IN THE BOX SEAT
Robbie Katter steps out of his father’s shadow to shake up state politics
Flying across some of the 570,000-odd square kilometres of Robbie Katter’s Mount Isa electorate, you can see writ large the great divide between country and urban Australia. It is Queensland’s largest electorate, comprising almost a third of the state, only slightly smaller than France but bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined, and inhabited by fewer than 39,000 people (just under 20,000 voters). Katter’s territory stretches from the Northern Territory border on one side, right up to Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria and down to Birdsville, near the South Australian border.
Looking down from a plane, there’s kilometre after kilometre of red earth and spinifex: very limited mobile phone coverage, no Yellow Cabs and definitely no Ubers, let alone cafes offering a choice between soy, goat or almond milk. This is no-bullshit country where people are Queenslanders first and Australians second, hard yarders, fighting drought, money worries and the tyranny of distance.
And it’s Katter’s Australian Party Queensland leader Robbie Katter, 39, and his three fellow north Queensland crossbenchers who are in the box seat, trying to bridge the gap between country and urban Queensland, more able to influence policy than ever before by doing deals with a minority Labor government, and a Liberal National Party Opposition, who need their votes.
Katter, fellow KAP member Shane Knuth, 49, from the neighbouring Dalrymple electorate, together with Independents Rob Pyne, 49, ex-Labor Party member for Cairns, and Billy Gordon, 43, ex-Labor member for Cook, which covers the vast Cape York Peninsula north of Cairns, hold the balance of power in Queensland’s hung parliament.
Gordon was expelled from the ALP by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk less than two months after she assumed office for his failure to disclose a criminal record of teenage break-ins and driving suspensions; and Pyne resigned from Labor in March.
There was no clearer demonstration of the group’s power than last week’s sleight-of-hand changes to Queensland electoral laws by the Palaszczuk Government. As the Opposition pushed through a Bill, with the support of Pyne and the two Katter MPs, to increase the number of state seats from 89 to 93 – effectively protecting north Queensland seats from abolition under the upcoming redistribution review – the ALP quickly returned fire. With support from the same three crossbenchers – and Billy Gordon – the Palaszczuk Government ambushed Parliament and reinstated the compulsory preferential voting system, which was thrown out after recommendations in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. The change will arguably most benefit the ALP and the Independents.
Earlier this year, the Government was also able to pass its liquor lockout laws with crossbench support (minus Gordon who voted against it) in a deal that included Palaszczuk promising more money for north Queensland electorates.
Independent Speaker Peter Wellington’s vote only comes into play in the event of a deadlock in the state’s 89seat parliament, where Labor and the Opposition hold 42 seats each – as it did last week when Sunshine Coast-based Wellington joined Pyne and Gordon to vote with the Government to break the deadlock over the controversial Racing Integrity Bill.
Depending on which way you look at it, these blokes in the big hats and a “blackfella from the wrong side of the tracks” – as Aboriginal-Chinese Billy Gordon describes himself – are either holding all the cards or else they are providing an effective check on the two-party system.
And it’s more often than not young Katter – affable, less flamboyant than his dad, Bob Katter Junior, and so goodlooking that last year smitten Twitter fans started hashtag #catchakatter, aimed at finding him a wife after he complained his electorate was so big he didn’t have time to look – who stumps up as unofficial crossbench spokesman.
He’s the one usually fronting the cameras, speaking on behalf of Knuth and Pyne. Those three – dubbed The Three Amigos by this newspaper – tend to be on the same page on many issues, but Gordon plays the wildcard. Gordon didn’t sign a letter threatening to support an LNP government should the Premier go to an early election, nor did he sign another threatening to block supply and the budget unless the Government changed its State Infrastructure Plan. KATTER’S THE ONE WITH THE CHARM – THE BLOKE OTHER blokes like (“you’re too nice to go into politics, mate”, was the most common thing anyone said to him for a while), the Katter who doesn’t do The Mad Katter act like his dad.
