Queensland votes next Saturday in an election that looks like a rout for the current Labor government. Pundits say that the key issues are state ones, rather than federal, though the fact that federal Labor is on the nose as well can’t help.
Win, lose or draw, the next Queensland government won’t be significantly different from governments elsewhere in Australia. The main fight will take place in the south east corner, which is a carbon copy of south east Australia generally, not least because so many of its inhabitants are recent immigrants from interstate.
Nobody is asking today, as they invariably did 20 or 30 years ago when politics was discussed: Is Queensland different? Or, having answered ‘yes’ to that question, Why is Queensland different? On the whole, it seems, people and pundits no longer believe that the state of Queensland is a weird aberration from the Australian norm. We even won the Sheffield Shield last weekend, and nobody found this remarkable.
But in many ways, geographically, demographically and politically, a remnant of Queensland weirdness remains – and some of it is exemplified in the person of Bob Katter, former Country Party, National Party, Independent and now leader of Katter’s Australia Party.
I’ve only once – briefly – met Bob Katter, when in 1989 he launched the memoir of Noel Fatnowna, a much respected member of Mackay’s Pacific Islander community. Noel Fatnowna was born in Mackay in 1929, the descendant of Solomon Islanders who came to North Queensland as indentured workers in the sugar plantations. His memoir, Fragments of a lost heritage (1989) records the traditions of those islanders who stayed on in Queensland after most had gone home – or been forcibly deported by the Australian government after federation. They are still an important minority group in North Queensland.
I don’t remember much about that book launch, or Katter’s speech, except for one phrase that rooted itself in my mind. In fact I liked it so much that I consciously memorised it in the hope I could use it one day as a title. It was remarkable, Katter said, how much the pioneers had done to develop Queensland in ‘the early days’, using nothing but ‘an axe, a rifle, and a box of matches.’
The phrase is wonderfully succinct, even more than the usual summary of the developer’s ideology: ‘If it moves, shoot it; if it doesn’t, cut it down.’ (The matches refer to the old method of burning cane fields before the harvest, to drive out rats and make hand cutting easier.) There’s still a little of the same mentality in Katter’s Australian Party. Is there any other political party platform in Australia (or the world?) which includes a plank giving landowners the right to kill crocodiles, snakes and flying foxes on their property?
Yet there’s another side to Katter. The other thing I remember from that book launch was the obvious mutual respect and affection between Katter and Noel Fatnowna. Southerners (sorry, sometimes I fall into Queensland-ese) see Katter as a redneck, and the hat and the guns give that impression, to be sure. But he’s not a racist. As Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Queensland in the 1980s, he brought about much needed change – and was subsequently labelled a ‘gin jockey’ for his pains by a Labor parliamentarian in 1991. The North Queensland Aboriginal spokesman Noel Pearson last year called Katter ‘the greatest federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs Australia never had’.
The history of Far North Queensland is different. The region has a long history of radicalism, born of demography and the grievances of isolation. In 1901, the White Australia Policy was introduced (by Southerners!) and new workers had to be recruited for the sugar fields to replace the Pacific Islanders. Many came from Catalonia or southern Italy, bringing leftwing political ideas with them. The North had long history of radical politicians, including the depression era treasurer, ‘Red Ted’ Theodore, and Australia’s only ever elected Communist, Fred Paterson.
FNQ also has a different history of race relations, which Henry Reynolds explains at length in North of Capricorn (2003).
None of these differences will matter next Saturday, when the election will be won and lost in the major population centres of the South East, but there is another Queensland ‘out there’ which is different: FNQ – or as it sounds when you say it aloud, ‘eff-ng Q’.
Noel Fatnowna, Fragments of a lost heritage (ed. By Roger Keesing), 1989.
Ross Fitzgerald, The people’s champion, Fred Paterson: Australia’s only Communist Party Member of Parliament (1997)
Diane Menghetti, The Red North (1981)