Kat­ters’ own coun­try

Two gen­er­a­tions of a po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty hit the out­back road

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT - ST ORY MICHAEL MADI­GAN pho­tog­ra­phy JACK T RAN

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?”

Bob Kat­ter


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