“He’s got the passion of his father but the composure of his grandfather (Bob Katter’s father, known as Bob Katter Senior – a federal National Party minister who died in 1990),” says Knuth. Robbie Katter’s definitely the “golden child” he says jokingly – the only boy in a family of four sisters, but you get the sense it might be true. Or, as his dad memorably put it in a 2012 interview with Qweekend, “we’re the only bulls in the paddock”.
These days everyone wants a piece of Robert Carl Ignatius Katter III. He knows he’ll probably never have so much power again and some days it seems the whole world smiles upon him: “I like Annastacia,” he says. “She’s pretty amicable, but it’s really hard to put a measure on our relationship because, of course, she’s going to be nice to me, so how much is genuine and how much is pragmatic I don’t know.”
SMITTEN TWITTER FANS STARTED HASHTAG #CATCHAKATTER, AIMED AT FINDING HIM A WIFE AFTER HE COMPLAINED HIS ELECTORATE WAS SO BIG HE DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO LOOK
There’s never been a better time for the voices of Queensland’s country battlers living on that bare red earth to be heard and Katter’s using his unexpected power to shout as loud as he can on their behalf. IF EVERY SON HAS TO METAPHORICALLY KILL HIS FATHER in order to step out of his shade, little Robbie has had more murdering to do than most. There’s Bob Katter Junior, bigger than the Queensland sun, with his hat and his big weird voice and his larger-than-life personality. He takes up a lot of space, does Bob, the kind of man who sucks all the oxygen from a room.
Bob Katter, however, is shrewder than his madcap performance might suggest, and certainly brighter than his more bonkers pronouncements might indicate: telling the ABC’s Q&A in 2011 that climate change was just a theory, “like gravity”, is the sort of statement that does not inspire confidence.
Yet the elder Katter is a canny media player and has taught the younger Katter a trick or two: unlike Gordon, who declined to be in our photo shoot, Katter III always stumps up for the media.
All sons of powerful fathers take one of two directions: either running for the hills to forge a new self as different from the father as possible, or else becoming a sort of minime, sometimes going on to become an even more successful version of the father.
For years Robbie chose the first path: no, Dad, I don’t want to go into politics; no, Dad, I don’t want to stand; no Dad, no. He knew what it was like having a dad who was rarely around, off to Canberra for Parliament, busy, busy, busy. If Bob Katter Jr had a powerful father in Bob Katter Senior (minister for the army and member for the federal seat of Kennedy for 23 years) he chose the mini-me path. BUT ROBBIE KATTER, FOR YEARS, WANTED NOTHING TO DO with politics. What he wanted most of all was to play rugby league for that mighty north Queensland team, the Cowboys. He’d played all through school (at Mount Carmel
DEPENDING ON WHICH WAY YOU LOOK AT IT, THESE BLOKES IN THE BIG HATS ARE EITHER HOLDING ALL THE CARDS OR THEY ARE AN EFFECTIVE CHECK ON THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM
College, a Christian Brothers’ boarding school in Charters Towers) and made it to the Cowboys feeder team, the Young Guns.
“I was chasing a career in footy, sort of aspiring to be a Cowboys player but I had to move to Townsville to train and I never did that, I stayed working. I had my eye set on uni at the time,” he says.
He was working in the mines – “I was a bit of a runabout” – when the footy didn’t work out. “It probably says a lot about my character. I’m pretty easygoing but when I was in about grade 11 or 12 and we were living on a cattle station, we had a valuer come out and Dad said, ‘ That fellow’s here for a day or two, has a look around a nice, pretty station and then charges you three grand. There must be good money in it, you should do that’. And I said, yeah, righto – so for 15 years I was a property valuer. I went down to Brisbane to uni (Bachelor of Applied Science in Property Economics from Queensland University of Technology) and then worked in Brisbane CBD for two years.”
