Rob­bie Kat­ter steps out of his fa­ther’s shadow to shake up state pol­i­tics

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - FRONT PAGE - SU­SAN JOHN­SON

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.”


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


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


(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.”


‘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

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