It would be foolish for anyone to underestimate Bob Katter’s Australia Party. Its brand of socially conservative views blended with economic and trade protectionism are not “far right” but rather proven policy ingredients that are appealing to rural and regional electorates.
It’s easy to be distracted by the ten gallon hat and Texas style swagger but Katter is a skilled politician with decades of experience and a policy platform that many voters believe has been abandoned by The National Party and traditional Labor.
Katter is key
As the Party’s name suggests Katter is the central figure of the organisation. Using his name is essential for voter recognition. The name “Australia Party” on its own could well be misinterpreted as yet another minor nationalist party.
Organisationally, it’s unremarkable. It appears based on similar structures to other political parties with branches and an executive.
What is an interesting diversion is its rejection of dogmatic party discipline.
A core principle in the Katter Party lexicon is that every member of the Party including its members of parliament will vote in the interests of their electorates and conscience.
While there is a clause stating that they must make those decisions in line with the other general principles of the Party, it still provides assurances to voters and party members that this party will not be exercising tight party discipline and forcing an agenda upon the electorates.
Katter’s principle is clearly a reaction based upon his own political experience. In 2001, he resigned from the National Party and sat as an independent because he believed it had “lost its way”.
He argued the Nationals compromised its policy and political identity in what was a dominating Howard led coalition government.
Adapting One Nation
Katter’s political goal is to succeed where the rural independents and One Nation had failed.
The independents traded on voter disillusionment with the party political process. They marketed themselves as “above” politics and committed to the electorates.
Katter’s choice to adopt the principle of allowing its parliamentarians to vote along electorate rather than party lines co-ops the independent imagine but keeps a party structure.
One Nation had failed through what could only be described as political immaturity. It was unable to control the media, had a closed party structure and was poorly managed. It lost rural and regional credibility.
Katter has the political experience to deal with media and enough understanding of political party organisation to avoid the same mistakes.
His tactics, though, are similar. He will capitalise on rural and regional discontent, and campaign on a platform of anti globalisation and anti neo-liberalism. He will marry Country Party and Labor policy platforms which are highly favoured in the rural and regional electorates.
He will give the party a maverick feel but offer the kinds of social agrarian/industry protection policies which voters believe the National Party and Labor Party have left behind.
Bob Katter’s Australia Party will be able to test its tactics and brand in the upcoming Queensland State election.
The amalgamation of the Queensland National Party and Liberal Party may have created a political vacuum in rural and regional electorates as the National Liberal Party’s new leader Campbell Newman focuses political energy into the South East region of the state rather than the rural and regional electorates.
Already there is some concern within The Nationals that the Party might be becoming too urban focused.
This week, Liberal National Party MP Shane Knuth defected to Katter’s Party complaining the Nationals have been losing their core values since the amalgamation.
Such sentiments and actions give Katter greater political currency and an opportunity to gain further seats in the next parliament.
To date, media and political attention on Katter’s Party has been somewhat dismissive and there is a tendency to place him amongst the lunatic right.
But this is nothing more than a city centric view that ignores the political culture of rural and regional Australia.
Those who are currently representing rural and regional electorates know that Katter’s Australia Party is a real threat and needs to be treated seriously.