There’s nothing on refugees, law and order, war on terror, etc, etc — and opposition to the carbon tax appears to be based on mild climate change scepticism, but not the mad “international greens conspiracy" line of the Alan Joneses and Nick Minchins.
Indeed, many of the policies are really a revival of old nationalist Labor themes: a repudiation of free trade agreements, government buying Australian at first instance, control of food supply, with a bit of noise about the “nanny" state added in.
This morning, Katter added the idea of inalienable land tenure for indigenous people, although he hasn’t made clear whether this would be a collective title — which is a leftish policy — or a series of individual titles, which would amount to a forced dissolution of collective land tenure, which is something else.
The relative absence of the whining resentment that characterised One Nation makes KAP more of a stable proposition — and suggests Katter is actively courting support from some dissident trade union groups, such as the Victorian ETU. That would not be the most impossible thing — the remnant state branches of various unions that came from the Maoist breakaways in the ’70s, and that proved to be a halfway house to an Australian nationalism.
The problems for Katter in making his party viable — and if he could it would not be a bad thing — is that none of his policies match up very well. It’s one thing to argue for the control of capital — via opposing Bligh’s privatisation sell-off — while at the same time campaigning against the nanny state restrictions on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ — but it’s quite another to simultaneously campaign against the squeeze on cost of living while at the same time proposing tariffs and restrictions on food imports. …
The second problem for the KAP is, well, its likely membership. For the repeated failure of Australian right-wing parties to either take off, or stay together, is down to the very nature of hard-right psychology and personality. Unlike Europe, where the new breed of hard-right parties are drawing on deeper and shared traditions of monocultural national identity, the Australian hard right has virtually no collective being whatsoever.
It is, by and large, a loose and floating collection of obsessive individuals, filled with obscure resentments, paranoid fantasies and individual hurts channelled into a political form. The very act of trying to work together has the same effect as the old lunatic asylum trick of making two people who think they’re Jesus Christ share a room together.
Katter, while launching the party, noted that no one had expected One Nation to gain 11 seats in the Queensland parliament, which is true enough — just as it’s true that everyone who knew about these things expected them to fall apart almost immediately, and circle the drain.
The KAP may well gain a foothold in the 2012 Queensland poll — and if they can prevent Bligh’s great privatisation push, more power to their arm. As your correspondent noted here only a few weeks ago, Labor’s pathetic love affair with the neoliberal agenda of “free" trade will inevitably and finally provoke the rise of populist movements capable of grabbing votes from it in the heartland and key marginals.
Judging by the how quickly the launch brought the krazee, I doubt that Katter’s Australian Party will be able to stay on the straight and narrow. But if he can manage it, it will be interesting times indeed.