David Glanz looks at what’s behind the rise of maverick Bob Katter’s Australia party, and mining billionaire Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party

On 13 May, the ABC’s Q&A program saw a remarkable, double-barrelled attack on the Liberal National Party government in Queensland, which brought heart-felt cheers and applause from the audience.

ACTU president Ged Kearney and Greens senator Larissa Waters’ criticism of Premier Campbell Newman’s 14,000 sackings and welfare cuts was politely received.

But it was fighting words from conservatives Bob Katter and Clive Palmer that galvanised people in the studio. Billionaire Palmer was cheered as he promised to take back into public ownership any assets privatised by the LNP, with no compensation—the kind of slogan last raised by the far left in the 1970s.

Katter has now launched Katter’s Australia Party (KAP), and Palmer is bankrolling and leading the Palmer United Party (PUP). Both intend to run candidates across the country. Both are confident of making an impact on September 14, Palmer modestly talking of himself as a future prime minister.

What's behind the rise of maverick Bob Katter and the political aspirations of millionaire Clive Palmer?

The signals are mixed. An opinion poll taken among rural Australians and published in the Financial Review showed Senate support for the KAP averaging just 2 per cent and peaking at 5 per cent in Queensland, where Katter holds the seat of Kennedy.

But a union-commissioned poll in the Queensland city of Maryborough put the PUP on 13.4 per cent and the KAP on 9.3 per cent. A statewide Galaxy poll in The Courier-Mail had both parties on 6 per cent—between them almost enough for a senate seat.

Emergence

Why have these two parties emerged now? There are two reasons: the crisis in the Labor Party, which opens up a larger space for the right, and the crisis in the economy, which is generating dissatisfaction with the traditional Liberal agenda.

Much media commentary has focused on parallels with the Joh for Canberra campaign in 1987, which saw Queensland National Party premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen make a tilt at national politics.

In his book on the Australian right, The Right Road, Andrew Moore writes that Bjelke-Petersen “genuinely saw himself as a leader chosen by God to oppose a vast communist conspiracy in which the ALP, the Liberal Party and the churches were all involved”.

Bjelke-Petersen, having fallen out with his Liberal Party coalition partners, set out on a farcical and short-lived mission to stop the “socialist” Bob Hawke federal Labor government.

Katter and Palmer, on the other hand, are not challenging for a share of the conservative vote because they think Tony Abbott is too soft on Labor. Rather, they are so confident that the Liberals will hammer the Gillard government on 14 September that they judge they can safely stake out their own ground.

While the likes of Scott Morrison and Cory Bernardi are trying to drag the Liberals to the right from within, Katter and Palmer are aiming to carve out political space by organising their own power bases.

Katter and Palmer have different styles—the first man is a conviction politician, the second a blatant showman and opportunist—but more importantly, they represent different ruling class fractions, differences reflected in the flavour and policies of their parties.

It is the priority given to those differences in economic policy that helps explain why neither party relies on racism as the central plank of their populism. The KAP and PUP are not, at this stage at least, the equivalent of the UK Independence Party, let alone the French National Front.

Economic bitterness

Palmer has fallen out with his erstwhile Coalition mates over the measures he thinks are needed to prolong the mining boom.

The big miners are in retreat, mothballing multi-billion dollar projects and cutting profit forecasts. This year’s BRW Rich 200 list was headlined “Miners feel the squeeze”. Palmer alone dropped by $1.6 billion to a mere $2.2 billion.

The Australian reported: “Campbell Newman’s state LNP government copped it after giving the nod to Indian company GVK and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting group to develop a rail corridor through the emergent Galilee coal basin in central Queensland, which Palmer was counting on to get his own mine up …

“The suspicion among senior figures in the LNP and the Newman government is that [the launch of the PUP is] payback by Palmer over the Galilee snub.” It is therefore not a surprise that the party’s top five policies include “creating mineral wealth” and for “wealth to flow back to the community that generates it”.

Palmer originally wanted to claim the name United Australia Party in a nod to the party which was dissolved in 1945 to make way for the establishment of the Liberal Party. He sees himself as the true inheritor of the UAP.

His policies have a populist edge (ban political lobbyists, abolish the carbon tax retrospectively) and a socially liberal flavour (a free vote on gay marriage, encouragement for “boat people” to fly to Australia, with assessment at the airport).

