Bob Katter is boot-scooting through Kennedy, talking a mile a minute in pressed jeans and a big hat, and expounding on commos, ethanol, a big Australia and Mein Kampf.
Thursday, noon — Cairns charter airport
Snaking around the dozen or so buildings of Cairns charter airport — TGP helicopters, Hawker Britton (Deputy Dawg has his own airline?) — with a bewildered taxi driver, directions squawked by mobile in my ear — “we’re just near the Flying Doctor service” — I eventually luck on the charter “general aviation terminal”, a brick shed beside the apron. Katter One has taxied in, the props are slowing.
On the grass verge, a young mum Cairns style, hippie-swirl dress, kid on the hip and diamante-toed thongs, is talking to someone unseen.
“You know, Rachel, you know next year no copper will be processed in Queensland for the first year since 1886.” Then a cackle. That high-pitched throaty voice, slightly cracked, it should belong to a minor member of the Grateful Dead or Merry Pranksters. Yeah heh heh heh heh.
Then a pair of boots and pressed jeans come out from behind the shed, and it’s Katter himself, in the white hat, striped business shirt and gold-rimmed aviator shades, kicking his heels waiting for a comm car. There are two or three journos and the diamante thong woman, and her friend, Bob’s pilot, a blonde with a plunging neckline and a silver crucifix, offering “free plane rides”.
Great. One hour on the clock, and it’s already a Harold Robbins novel.
Bob’s flown into the north to do a sweep of the Cairns area and the Tablelands, culminating in an appearance at the Atherton Maize Festival on Friday night, a celebration of corn. His seat of Kennedy now extends to south Cairns, but that’s safe as houses.
He’s beefing up the run of Katter Australia Party Senate candidate, country music heartthrob James Blundell. KAP and the ALP have swapped prefs in Queensland, which means Blundell may well get up, part of a “maverick” block in the Senate.
There’s a Courier-Mail journo, an Oz journo, a snapper and me. Bob’s long-suffering assistant, Anne, is trying to round up a car to get us out of here. She goes away to find one, so in the interim, Bob talks. And talks.
Later, I will recognise this as a pattern.
Bob’s filling the waiting time with anecdotes as he boot-scoots round the thin lawn. He starts, for no reason I can see at all, with the accommodation arrangements.
Oh yeah, I’ll stay anywhere, last time we were in Cairns I was staying at the Rainbow Motel and someone said to me you can’t stay there, Morgensen runs girls out of there out of the rainbow.
Where’s the rainbow? Who’s Morgensen?
And I said, ohhhhhh Morgo wouldn’t do that, and I stayed there and — - heh heh heh — - it was bloody true, Morgo was running girls out of there. Anne, when’s that car coming?
There was then a snatch of monologue — my notes are sketchy — that involved an anecdote about meeting Lee Marvin — oh, Lee used to come here all the time, he loved the black marlin — at a five-star hotel nearby, and also Bo Derek in the Joh years, when Bob was a state minister. A Miss Penthouse, a snapshot, and seriously by then I had lost the thread.
You try to pin the anecdote down, but we’re now onto John Maitland, the former CFMEU official and now multimillionaire coal miner who is innocent unless proven guilty of being punted a “training mine” in the Hunter during the Obeid/MacDonald years, which turned out — what luck! — to be right over a major seam.
Then he’s talking about when he was talking about when he was a Joh minister and he had a bridge named after Mike Branca, my notes say, a unionist and old commo, and I had to get Russ down to the launch.
Jesus, I am in over my head here.
Yeah, and I said to Russ, we’re naming the bridge after Branca, and he said after a f-cking commo? and I said well, there’s no one else down there to name it after, and he said OK, and he comes down and he says well comrade, if we’re going to name the bridge after you we better sing the Internationale, and he puts his arm round Branca and he starts to sing, ’ the workers flag is deepest red …’
OK, that’s the red flag, but anyway.
Ah, they were all communists, but y’know those coal miners were just treated like slaves just like slaves … he shakes his head.
He turns to the pilot’s friend, still hanging round with her kids.
Rachel, do you think it’s fair that two supermarkets control the market?
He never stops campaigning, I will find.
Her name is not Rachel.
But he’s riding high. Last night in the final prime ministerial debate, the question of foreign ownership came up, and Rudd said the issue would be looked at. North Queensland and KAP’s pet issue, and suddenly it’s on the agenda. No wonder he’s standing there, hands on hips, looking like Superman.
The cars arrive — taxis, not comm cars — and away we go.
“Look, people have told me you can walk across the Torres Strait at low tide. I am against a PNG solution.”
We’re at Edmonton, once a small town, now encompassed by Cairns’s impressive Florida-style sprawl, miles and miles of tyre dealers, produce dealers and Thai massage joints.
We reach the Hambledon hotel, with its statue of exhausted sugar workers painted gold like they were carved out of Crunchie. All the doors are locked. Bob knocks on them in vain. Ohhhhh, what’s going on? For a man who maay control the balance of power in the Senate, it’s not a good look.
