Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Das KAP-ital

They love a populist politician in Queensland.

My own experience observing Australian politics is long enough that I caught the greatest of them all, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, right at the end of his thousand year reign of terror (actually 19 years, but I'm sure it felt like a thousand for a good number of people who lived there), somewhere between that moment of corrupting absolute power and the police powers of the anti corruption commission. Sir Joh distilled politics down to a very simple business; offer inane gibberish to the public while your acolytes pillage the state Treasury and an expanded police force gives a hardline interpretation of the word 'order.' He didn't really need policies, as his police and security agencies meant there was no opposition, so his connection with populism is looser than it might have been, largely down to his folksy manner and his deluded 'Joh for Canberra' campaign of 1987 (which effectively derailed John Howard's election chances that year, so it's impossible to hate the bloke). Said Joh, when his campaign for Prime Minister had petered out, 'I never wanted it anyway.'

More exciting than Joh, and nearly as resiliant, was his populist suiccessor, the exciting Queensland soap melodrama that was Pauline Hanson.

From this distance, where Hanson only shows up occasionally on telly, and usually in something like 'Dancing with the Stars,' it's hard to remember exactly what a big deal she once was. Elected to Federal Parliament in 1996 on the back of an anti-Labor swing of 19%, this being the election where Keating lead Labor over a cliff, Hanson immediately made a name for herself in her maiden parliamentary speech, where she denounced multiculturalism, immigration, tolerance, dogs, buses, vegetables, schools, immunisation, Medicare, television and most of the other things that modern Australia is founded on. This proved so popular, initially, that at the Queensland State election of 1998 she lead the 'One Nation' party she had formed around herself to 10 seats and the balance of power. But this triumph was short lived. Shortly after this, people suddenly remembered that they liked dogs and television and, most importantly, their foreign born neighbours and that the person telling them to hate all of those things was, actually, nothing more than a petty tyrant in a fright wig. Hanson soon lost her seat, then her party, and even spent some time in jail for electoral fraud, before retiring to a life as a grade D celebrity, where she was infinitely more suited.

Now Queensland has produced a new populist political leader for us to enjoy.

Although 'new' may not be the most accurate way of describing the gent in question; a silver haired veteran of 38 years in State and Federal politics by the name of Bob 'The Mad' Katter. Also known as the bloke in the hat.

Katter came into State politics, as a National Party member of Sir John's government, in 1974 and moved to Canberra in 1993, winning the far north Queensland seat of Kennedy (formerly held by his father). In 2001 he left the National Party behind, annoyed at the government's removal of sugar subisidies for his constituents and tired of Federal National leader Warren Truss' gormless face.

He subsequently won  his seat as an independant, and has now been re-elected as such three times (2004, 07 and 10). Despite the Nationals throwing gobs of money and effort at it to try and wrest the seat back, Katter won nearly 70% of the two party preferred vote in 2010 and now has one of the safest seats in the country. Sitting on such a buffer, it's no wonder the man's confidence is up.

Which brings us to Katter's latest venture: Katter's Australia Party (or KAP):

Apart from the video, the newest player on the Australian political landscape has quite a smart website, from which we can discern a few key points:

1) The man's name is in the title for a reason. This is very much KATTER'S Australia Party. On my visit to the site today, I counted five pictures of The Mad just on the home page; walking, yelling, scowling and, caution advised, even grinning. An ad to the right of these offered the chance to buy a book telling the  'passionate' history of Australia. The author of this was... Bob Katter. A separate section within the site itself is called 'Where's Bob?' and is dedicated to recording people's encounters with the great man; photos, anecdotes, hat sightings (no caution here, this is freakin' hilarious!).

2) Unlike Sir Joh, The Mad has got plenty of policies, on everything from food production in Queensland, to selling Queensland's public assets, to rebuilding Queensland's infrastructure. Hmmm... there's something about this that I can't quite put my finger on. And this is where populism really kicks in. KAP's policies are a mix of pre 60s Labor, Menzies era social conservatism and a straight out demand for pork barrel cash for the bush. It's very us against them, although the enemy shifts around a bit, and sometimes isn't defined at all.

3) Apart from policies, the site also has a separate section about the party's principals. Which I liked, as it seems to reflect the very nature of politics; Principals: What we'd like to do if we lived in a fantasy world where the usual rules of politics didn't apply; Policies: What we will try and do in this world where they do.

4) KAP is short of a few bob. They're not short of Bob, but they are short of money, at least based on the number of 'DONATE NOW' links that dot the website.

Of course, it's easy for me to sit here and make fun of a squeeky voiced old codger on a bit of a power trip. The Mad will always attract detraction,such is the nature of his political persona. But he is to be underestimated at his opponents peril.

No one really expected him to keep his seat as an independent against a well entrenched and well financed operation like The Nats, but he did, much to their annoyance. And his new political party, which has been derided by pundits considerably more serious than myself, has already had some small measure of success. In the Queensland state election of a few weeks ago they captured two seats (one to The Mad's son, Rob), a small number to be sure, but only five less than the Labor Party managed. If they keep their focus as tight as it is now - local candidates and issues - they could certainly do some damage in far north Queensland at the next Federal election. This forthcoming election, likely to feature two widely disliked leaders in Abbott and Gillard, throws open a number of opportunities for a small time populist on the make. Very much in the Queensland tradition.

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