Somewhere on Edward Street Innisfail, Bob Katter is having breakfast with the editor of the local paper. No one can find him. I go up and down the street looking for them and admiring the mad, marvelous Art Deco, all laid down after the city was destroyed by a cyclone after World War I.
After the glory days, the town fell asleep in the sun, so stuporous that it never bothered to do anything like pull buildings down. When it woke up again, the ’60s and ’70s had happened, and people understood that this flaking stylised concrete was worth something, socially and also financially. They restored it, and now it looks back out at them, a golden cinema, ultramarine ship-like portals above a newsagent, and so on and so on.
Deco’s charm is all bound up in its delight at modernity, its celebration of it, before the dark. It is architecture that does not know what is coming next, i.e. the Holocaust, and that is why it remains so charmingly poignant for us, a celebration of the moderne, which could not imagine it what abysmal ends it could be turned towards.
It suits north Queensland, for all sorts of reasons.
I think of Savannah, Georgia, just about the most stunningly beautiful city in the English-speaking world preserved from ruin by four things: long-term decline, obscure location, passionate locals, and the local school of art and design. From the late 1970s, people began buying up the buildings the locals had preserved, restored them and either sold them on or turned them into classrooms, and thus made the place a college city. Innisfail could do that tomorrow.
That’s Innisfail, people on the pavements having breakfast. But no sign of Bob. I come back to the office, and he’s there, and we’re ready to go.
“OK, well Mike and Tom and Guy will travel behind us, and we’ll head up to Malanda first,” says Anne, sorting us out.
Ohhhhhh, why can’t I travel with Guy?
Bob looks upset, as he does when he’s hearing ideas he doesn’t agree with, face screwed up, a deep unpleasantness in the world. It has a slightly toddlerish quality to it.
It’s flattering to be thus considered, though I suspect that the rolling conversation up through the hills to the Tablelands will be largely monologue. Bob is a lifelong professional politician, but the style of right-wing Queensland politics has come from people who spend a lot of time alone, thinking about stuff, as they clear the land and run the farm.
It’s one reason why farmers et al are susceptible to political theories that are on the one hand very concrete — value comes from the land, is fixed, and will, if fostered, always generate value — but in its con-katternations, always very complicated.
Vast frustrating forces are at work. They will always do you wrong. They are often run by the masons the Illuminati, the Anglo-Venetian banking conspiracy, it all goes back to Babylon. Let my people gooooooooo!
“Bob you’ve got to make calls,” says Anne.
“It’s fine,” I say, “Bob, make your calls.”
“Were he a Russian politician we’d just the hit the bar here, someone would open a litre bottle of their Iridium vodka and we’d toast each other until we hugged or someone got stabbed.”
They’re probably fundraising, support calls, the desperate begging a political entrepreneur must do. Bob, in the car yesterday had mused — midway through a tuneless rendition of the first two lines of I Still Call Australia Home — about governance issues. I’ve been to cities that never — I’ve been to cities that never — Australia is terribly governed, Guy. America has the constituency system. Maybe we should have that, have primaries, I’ve been to cities — I’ve been to cities.
If we had that, he’d never be off the phone, raising money.
We zip up to Malanda en route to Atherton and Mareeba, places in the mountains and Tablelands, entire and of themselves. Queensland is the only state not utterly dominated by its capital city, and these places nestled in hills have the air of that, here for ever, undisturbed. Really, in absolute terms, they’re only as old as last Tuesday, but that how it feels.
Climbing the mountain, listening to the radio, this is the day that it feels all over, since the last day it felt all over. Labor, stalling until its launch on Sunday, is chewing away at the costings, ‘cos there ain’t much else to do. Abbott has made an education launch at a born-again Christian school that believes homos-xuality to be an abomination. These things — s-x appeal, daughters, foreign policy expertise, Jesusfreakery — it’s like watching an episode of Transformers. Ping ping ping! — all bouncing off.
Malanda, a big old dairy, a milk research centre, and a dairy experience. Another diorama, people posed stiff in metal DrizaBones look like Kraftwerk, lumpy, badly made cows.
“The milk here is pretty good,” someone tells me. Mildly lactose-intolerant like everyone in a five-kilometre radius of the GPO, so I have a caramel-malted, look for a bar, see if we can throw a vodka into it. There is no bar.
There are about four people here, and I am not sure why we are. Anne looks confused, too. But that’s the bandicoot trail, or whatever you’d call Katter’s sub-wombat wanderings. Pick up a few people where you can. Bob strides in, with that manner of his. Frowning inward lost in thought as he walks about what usury something something — and then inside springs open and smiling like a magician’s bunch of flowers.
You know there used to be a 150 milk scientists in this state. Now? Twenty-five he tells the student working part-time running the shakes machine, who does not look like she is planning to spend her life on milk.
Four women at a table. Bob knows the husband of one of them. So what do you ladies do? “We’re midwives.”
Anne pales as Bob launches into a long story about funding the local hospital and how it was saved, as Anne hovers expecting him to lurch into forceps war stories at any minute. “Bob, we’ve got to go!”
