View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Bob Katter: the man with friends in odd places

Bob Katter has a close relationship with fellow Queenslander Kevin Rudd. AAP/Alan Porritt

Bob Katter, the colourful federal crossbencher from Queensland, does have the strangest bunch of friends. He and Kevin Rudd – whom Katter would like to see back as PM – are thick as thieves. And then there is the high profile union leader Dean Mighell; Katter would be delighted if the former Electrical Trades Union Victorian secretary was willing to become president of Katter’s Australian Party (KAP to its friends).

Rudd and Mighell, incidentally, have been bitter enemies. Mighell recalls: “I said to Bob, you love workers and unions a lot more than he does”.

When he left the federal Nationals to sit as an independent in 2001 Katter, a one-time state minister, was seen as a maverick going nowhere. Now he has three MPs, including his son, in the Queensland parliament (though he’d hoped for more seats) and the party he founded is acknowledged to have a chance of a Senate seat.

That could be important if the Senate balance of power shifts away from the Greens to right-leaning crossbenchers (not that Katter would define his party as “right”).

Katter would like to see Rudd back in power, despite believing this would “absolutely” be bad for KAP’s electoral prospects. “I believe Kevin has the potential to be a good prime minister”, he says in an interview with The Conversation. “He was only there for two years and he started building the national information highway, the national energy highway and rescued us from the GFC. Not a bad score.” Katter likes that Rudd “thinks developmentalism”.

“From the narrow interests of my political party, I most certainly wouldn’t [want to see Rudd back]. But I’ve helped Kevin on many, many occasions, and I’d like to think I’d put the interests of my country over the interests of my political party.” The rapport between the pair comes partly from Katter Labor antecedents and the Country party strands in Rudd’s background.

An election with Rudd as PM would be “very close”, Katter believes. “He could definitely win – I’m not saying he would, I’m just saying he could”. Under Rudd, Labor could get back 10 seats in Queensland, he says, while also professing himself agnostic as to whether he’d prefer to see Rudd or Tony Abbott win the election.

As he prepares for a poll six months away at most and closer if Rudd became leader, Katter presides over a shambling party that has been riven by conflict and ill-discipline. (His counterpoint is that the party is only 18 months old and in its first eight months secured 11.7 % in the Queensland election.)

A Victorian federal candidate had to pull out after slighting remarks about gay people. “She was a lovely lady and it was not her fault”. He admits the vetting process, in which he participates, has been wanting. To improve it, he’s going to use “a very tough lady. She’ll assess [candidates] quickly, then throw them out the window if they’ve not got the skills needed to deal with intelligent people in the media”.

Fractures are not surprising, given the party is a ragbag of beliefs. The Katter mob turns up at demos against the Newman government carrying Eureka flags as well as Australian ones. They’ve been “on the picket lines” with the CFMEU to protest about foreign workers on 457 visas.

Katter is fully behind the Abbott plan for the repeal of the carbon tax. The party’s policy is also to support a Coalition government’s repeal of the mining tax, but Katter himself is having second thoughts. “I’m beginning to shift ground. If you’re saying to me, should foreign corporations be able to take all of this stuff home without paying anything to the people of Australia – no I don’t think I’m going to go along with that”.

On industrial relations, “we are well to the left of the Labor party”, and would be “very strongly opposed” to any Abbott government attempt to strengthen the law.

Katter would like Mighell, who is writing a draft industrial relations policy for him, with emphasis on the need for arbitration, to “take any position he chose” in the party. “He has proven an extremely tough fighter for the survival of manufacturing in this country. When he is exposed to the situation in agriculture he will be just as strong for the survival of agriculture”.

Mighell isn’t keen to sign up to the party but he’s “happy to help Bob out. He’s been wonderful for unions to work with”. There will be money for the election campaign.

On the Coalition side of politics, Katter says he gets on well with Abbott and is especially impressed by his chief of staff Peta Credlin. He notes that Abbott is not as rigid on free markets as Liberals such as Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello, and “there is a hint of developmentalism in there”.

As well, “on moral and social issues he’d be conservative, and I think we could do with a little bit of conservatism there”. The base of the KAP includes many weekly church goers. Katter attends church regularly although (typically) he is agnostic about the denomination.

Despite its early troubles, Katter hopes the party will run more than 100 candidates, with several Senate candidates. In another example of Katter networking, he says that whether the party fields a South Australian Senate candidate will be up to independent Nick Xenophon - if he “wants us to run and we bring in another couple of percentage points to him”. Xenophon sounds a bit surprised when asked his view, but says he’s meeting Katter next week.

Ever the optimist, Katter claims to be hopeful in the Victorian Senate race, on the ground that former senator Steve Fielding (Family First) and current senator John Madigan (DLP) were elected, via preferences, on tiny proportions of the vote. Tasmania is a “target state” – “remember that we are the anti-Greens party”. Realistically, the party’s Senate chance is in Queensland.

Katter is a shoo-in in his House of Representatives seat of Kennedy (which was held for the National party by his father before him). His secure position is the envy of the other House crossbenchers.

The party’s allocation of preferences will be on a case-by-case basis. Katter says he needs more than $3 million for the national campaign. In the 2012 Queensland election about $1.2 million was spent; about one quarter came from the trade unions and another quarter from the “fishing and shooting people”. Then there was James Packer who “walked into my office, saw Ted Theodore on the wall and I think at that point wrote a cheque for a couple of hundred thousand dollars” ($250,000 to be precise). But Katter doesn’t expect more from that well. “He’s got a lot of things before the government at the moment” and he was deeply unimpressed by an offensive anti-gay advertisement that the party ran.

If the party had a slice of the Senate balance of power, what would be Katter’s wish list? Mostly the unattainable: hacking at the market share of Coles and Woolworths; slashing interest rates (he “couldn’t care less” that the Reserve Bank is independent - “I’d change the law, we’d be quite happy to bring down a government over that)”; and mandating ethanol.

In his office, Katter sits under a picture of the Country party’s legendary leader, Jack McEwen, the high priest of protectionism. Katter himself is proud to be called an “agrarian socialist”. He’s the character, and the wildcard, of the 2013 election.