Katter never harboured any desire, secret or otherwise, to get into politics. “I was happy doing my thing out here (he moved his property valuation business to Mount Isa in 2000). I had a really good business,” he says.
Katter is also at pains to point out that it wasn’t his father who got him into politics and that he is more of an accidental politician.
He got involved in Mount Isa politics when the council displaced the local shotgun club and the Campdraft Association (“campdrafting’s a big sport out here”) from the rodeo grounds, wanting to build a speedway and new rodeo ground “when the old one was fine” because it had its eye on some multimillion-dollar grants being handed out.
“I started going to meetings about it and there were some spots going on the council because a few people pulled out. The mayor at the time rang me and said he wasn’t running again and if I didn’t run they’d get back in again and send the council broke. It played on my conscience and I thought, all right, I’ll do this one term of council.” He ended up serving four years.
YOU MEET SOMEONE IN BRISBANE AND SAY, HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO MOVE TO MOUNT ISA, AND THEN YOU SAY, HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO MOVE TO MOUNT ISA BUT I’LL NEVER BE HOME?
He got involved in KAP in an equally accidental fashion: initially he attended meetings only to be another body after his father formed the party in 2011. His father wanted him to stand but he initially knocked him back.
“I was happy to be involved from the background. I didn’t really want to be a frontman or anything but we couldn’t find a candidate for Mount Isa and the election was coming and we hardly had any candidates on the ground and I thought, bloomin’ hell, someone’s got to put their hand up. And I’d just gone through a divorce not long before so I was looking for a bit of a change ... I kind of thought, bugger it, I’ll just close my eyes and jump in. And here I am.”
KATTER WAS MARRIED TO JOURNALIST STACEY MILNER FOR
four years before their separation in 2009. Milner has since re-partnered with ABC political reporter Matt Wordsworth and Katter’s new love, 26-year-old journalist Daisy Hatfield, has recently moved in to share his Mount Isa home.
Hatfield, a former boarder at prestigious Stuartholme School in Toowong and University of The Sunshine Coast graduate, met Katter on assignment in early 2015 while working at WIN Townsville and admits she didn’t know much about north Queensland politics. When Hatfield was sent out to interview Katter about asset sales, he followed up the interview with a phone call: she was under the impression “it was just business”.
“I had no idea who he was,” she says, laughing. When she eventually got it, and they started going out, she told her parents “that this boy might be a bit keen on me”.
Katter laughs and says he gets on well with the potential in-laws. “Her dad didn’t chase me with a shotgun, put it that way,” he says.
She took up a role with the ABC as a rural reporter at Mount Isa in March this year. Hatfield, whose home town is Kingaroy, where her father is an agronomist and her mother a massage therapist, says Mount Isa has been really welcoming; she’s enjoying it so far, preferring small towns to larger ones. Robbie is “so happy” she likes it: “I swear this city knows if you don’t like it.”
Hatfield says “it was a bit of a surprise” when the #catchakatter campaign started on Twitter. “I didn’t quite mean how it came out,” says Katter, a tad sheepishly. Perhaps someone can now start a new hashtag #kattercaught.
The couple shares the house on the hill – along with two English pointers, Jon-Bon and Ruby, and horse Buffett – which Katter bought when he was 30. Set on 1.2 hectares, he likes nothing better than riding out on his land and into the endless beyond of the red and green Mount Isa landscape.
Earlier, during lunch at the Rodeo Bar and Grill at the Isa Hotel, Katter mentions it had been really hard finding a partner. “You meet someone in Brisbane and say, how would you like to move to Mount Isa, and then you say, how would you like to move to Mount Isa but I’ll never be home? I either spent most of my life in the car, or in Brisbane.”
A couple of times he’s had to sleep in his car because of the huge distances he has to travel in his electorate and he hasn’t made it home in time before dark. Cows, horses and ’roos on the road make night driving hazardous.