“Why are we here?” says Mike Madigan, the Cairns Post reporter. “This is the most boring pub in Cairns.” Across the road the something hotel is offering “Girls and Pokies and Monday to Friday kids eat free!”I want to go to that.
But no, we’re in, the doors opened and upstairs a meeting of concerned locals. Scones cakes and tea piled high in one corner, a steaming urn. Hundreds of satin pennants on the walls, Idaho Lions Club visit 1962, New Guinea effort 1989, white, orange, pink, every colour gay as a mardi gras.
Further up framed photos of old local football teams, long-dead young men faded to sepia. Around the table about 20 concerned citizens
They’re the raw material of a Katter party branch, but not yet. Today they’re just the local boosters — they’re for Bob, but not totally, and he still has to keep them on side.
He doffs the hat, off-white, with its fussy brush tied around the brim, places it on the clothed L-shaped table assembled for the meeting. Around us, in the room above the bing bing bing of pokies, steady drinkers parked at the bar in their mobility scooters, these folks here are wirier, more intent.
OK, so let’s talk about the preferences. Bob has this manner, the crooked head, the scrunched face, like he is always in the middle of an argument, a sort of permanent irritation. Last election Lib preferences gave us the Greens and the Greens gave us the carbon tax.
True! Julia didn’t want the carbon tax. She just caved into the Greens. And the way the Senate is the Greens were in line for sixth place here, we had to do something. So we preferenced Labor, they swapped with us, and that means James will probably get up.
See what we want is — I’ve got this lunch club with John Madigan [DLP] and Nick Xenophon, we meet every week. There’s nothing I don’t agree with John on, and not much with Nick. So I hope everyone understands that.
Does anyone have any question on other stuff?
They do. Mostly it’s roads in and out of the town. The southern approach, the northern approach. Even the eastern approach. This continues for some time before Bob manages to steer it onto his big theme:
You know, pretty soon you will live in a country which doesn’t produced a car, doesn’t produce any steel of its own, is that the country you want to live in. You know next year will be the first year we don’t produce copper in Australia since 1886. Ethanol! Anne, where’s that map?
Here’s a photo of me in Rio filling up for 79c a litre. Here? $1.49 a litre. Australia and Africa will soon be the only two places that run on less than 10% ethanol.
This stuff is Katter’s great theme. He will talk about dairy prices and roads, but he’s on about Australia. He bloody loves Australia, and I don’t doubt it. He is a mad visionary. I want to tell him that his ethanol heroes in Brazil, Lula and Rousseff, were respectively, a militant trade unionist and a communist urban guerrilla, but there’s no time. We’re back on roads, and then boat people.
Look, people have told me you can walk across the Torres Strait at low tide. I am against a PNG solution.
We should tow the boats back out to sea.
Mutterings of approval. OK …
“Bob, what about wind power — ”
Well good, because I don’t think we should have to put up with these —
“No, I mean why does solar power get a subsidy, but wind doesn’t?”
Y’know, I always go back to what Hitler said —
Madigan, murdering a scone and jam and cream, looks up.
If you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big one. And that’s Abbott on the carbon tax —
Oh OK, he’s Godwining. Still.In any case, not the question wanted. Bob goes back to ethanol again. Anne taps her watch, Bob puts his hat back on, takes personal representations about this about that, local drains and cat licenses. He tilts his head listens intently, his hands work away.
Well that’s just terrible. Anne? Anne. BOB WEVE GOT TO GO I know, but take this woman’s number.
The full Lebo in him has come out, the son of an MP, the bringer of fortunes. We could be in a desert tabernacle, favours being dispensed. I warm to him.
“What about this PPL?”
Well look, we do have to build our Australian race …
I cool to him a little … I want to ask him, what do you mean by that, “race”, but then suddenly we’re away, the locals waving, the young men in the sepia photos, perhaps as well.
We’re on the road to Innisfail, 50 clicks down the coast. Big Sikh community there, and they love Bob. Past endless fields of cane, bunched and green, the occasional burnoff, acrid grey smoke and bright flame, sweet smoke smell.
Bob on the phone. Anne too. Thirty years old, been in London, Sweden now back here. No strong politics, dad’s a friend of Bob’s. We trade a bit of Swedish kan du prata svenska? Ja, jag kan prata en lite svenska. Part of Sheikh Bob’s political harem, the half-dozen women who keep him on track.
Ahead, the Oz crew have found a photo opp and we stop. Its a sugarcane field with the giant metal maw of a digger. I can see the point, but two days later it’s on the front page of the Oz, and I see what genius it is, because the digger is, what? The free market? Modernity? Reality? Whatever, it’s right behind Bob, eating his hat, a strange and sinister image.
Y’know, Guy, I like to read about the Spanish empire.
OK, we’re back in the car and getting into the deep stuff.
