Katters’ own country
Two generations of a political dynasty hit the outback road
Federal/state relations fracture on the road between Julia Creek and Richmond, the cold air chundering from the car’s air-conditioner barely diffusing the heat of the raging argument.
The increase in land values following water allocations has divided father and son. “You forget, Dad, that I was trained as a valuer,” sneers 38-year-old Robbie. “Oh yeah, you were trained as a valuer and I am just a stupid, ignorant old bloke from the bush,” roars back Bob, 70, from the back seat, incensed at this young pup’s insurgence on his political, and parental, authority.
The cabin grows silent, black crows make lazy circles in the hot western Queensland sky as the drought-ravaged mid-west, with the brown hue of a camel hide, slides by the window. An uninitiated observer might interpret this explosion of hostilities between the state Member for Mount Isa, Robbie Katter, and federal Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, as not merely a split between Queensland and Canberra but a fatal fracturing of a father/son relationship.
But the Katters – the most successful political dynasty in the state, Queensland’s own backwoods version of the Kennedys – do conflict like other families do charades. “Robbie?” Bob asks quietly from the rear after a two-minute silence, pushing his face between the bucket seats like an inquiring child. “Isn’t Judy wonderful?” Robbie at the wheel, eyes firmly on the road ahead, smiles slowly in agreement. “Judy is wonderful, Dad; so is Duncan.”
And off they go again, this time not in combat but in total accord, singing the praises of graziers Judy and Duncan Fysh, a couple they have just visited in the Never Never east of Julia Creek. The anger of three minutes earlier has evaporated, leaving the atmosphere as fresh as a western Queensland dusk after a wild December thunderstorm, and that burning question once again presents itself, as it does so often when in the company of the Katters: How did this family come to play such a key role in Queensland politics for three generations?
Australia has political dynasties, lots of them. But most families usually give us a breather before they foist their latest protégé on an unsuspecting electorate. The Downers of South Australia were
bob and robbiek at ter, The DonQuixo te and Sancho Panza of Queensland politics, tour their drought-ravaged electorates in the state’s north-west.
generous enough to leave a generational gap between (former South Australian premier) Sir John, (former immigration minister) Sir Alick and (former foreign minister) Alexander. But here in Queensland is a family with one foot in each tier of parliament at the same time, storming around the state’s north-west like political evangelists bringing the good news that is Katter’s Australian Party.
Robert (Carl) Katter didn’t believe the political dynasty begun by his father Robert (Cummin) Katter, who held Kennedy for a quarter of a century from 1966, would spill over into a third generation, now represented by Robert (Ignatius) Katter. “Robbie didn’t show much interest in politics as a kid,” he recalls. By the time he was in his twenties, Robbie, a talented footballer who played in the Young Guns, a feeder team for the North Queensland Cowboys, was living the good life as he established a successful valuer business with a mate in Mount Isa. According to his father, he was making “buckets of money” when the call came from locals to run for Mount Isa City Council, a call Robbie ignored. “He actually started blaming me saying I was behind it, and then he didn’t take my phone calls for a couple of days, but I swear I had nothing to do with it,” says Bob.
Robbie succumbed and joined the council in 2008, then won the seat of Mount Isa as a KAP candidate in 2012 with 61 per cent of the vote. His easygoing nature, and possibly his determination to stamp his own understated personality on his electorate rather than attempt to emulate his more extroverted dad, won him supporters. Katter Junior’s two-party-preferred vote rose to 65 per cent in this year’s election where, just like his father after the 2010 federal election, he emerged as a potential key powerbroker in a government that needed the support of Independents to survive.
The father/son duo is now the driving
force of KAP, a party formed in 2011, with its two state members (Robbie, and Shane Knuth in the neighbouring seat of Dalrymple based around Charters Towers), and Bob Katter in the federal parliament. Father and son represent an area combining two electorates and covering just under one-third of the state. And perhaps nowhere in Australia are politicians’ lives more intimately woven into the fabric of their electorates. On a four-day road trip through Queensland’s midnorth-west this month, the Katters highlighted the plight of small towns stretching from Townsville to Mount Isa, all of them reeling from the combined impact of drought and the mining downturn. They both know it’s not merely the drought and mine closures threatening settlements such as Julia Creek (pop. 300), a town Bob frequented as a young man closing cattle deals in the ’60s – when he was considering becoming a grazier – in the main bar of historic Gannon’s Hotel. Gannon’s, in one of the more dramatic metaphors for the decline of the west, burned to the ground earlier this year, just another setback for a town whose population has shrunk more than 60 per cent from its glory days in the 1960s.
A long-term shift in Queensland from a 20th century agrarian economy to the 21st century information age is elbowing aside communities that only a few decades ago helped underwrite a cultural identity for the entire state. To the Katters, the idea of standing by while these tiny economic blood vessels that criss-cross their electorates dry up is nothing short of aiding and abetting a cultural genocide. “What are we going to say to God when we die?” says Bob, still an observant Catholic. “He gave us this beautiful country and we just turn our back on it?”
The west is in the Katter DNA, its ability to endure linked to their own political preservation. Their spiritual home might be Cloncurry, where the
family owned a store and the local cinema for much of the 20th century, but while Bob’s residence is in Charters Towers and Robbie’s in Mount Isa, every town and property in between holds significance in their tribal evolution. They know the families, the feuds, the bankrupts, even a few budding billionaires. To the Katters, Queensland’s west has runs on the board – a demonstrated energy and innovation that the country would be foolish to waste.
For Robbie, an amateur historian of the west, it’s the spirit that allowed the Jefferis family on Elrose Station, 64km south of Cloncurry, to build a cattle empire over four generations, the first Jefferis living in a cut-off tank that served as a house in the early years of the 20th century. That spirit is far from dead, and when the Katters want to make a case for the never-say-die determination that defines their home, they haul out the Fysh family as “Exhibit A”.
Duncan Fysh is a descendant of two Qantas founders and a blueblood of the western Queensland grazing fraternity. He and his wife Judy, who live on Proa Station, 75km out of Julia Creek, raise freshwater crayfish, “redclaw”, in ponds using water from the Artesian Basin. They have been stunningly successful, apart from the drought that put the crays off breeding over the past couple of years and government red tape that is the bane of Duncan Fysh’s existence. Fysh talks with machine gun-fire rapidity, has a giant Australian flag painted on his roof, stuffs cane toads and nails them to his shed wall, and is often followed around his property by a giant emu. When we arrived for a visit at the couple’s homestead on a windswept rise in the middle of nowhere, Fysh was in deep discussions with Melbourne-born vertebrate palaeontologist Dr Tim Holland about 100 million-year-old fish fossils recently found on his property.
In the Best Eccentric in the West stakes, Fysh leaves Bob Katter in the starting blocks. But the two men, with their wide-ranging, ramshackle minds and subversive humour, appear to have a spiritual kinship, as well as sharing an eternal optimism that tells a man he can raise lobsters in the desert. It’s an idealism mirrored by both Katters, a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for the 21st century. They might have swapped their horses for four-wheel-drives and swords for mobile phones but they’re still out there, determined to rescue a world on which the rest of Australia appears to have turned its back.
And the people of the west, who keep backing them at the ballot box, don’t believe for a moment they are foolishly tilting at windmills.
“What are we going to say to God when we die? He gave us this beautiful country and we just turn our back on it?”
FYSH BY NAME … CRAYFISH FARMER DUNCAN FYSH ON HIS PROPERTY OUTSIDE JULIA CREEK; ( OPPOSITE) BOB AND ROBBIE KATTER ( ALSO OPENING PAGE) ON THE WESTERN TRAIL.