But now Hatfield has taken the plunge and moved in with him – “she’s a good girl” – Robbie Katter is about to qualify for his pilot’s licence because he knows that if he ever wants a wife and a family he’ll need to be home more.
I ask if marriage to Hatfield is on the agenda. “Wow. Married ... hope so.”
THE ONLY TIME KATTER’S AFFABLE FRONT APPEARS THE
slightest bit rattled is when I ask outright about the long shadow of his father. “I actually hate it … well, hate’s probably too strong a word, but I really don’t like hanging around Dad in this job. You know, he’ll say, oh, wear your hat and I do wear my hat, as a matter of practicality, I don’t like getting sunburnt, but I don’t like wearing it around him, I really hate it. It’s like an unscratchable itch in my skin, you know, like when he’s talking to people at a meeting and he’ll say, well, Rob, are you going to say something?
“And I just say no, you’ve talked everyone to death and that’s good, I agree with what you’ve said but they’ve had enough politics now.
“I have that real strong aversion to being in his shadow, or just being there with him. I find I’m a lot more assertive when I’m not … I can go a couple of months without talking politics with him because I’m so busy and I’m a lot more assertive then. He’s really understanding of that; he’ll have a go every now and then and try and push his agenda but I think he respects my space.”
Katter copped a lot of flak in his first months in Parliament because of his father, particularly from then premier Campbell Newman and the Liberals who “savaged” him. “Every time I stood up I got roasted. My first question was on uranium mining – which I thought was a legitimate question – but Campbell Newman spent three minutes saying ‘Your dad wears a big hat, he’s got to keep his brains in, and you’re exactly the same.’ That’s all I got, for months, and I thought, bloody hell.”
Yet Rob Katter is enormously proud of his father and has great respect and love for him, crediting his dad with being one of his life’s major influences.
“Dad’s faults are bleedingly obvious and up there for everyone to see. He’s an easy target, you know, he gets judged harshly … but he’s arguably one of the biggest champions rural Queenslanders and first Australians have in government. I’m very slow to anger but that’s where I might get a bit worked up in Parliament – there’s just real heartache, mental anguish, loss and despair out there that makes a burning flame inside me. Dad always says that you’re not there to represent anyone else but the people out here so just remember that. If you get scared of speaking up down there (in Parliament) just remember who you’re there for.”
Politically, Katter’s KAP is closer to traditional old-style Labor values than might be expected. The Katters descend from Maronite Christians from Lebanon (the family name was originally Kayrooz) and Carl Robert Katter, Robbie’s great-grandfather, was the first Katter to be involved in politics. He owned and ran a Cloncurry drapery shop, as well as the local picture house, and was a long-standing local councillor.
ARGUABLY, TOO, THE KATTERS’ TOUCH OF THE TAR BRUSH
(a joke made by both Bob and Robbie, who quips “we’re not exactly purebred merinos”) caused them to be particularly sensitive to race relations. “Our family are halfdark themselves and I guess they didn’t care who they employed. They gave a lot of credit to the Aboriginal stockmen who came in off the stations,” says Robbie. Both Katters champion indigenous rights and Bob Katter Senior is fondly remembered locally for having abolished segregated seating between blacks and whites at the family owned cinema.
As well as its support for indigenous Australians, some KAP policies show an affinity with the traditional Labor Party worker and country values that grew out of the 1891 shearers’ strike. Bob Katter Senior was a member of the ALP before joining what was then the Country Party. KAP’s 20-point charter includes support for collective bargaining for all workers (including farmers), the rights of all Australians (including indigenous Australians) to 23 years until his 2012 win. “I take up the Labor votes, really,” he says. “The old National Party doesn’t exist anymore in Queensland, quite literally, and the Labor Party’s not what it used to be either – on asset sales alone there’s a lot of things that demonstrate they’re not what they used to be. I’ve got some really hardcore people who voted Labor all their lives helping me with How To Vote cards. I didn’t chase that vote, that’s just the way it’s panned out I guess.”
