Throwing his hat in the ring
A MAVERICK MP presents a passionate, moving and unsurprisingly idiosyncratic history of Australia.
As National Party minister for Aboriginal and Islander affairs in Queensland, the flamboyant Bob Katter was extremely well thought of by indigenous Australians. Having become disenchanted with the National Party’s support of ”economic rationalist” policies, Katter has been a popular independent MP since 2001 for the vast federal North Queensland seat of Kennedy and is now leader of Katter’s Australian Party.
As it happens, Katter’s parliamentary office in Canberra features a large version of the cover of my biography of former Queensland Labor premier and federal treasurer E.G. ”Red Ted” Theodore. It also boasts a photograph of federal Country Party stalwart, and arch protectionist, John ”Black Jack” McEwen.
Katter’s well-researched and idiosyncratically expressed general history of Australia makes clear that Theodore and McEwen were, and are, his two great economic and political heroes.
But it is Theodore who evokes most praise. Indeed Katter argues that, had Theodore not had to stand down as federal treasurer during the Great Depression because of the Mungana mines scandal, his proto-Keynesian economic and fiscal measures could have saved the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians.
In 1930, Theodore was sent the first copy of John Maynard Keynes’s A Treatise on Money to arrive in Australia. In the House of Representatives he prophetically maintained that Keynes’s book would be ”accepted as a textbook that will stand for 50 years as a guide to the intellects of the nations on this subject”.
That Katter regards a ”Labor man” – Theodore – as his prime economic, fiscal and political hero is not as surprising as it might seem. His father, Bob Katter snr, who held the seat of Kennedy for 24 years, was originally an ALP supporter until the great Labor split in the mid 1950s, which Katter’s book features in detail. After many Catholic Laborites deserted the ALP, Katter snr joined the Country Party, later to become the Nationals. It also explains why Katter jnr is still a strong supporter of trade unionism and ”rural socialism”. Significantly, before entering parliamentary politics, Theodore had co-founded the influential Australian Workers Union, which helped keep Labor in power in Queensland from 1915 to 1957, with the exception of two years during the Depression.
As Katter points out, the two politicians Paul Keating most admired in Australian history were maverick NSW premier J.T. (”Jack”) Lang and Theodore – who hated each other with a passion. While Lang’s ”plan” for dealing with the Depression was to repudiate Australia’s debt to English bondholders, Theodore hoped to expand the economy through the issue of credit to farmers and small businessmen, which could be redeemed after the Depression.
Unfortunately, Theodore’s Fiduciary Notes Bill was not only defeated in the Senate, but the defection of the Langites coupled with the defection of Joe Lyons and his supporters cost Labor its parliamentary majority.
The federal election in December 1931 saw Theodore lose his Sydney seat of Dalley to a Lang candidate, thus ending his parliamentary career. Katter shares my belief that Theodore was the most talented politician never to be prime minister of Australia.
The title of Katter’s quirky but quite absorbing and sometimes controversial history of Australia comes from a time in 1988 when, as a minister in the short-lived Queensland government of Mike Ahern, he had to entertain the king and queen of Spain. At dinner, the three discussed Australia’s white settlement and our prisoner and immigrant forbears. This prompted Queen Sofia, who had read Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, to remark: ”What an incredible race of people you are.”
Born in Cloncurry in Queensland and now resident in Charters Towers – which was once so important for gold mining and investment it was widely known as ”The World” – Katter with his trademark cowboy hat is one of Australia’s best known parliamentary ”characters”. What has not been so apparent until now is his great love of Australian history.
A key thrust of Katter’s often fascinating narrative is concerned with what he regards as lost economic opportunities for ”good development”. This especially applies to the scheme of Dr J.J.C. Bradfield to divert some of North Queensland’s ”massive annual floodwaters” and ”turn it gently inland onto Queensland’s great rolling treeless black-soil plains”.
Katter supports Bradfield’s vision of an inland North Queensland no longer hot, hard, dry and deeply eroded by the ”short, fierce wet”. Instead the ”training of the rivers” would see the area become ”a mosaic of green strip farmlands with riverbanks protected from the ravages of flood-borne weeds and the annual ever-worsening erosion of those banks”.
Fittingly, given his previous ministerial responsibility for indigenous affairs, Katter writes movingly about the first Australians, native title and early indigenous resistance to white invasion.
Bob Katter appears with Kevin Rudd at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next Sunday at 2.30.
AN INCREDIBLE RACE OF PEOPLE
Murdoch Books, 464pp, $39.99
Sydney Morning Herald, May 12 – 13, 2012, SPECTRUM p 36.