You know Columbus and Ferdinand and Isabella opened up the world they were the Renaissance and the Enlightenment —
Bob’s talking about his reading. The idea that Catholic totalitarians Ferdinand and Isabella were enlightened is of course, the opposite of the truth, but that’s not really the point. This is Catholic value theory, the idea of intrinsic worth — of gold, of farming, and of the nefarious merchants who are always trading it away.
It’s Bob, it’s Barnaby, it’s the League of Rights, it’s the CEC, it feeds off the idea, not crazy, that a hundredweight of bananas should have the same value when harvested as when planted and if not, the fault is — the crazy bit now — probably the Illuminati.
“Bob, today you quoted Hitler to two ethnic minorities and you’re advising me on tact?”
Innisfail Sikh Temple, 3pm
By now we’re at Innisfail, Art Deco jewel of the coast, and lost. Bob and Anne trade the phone try to find the temple amid the burbs, are eventually steered towards it down a side street. It’s a big shed, an old Telstra site the Sikhs have bought. We drive in, the old concrete floors, covered in rugs, men in turbans, boys in basic head coverings, women in jewelled silks well to the back.
Sheikh Bob in big hat is paraded towards the centre by the elders, the young men looking more sceptical. Community leader Imujit in a cream three-piece suit the local godfather — later I will ask, “what do you do?” “I am a salesman at, do you know Harvey Norman?” later still back in the car Anne will say, “didn’t Imujit look good?” Hah yeah, Bob will laugh, like a rat with a gold tooth!
(I’d asked him earlier if he wanted to go off the record at any time. But, man. It’s a wrong category. Katter is the Anne Sexton of rural populism. It is all, far too much, upfront, it is all Bob TMI TMI).
Surrounded by Sikhs, Bob then proceeds to career through a potted history of the people: There are so many of you here I began to get interested in your religion, and we want people like you here because you’re monotheists, the British Empire gave you the rule of law — what? stop, I don’t even — and every Sikh I’ve met has said — here he does a head-wagging impersonation — Oh yes, I am an Australian!
My balls are trying to crawl back up my body by now, but the locals don’t seem to mind. Mind you, they then line up to fleece his influence shamelessly. Mr Bob, this man’s son can not wear his turban in the army, etc, etc, and it’s Anne make a note, Anne make a note.
We adjourn to the temple, Bob could wear the hat in there, any covering will do,but he wraps an orange do-rag round his pate, looks like Rosie the Riveter. Would you like a picture with some of the women Bob? That would be great. Inclusive, etc. Harvey Norman’s best salesman claps his hands twice quickly and six young women jump in a second to Bob’s side. So maybe not quite so assimilated. Good girls, they laugh at his terrible jokes.
That do-rag on his head, swear to God it’s like a repeat of I Love Lucy. Dezi will start with the maracas any moment. You’re all against the boat people? I say to people a Sikh I know said to me, Bob, if you’re going to keep running the boat people thing we Sikhs will be hiring ocean liners pitch goes up heh heh heh heh. Fuck, this is good. Cowboy Lebo Jackie Mason, dancing on everyone’s toes. I could stay on this trail forever.
Eventually after a half-hour photo shoot we leave, Bob carelessly turning his arse towards the shrine, the Sikh holy book draped with gold lame, a horsehair brush swished over it. But they could care. He’s their man and has promised half a dozen favours in half an hour, also a big Australia.
We’ve got to have 60 million people here, and Sikhs are the best type of people to be here.You know, he says in closing, Hitler said in Mein Kampf, and I remember this the first time I read it … seriously, Bob? Fond reminiscence of Adolf’s table talk repeated readings? If you’re going to tell a lie … etc. Where’s that photo, Anne? This is me in Rio, filling up at ethanol station for …
Mmmm. I can’t remember the 60 millions figure getting a big run in Edmonton. I rather thought those folks thought they were getting their sparse Anglo paradise back, but with a fix-up of the Bruce (“fix the Bruce!”). A few last words Bob, as a parade of orange and blue turbans and silks follow us to the exit: Do you know, Imujit, that next year will be the first time we have not processed copper in Queensland since 1886 …
And then we are piled into cars and waved off, and to a farewell dinner for one of his staff-wives, Kalia, leaving to get married for real, the only way to escape the intoxicating, exhausting processional of the Kattervan. There in the Imperial Tavern, surrounded by a table of good ol boys, Katter relaxes. Before we got there:
Now Guy, Dave has 11 children, so don’t say anything embarrassing about that
“Bob, today you quoted Hitler to two ethnic minorities and you’re advising me on tact?”
Heh heh heh heh. Heh heh heh heh.
I call a motel, book a room. Anne tells me “If you could be at the office at nine tomorrow morning, and then we’ll be going to the dairy …”
Of course we will. “I’ve just been on the trail with Bob Katter,” I tell the deathful plastic pub’s one barfly. “We were with the Sikhs. He told them he wanted a population of 60 million.” “Really? That surprises me.” Bet it does.
And tomorrow, in the Tablelands, the festival of corn, the main event …