He knows it’s the battling pastoralists as well as the workers who are doing it tough. “We exist as an industry town. We’ll never be a Brisbane or a Townsville or have mass tourism appeal. People don’t want water slides or streets paved with gold, they just want a job. We do most of the stuff out here by ourselves, you know. The aged care home was paid for by miners puttin’ a dollar out of their weekly wage – lock, stock and barrel paid for by the community.
“We hear about Queensland Nickel in Townsville and when jobs go, you don’t like hearing it. But we had Century Mine with 700 jobs close down here last year and a lot of those were first Australians – a lot of them were indigenous jobs. That’s a big social problem for us – 10 per cent of our population lose their jobs and you don’t hear a boo. How do we beat this? I don’t know. Are we managing our resources well in Queensland? I don’t think so. Mount Isa’s not everything to the economy but the average GDP per person is about $186,000 per person here and about $63,000 for a person in southeast Queensland. I don’t mean to devalue people in Brisbane, I’m just saying you need to acknowledge we do produce something here, and you need to look after it.”
It’s here that Katter and KAP veer off towards more dangerous territory: the notion of splitting off far north Queensland into a separate state. Cairn’s MP Rob Pyne was once part of the north Queensland separate state movement and when you spend the day with Katter in his electorate – seeing with your own eyes some of the issues locals face – the idea doesn’t seem quite so barking.
“Everyone goes, oh, this is too big (an idea). In Parliament we can’t even do something bloomin’ medium let alone something that big. But then I ask, do you seriously believe the founding fathers of 115 years ago said, here’s some arbitrary lines on this paper, that’s how it must stay forever, that’s the best way to run the country. That’s a ridiculous proposition. Surely at some stage in our history we’ve got to ask, is this working? I’d say it’s not. If you want to stop us whingeing, we’ll look after ourselves, and with more autonomy we can make sure we’ve got a better chance of allocating our resources equitably.”
At this point Gordon runs a mile. When I catch up later with him in Parliament House, he expresses concern that the concept feeds into a “very parochial idealism about north Queensland identity”. He says there has to be “mature and intelligent debate” and that Queenslanders don’t expect their parliamentarians to “go around and wave the flag and do their huffin’ and puffin’ and beatin’ their chests ... with anything emotive you’ve really got to look at the detail and that should govern your thinking about it.”
While we’re talking, no, he doesn’t see Katter as the crossbenchers’ unofficial spokesman either. “I think Robbie does a really good job of articulating the interests and the views of the Katter’s Australian Party, but as an Independent in this Parliament I’m committed to forming my own views and opinions about particular issues I have.”
Pyne also doesn’t see Katter as the crossbench leader: “It’s a danger for me, by virtue of the numbers, that if Shane and Robbie and I do a media conference, it’ll be suggested I’m becoming one of the Katters. It won’t be suggested the Katters are becoming the Rob Pyne Party.”
Pyne says he has got more say as a crossbencher than he ever had as a member of the Labor Party. “I certainly feel less restricted in terms of speaking out for my electorate and my area – the Government wants legislation passed, and we want a fairer go for our little part of Queensland.”
Knuth, too, thinks being a crossbencher is a mighty fine thing: “There’s real, true robust debate within the Parliament for the first time in 30 years. We’re now seeing the views of the whole Parliament need to be taken into account.”
‘YOUR DAD WEARS A BIG HAT, HE’S GOT TO KEEP HIS BRAINS IN, AND YOU’RE EXACTLY THE SAME.’ THAT’S ALL I GOT, FOR MONTHS, AND I THOUGHT, BLOODY HELL.
‘Three Amigos’ (from left) Robbie Katter, Rob Pyne and Shane Knuth tend to be on the same page on many issues, but Billy Gordon (below) plays the wildcard. Main picture: Russell Shakespeare