They love him here, and the milk tastes sweet, but it’s about the best run he will get all day.Mareeba, 1pm
The Mareeba, well, everything club, out on the backblocks of the town, nothing like the charm of the Hambledon, which is saying something. Bob works the very big room, which is organised around some sort of vast arrangement of bain-maries, with gloopy pasta simmering away, meats with a thick carpet of gravy right across them. Gotta love a carvery.
Young families in leather armchairs near the squawking keno TV, Bob slides in to a spare seat, Anne fumes as the people he was supposed to meet — a table over there of concerned citizens — watch him whiling away the minutes on this side of the room.
Yeah, you know our number-two Senate candidate here, he bought a tractor in the States, but he couldn’t do the finance over there, which would have given him 0.4% finance, but you know he had to get it over here and because Costello had jacked up the dollar, we’ve had 20 years of these know-nothings jack up the dollar — he had to do it over at 4%. A thousand percent higher! Cackle.
That’s story chunk 12a in my notes. He’d used it in the Hambledon, and a part of it at the Sikh temple. But how had he got into it here? I didn’t hear the lead-in. Did he jump in immediately, or was there some intro?
He has a conversational hinterland, Bob, but not much, a thin coastal strip of pleasantries before you hack into the mountains of rural economic nationalism. He has about 50 or 60 bits — though more at his fingertips, in his two full briefcases of notes, carried everywhere, which look like he has printed out all of Google — and there are about 20 or 30 in high use.
Stories and stats on milk prices, copper production, the jacked-up dollar, Do you want to live in a country which in five years’ time will produce none of its own cars no steel no electric motors? (pause) Ethanol! (pause) Tony Abbott — I don’t mean to be mean about Tony, but he’s a goose says — we’re going to be the food bowl of Asia. We won’t even be able to feed ourselves! We’ve got the largest river system in Australia, the Mitchell up here, we don’t even have a farm on it. A steaming bain-marie of thoughts, pile your plate high.
These all come up again at the meeting, another group of interested citizens gathered, a less Anglo, very European crowd, Greek and Balkan and Italian faces from the people who’ve been here for decades, having swapped bitter rice for sugar and bananas.
But this crowd is also a little less tractable than the last, less focused. All over the place. There’s roads of course, and foreign ownership, the duopoly. But there’s also TV reception — “no signal no signal no signal half the night” — Anne, will you make a note to check the reception where Betty’s from? and quite possibly climb her roof and adjust the aerial — and the Aquis mega-resort planned for north of Cairns, which Bob wants but over which some people talk like Greens about rich people getting what they want and bypassing planning processes, and it’s a completely understandable angst at a region changing from primary production to the routinised servility of tourism, a deep-seated feeling that such activities should not be at the centre of a community’s life.
Bob switches it all deftly. Now look, I was going to say something about the freedom agenda and why we’re not running so strongly on that. The freedom stuff, standard things about guns — Tony Abbott — I don’t mean to rubbish Tony, but I couldn’t believe he signed onto gun control — and though he’s talking about rolling back that part of politics, it’s a way of talking people around from the wrong sort of regulation.
Trouble is, it opens up the floodgates for long rolling complaints, a young man size of a brick shithouse talking about well, everything about banana prices and the duopoly and the corruption of politics and “free speech, we don’t have that any more, that’s gone” and then an old hennaed woman with a face like Helena Rubinstein’s, talking about her father, her family their passage to Australia, the dole, the servant problem in the ’40s, all over the place like a lactose-intolerant poop, and even Bob even Bob must eventually say Lilian, I’d like to listen more but I … I — I might rip my own head off, I supply, in my head — but I don’t have much time so we have to talk about something else.
She looks slapped, stunned. The meeting ends, half-good. He’s got ‘em, but also not. That’s the trouble with grievance politics. Hard to stop once you’ve started, bad and moreish as gloopy pasta, the carb buzz of resentment, the well-cooked raw deal.
Mt Uncle, 3pm
Mt Uncle distillery on the road back to Atherton. Distillery? The sign says. I wonder if it’s some sort of mirage brought on by the approach of the cocktail hour. (“You’re going to Mt Uncle,” said one wearied local journo at Mareeba. “Great! You can hear how wind farms cause cancer!’)
But no, it’s real. An old banana farm, rusting sheds and discarded machinery, peacocks threading their way through the teeth of old diggers and disassembled engines. Surreal as a Tanguy, an Ern Malley poem made of metal and rubber.
There’s a restaurant and bar made out of shining timbers. Once again pure hallucination? No, having got out of bananas in bulk, the Watkins family has gone into spirits, vodka and banana liquer. Now they win prizes. It’s a huge success story that Bob loves to spruik. Were he a Russian politician we’d just the hit the bar here, someone would open a litre bottle of their Iridium vodka and we’d toast each other until we hugged or someone got stabbed.
But this is Bob Katter, still the part-Lebo Christian, the bloked who egged the Beatles when they came to Briz in ‘64, so disturbed was he about the “idolatry” of Beatlemania, and so nooooooooo, it’s more cups of tea and weak coffee.
