A political void has left Clive Palmer and Bob Katter in the spotlight in Queensland. They pose twin but very different threats to Campbell Newman’s government and conservative forces down south.
A number of Queensland ministers are still on holidays (like Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey; the Sunday Mail splashed with her Maldives break after talking up local tourism). Perhaps that’s why Bob Katter and Clive Palmer are casting such a long shadow over George Street.
This week, we’ve seen revelations Palmer’s potential new party and Katter’s Australia Party failed to come to terms around the issue of state-owned enterprises. Professor Palmer’s previous remarks that he couldn’t identify with some of KAP’s “redneck” policies didn’t help matters.
And lest we forget it’s a federal election year, perennial Hansonite identity David Oldfield captured headlines by “refusing to rule out” running as a Senate candidate for Katter in New South Wales. For what it’s worth, sources in the Queensland KAP think Oldfield is doing precisely that — headline grabbing.
But the Queensland story has broader implications.
On one hand, while Katter’s message is more politically defined than Pauline Hanson’s (it’s best summed up by former state leader Aidan McLindon’s mantra of the best of old-style Country Party and Labor values), his strategic path is similar. During last year’s Queensland election, Katter himself made that point, though he was always wrong in believing his party could form majority government.
Like Hanson, Katter will take more skin off the LNP than Labor. But like Hanson too, his appeal is geographically limited — strongest in Queensland, present in NSW and not great anywhere else. While KAP is much more organised than One Nation ever was, it also risks having very spurious candidates attaching themselves to its bandwagon. There have already been fights within KAP over “religious right” issues — manifested during the campaign in the response to the homophobia evident in the party’s advertising.
There are, then, basic issues for any insurgent party of defining its identity, of recruiting and organising candidates and the grassroots without an existing base.
Concomitantly, it needs to avoid some rather odd barnacles on its boat. There is always a structural possibility that a third or fourth or fifth party will be labelled “extreme”, and that’s a killer. The two main parties will be on the watch for controversial statements by candidates or party identities.
These problems are much greater for any Palmer party, which is probably one big reason why there won’t be one. The other big reason is that Palmer undercuts trust in his statements by a lack of follow-through — for instance in his much touted but never realised intention to run against Wayne Swan in Lilley.
Although a putative Palmer party might have two sitting members — the former LNP members Alex Douglas in Gaven and Carl Judge in Yeerongpilly — it has no organisation and community links across the state. There is a potential vote there for such an entity, but shepherding such a vote is a huge task, and one that takes much more than a lot of money.
However, the mere prospect of such an electoral challenge and Palmer’s continued interventions continue to harm Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party government. Many in Brisbane believe Palmer would be much happier were Lawrence Springborg or John-Paul Langbroek to become premier. There has not been enough analysis of Palmer’s exit from the LNP being related to dissatisfaction within the organisation, grassroots and parliamentary party with its leadership and performance in office.
Unless Newman’s government begins quickly to turn its fortunes around, and in particular unless Newman turns his own around, the twin threats of Palmer and Katter on moderate and populist right flanks will continue to destabilise the LNP. The spectre of a fragmented centre-right is magnified by optional preferential voting.
There won’t be a dinosaur in an Akubra, but Palmer and Katter will continue to cast long shadows over the Queensland political terrain.
*Dr Mark Bahnisch is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Brisbane-based social and political analyst