But at the core of the party’s DNA is the belief in “the creation of wealth and in competitive enterprise”, “reducing taxation” and “the family”. The PUP is a rival to the Liberals on their own turf—big Australian business—but with a maverick, ego-driven edge. (In fact, the UAP’s program includes whole sections cut-and-pasted from the Liberals’ program).

Nationalism

The KAP is an entirely different entity, pitching much more to disaffected rural and regional Labor voters (as the National Party once did). It pays great attention to issues like food security, the right to clear land and shooters’ rights.

It is socially conservative, not just against gay marriage but believing that “modern Australia was founded on Christian values” and even that “homes are to be safe and exclusive havens for all those who reside within them” (although this presumably applies only to heterosexuals).

Crucially, it has also appealed for—and won—union support, making it closer in style and policy to the Democratic Labor Party, a conservative anti-Communist split from Labor in the 1950s, than the Liberal Party. This makes Katter’s party a much greater concern for the left.

Katter’s biggest coup is the recruitment of the former Victorian state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Dean Mighell, as his industrial relations spokesperson. What would bring Mighell, a militant unionist and an occasional ally of the radical left in Melbourne, who brought his members to the mass, anti-capitalist May 1 rally in 2001 that targeted the city’s stock exchange, into the Katter fold?

Part of the reason is Mighell’s passion for hunting. Last month, he became national president of Australia’s peak shooting lobby group, the 150,000-member Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. But the decisive factor is Mighell’s admiration for Katter’s economic nationalism, his fierce opposition to free trade and his defence of collective bargaining and arbitration.

The KAP “is committed to providing support and protection to Australian industries … bringing jobs back home and reviving our once proud manufacturing and agriculture industries. To see this happen, we will push to ensure Australia does not sign any more free trade agreements, especially with countries like China”.

The KAP is opposed to privatisation, recognising that only the state can provide adequate infrastructure in regional areas.

It also harks back to the tradition of industrial arbitration on which many in the union movement relied for most of the 20th century. KAP policy states: “Governments must ensure that every Australian is, and in particular employees, farmers and franchisees are, able to bargain collectively to protect and promote their economic interests and that all, wherever practicable, have access to compulsory arbitration.”

These policies have won the KAP the support of the Victorian ETU, the Queensland CFMEU, the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and, potentially, the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association.

This support can be shaken. The starting point for the ETU and CFMEU is not racism or homophobia, but opposition to neo-liberalism. That’s why sections of both unions have also supported The Greens.

After endorsing Katter’s party in the 2012 Queensland state election, the Queensland Council of Trade Unions (QCU) was forced to back away after the party notoriously ran homophobic advertisements about LNP leader Campbell Newman’s personal support for same-sex marriage.

With Labor on the rocks and manufacturing in decline, union leaders are looking for ways to demonstrate to their members that they are doing something about the steady flow of jobs cuts. One is hitting out at Labor’s pro-market economic policies by backing alternative parties.

Another is the “local jobs” campaign. Unfortunately the nationalism of Katter coincides neatly with the unions’ campaign against 457 visas.

KAP national director Aidan McLindon said in April that those angry about 457 visa workers should vote for them: “When there is approval of 125,070 workers last year coming in from overseas on 457 visas who are taking our jobs, who else does the union movement have to turn to?”

Katter provides no real alternative for the union movement. This is the man who was a minister in the Bjelke-Petersen state government which, in 1985, sacked 1,000 union members employed by the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB), replacing them with contract workers.

He may now attend pickets and protests, but his aim is to minimise any union fightback, not build it.

In February, he introduced an amendment to the Fairwork Act that would allow arbitration, emphasising: “We should not have in this country a requirement that to get into the arbitration commission you have to dislocate people’s lives and disrupt and damage the economy. This legislation today gives you access to the arbitration commission through conciliation without having to go to strike.”

Nowhere on the KAP website is there a call for unions in Queensland to step up their campaign against Campbell Newman’s cuts, or of support for the University of Sydney strikers who have defied riot police on their picket lines.

Palmer is another Liberal, and Katter is a conservative nationalist. They are the reactionary beneficiaries of disillusionment with neo-liberalism. But they are no alternative to it, and their influence must be countered. Neither can provide a way forward for workers facing attacks today and the coming offensive of an Abbott government.

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