The farm manager, Robbie, comes out. It’s the big guy from the Mareeba meeting. Here he looks different, less, well, plaintive. “This guy was runner-up for young inventor of the year!” Bob says, clapping him on the shoulder. “He invented a banana bunch grabber, a whole new machine!” Bob’s a little in love with him, and why not? The guy sounds impressive.
So, against all precedent, I decide to be a journalist for a while.
“OK, so Bob you complain about Keating and Costello and free-market economics and the produce prices through the floor and the need for freight subsidies, but … surely this is testament to that? Australia couldn’t compete with Third World bulk bananas so these guys used their ingenuity, went sideways, created a new high-end product. Isn’t that comparative advantage? Isn’t that the market working?”
Robbie falters a little and Bob gets that hooded scowl he gets when the Bobologue is interrupted a little.
No, but y’see — I mean ingenuity, I mean these guys would have thought of that …
Robbie shakes his head.
“I mean, I think they would have just gone on harvesting subsidised and then overpriced bananas, and it might be a race to the bottom then. Isn’t that no so much agrarian socialism, but the socialism of fools?”
Robbie jumps up.
“Let me show you something …”
Comes back with two stylised packs of flour. It’s banana flower, as Africans have used for centuries, now produced here.
“I ran over a sack of bananas in a forklift,” Robbie says. “They’d be in the sun for literally months. It had decomposed. A spray of powder went up and I realised we could make flour. So I read about it and d’ya know Africans … “
“Wait a minute, you worked this out without knowing Africans made banana flour?”
“Yeah, Id never heard of it.”
OK now I’m impressed.
Robbie is enthused. “This product is gluten free, it’s low GI it’s great for a hundred different diseases and it’s a way of eating healthier, and I just think it’s a way of contributing to a better — ”
And see if he can make a bit of money from that and a bit of money from the bananas …
Bob hasn’t got it. Robbie’s enthused not merely about the money, but about the usefulness of the new product.
“But Bob, isn’t this the whole point? Not only is this niche, but I mean 90% of the sales will be in Northcote, Darlinghurst and West End! It’s a green product!”
Bob scowls like he’s drunk engine oil. Robbie laughs. “Yeah, he’s right.”
This is what they should be doing. Not trying to get the country to subsidise a way of life that cannot continue, a picture book of the past …
Bob arcs up that. We have the first genuine conversation.
Look, you’re right and you’re wring. Jack McEwan said we’ve got to have a realistic process, it’s got to be both …
Later Robbie will show us the banana buncher he invented for this sort of harvesting — “Cuts 14 workers down to four.” “What do the other 11 then do?” “Well, uh, half of them are backpackers …” “Well, and they partly come for the experience here, it’s part of the tourism.”
Leaving that aside, what about the other five locals surplus to requirements? “Well uh — yeah, see we’ve got to get better jobs for them.” Maybe, but they wont be jobs in Mareeba, I’m guessing.
It’s frustrating, because someone like Robbie is exactly as the myth describes a rural inventor, a native genius. But he is sucked in again and again to the politics of resentment, of envy of the idea that something has been taken away, uniquely, from country folk.
It’s a way of handing your autonomy to others, a trading off of self-reliance. Everyone is in the same banana boat as far as that goes — “You don’t know what it’s like to work for six months and then have to take what they pay you,” — yeah, 20 years freelance and I have no idea — but here it’s felt as wounded pride. Katter fights for his country, but he also feeds its notion of dependence and then makes a political movement out of satisfying.
“And then there’s the windfarm. It’ll be that ugly…’ What? Ugly as a pylon? As 30 rotting machine sheds? Or do you not simply like the sound, the distant whump whump whump of a changing world?
All the way back to AthertonI imagine Big Things. The Big Resentment, a new tourist attraction next to the Big Banana, a sort of fuzzy black cloud with eyes that kids can play. The Big Chip on the Big Shoulder, a diorama people will come to photograph.
There’s no maize — i.e. corn — at the corn festival in Atherton. As night falls and the 50 floats gear up to do a long circuit of the streets, I note that none of them really celebrate the local.
Half a century ago, these truck trays would have been laoded down with local produce, Young Farmers, piles and piles of corn ears. Now, the kids, the high schools, do Glee-re-enactments, Lady Gaga, the Blues Brothers, in the warm night, a long procession of our global obsessions and enthusiasms that happen to be in this place.
The News Corp snapper, angling for a last pic of Bob, wanting to be away, is blitzed by 15-year-old girls dressed like Lady Gaga who want to be in the paper. These people want their lives, but they want the world, too. They deserve not to be left to the tender mercies of the market, but they also need straight talk as well.
Bob Katter, who may in June next year control the Senate and the country, gives them too much of the former not enough of the latter. I have no doubt he loves this place, Queensland, Australia, to distraction. He has screwy ideas about assimilation and who would do it better or worse, but there is nothing about him that is pernicious or vicious.
He is simply still caught up in the corn festival, on the last float of the night, the man who didn’t like the Beatles, trailing a truck on which six year 10 girls in fishnets dance to Pokerface. The last time I see him he’s waving and smiling manically, local hero, local legend, man and diorama.