In the good old days of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, it was not unusual for the civil authorities in Queensland to take a creative approach to public order-and-law enforcement, in the process sometimes overstepping the boundaries of proper conduct. In Mount Isa, dominated as it is by the Katter family, nothing much has changed, as James Newburrie has discovered.
Newburrie seems an unlikely candidate for the role of Katter’s scourge, but in recent days he’s managed to land more punches on Bob and his son and heir, Robbie, than seasoned politicians who’ve been trying their entire lives.
Newburrie is a modest man. A self-confessed nerd who “could program a Commodore 64 before I could tie my own shoelaces”, he’s now an IT security specialist for a major mining company. A former Liberal who resigned when Tony Abbott became leader. Most surprising of all, a former Katter voter.
He now says he was duped: on his way to vote, he asked one of Hat Man’s aides how Katter felt about gay marriage. After calling the man himself, the aide assured Newburrie that “Mr Katter is all for civil liberty”.
“I hope Mr Katter had a good laugh about my gullibility,” says Newburrie, whose sole claim to fame, until recently, was dressing as Lady Gaga in a bid to win tickets to her concert.
“I do not do drag,” he told me, “but for Lady Gaga I was prepared to get photos.” Yes, James is gay.
Bob Katter is not. Nor does he like gays very much. He doesn’t seem to like Parliament very much either, rarely turning up to vote. But he made the effort when Labor amended 84 laws that discriminated against gay couples. He voted against.
He once famously said ”I would walk from Brisbane to Bourke backwards if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001%” — a challenge James is happy to call him on, though in view of Katter’s age, he won’t insist he faces backwards all the way.
James was prepared to overlook, or at least, tolerate all of this. But on August 16, something changed.
“I saw Mr Katter auction his hat to raise money for an organisation which is defending NSW laws that allow schools to kick kids out just for being gay,” he said, fuming. “I saw him auction off his hat and say, essentially in my name, that gay people do not deserve respect and are worthy of ridicule. And that made me so incredibly angry …
“I just think we should get Mr Katter in front of the news cameras to apologise for a career of vilifying homos-xuals.”
Carl Katter, Bob’s gay half-brother, was equally incensed, despite the family connection.
“I spent Christmases with his family and grew up with his children, but when it comes to a choice between honesty and integrity and some kind of notion of family, it’s pretty obvious which one takes precedence,” said Carl. “The kind of behaviour that was undertaken at that rally was a whole new low. He went too far.
“I was shocked by it, I just couldn’t believe that was allowed to be held in the Great Hall of our Parliament.”
Like Carl, Newburrie believes Katter has blood on his hands for creating and reinforcing attitudes that lead some young gays and lesbians, especially in rural areas, to despair of ever being accepted, and to take their own lives. So to bring it home to the “outback hero”, Newburrie decided to organise a rally for equal marriage on the street opposite Katter’s constituency office in Mount Isa.
That’s when the ghost of Sir Joh rose and smote him.
Mount Isa City Council at first refused to even process James’s application, and continues to place obstacles in his way — most of them unsupported by the relevant legislation, The Peaceful Assemblies Act (1992).
They demanded an exact location: James gave them a map and GPS co-ordinates. They demanded public liability insurance, which is not available to individuals (and not a legal requirement): The Australian S-x Party stepped in to auspice the rally using its insurance.
Party leader Fiona Patten — who campaigned for the Senate in the last general election under the arresting slogan “Elect a MILF” — said she hoped the event was a great success and that it brought home to the Katters that there is support — even in Mount Isa — for changes to the Marriage Act.
The law allows the council to impose conditions on James, but only with his consent. Otherwise both parties must go before a magistrate for mediation. Would they seek a court order, Newburrie asked?
The council backed down and confirmed it would not, “unless we become concerned that [the event] may pose a risk to public safety”.
“One might almost think the council were trying to restrict my democratic freedom of assembly,” joked Newburrie, continuing to reject its demands. The police issued a permit without demur.
Now the council insists the rally cannot be held on council land — despite allowing NAIDOC week celebrations in front of the town hall, and the “Convoy Of No Confidence” on council roads.
Addressing the full council on Tuesday, Newburrie said: “For the moment, I am not suggesting that [MICC CEO] Mr Pratap’s reputed deeply held religious convictions are clouding his judgment.” He then went on to suggest it might be a good idea if all council officials, including the CEO, took a refresher course on the requirements of the Peaceful Assemblies Act.
Councillor Robbie Katter, Bob’s son, did not appear to enjoy the speech. He has previously told the local paper he thinks gay marriage “bizarre”, but “that doesn’t mean I’m resentful or have any dislike for gays”.
“He threw down his pen and appeared most indignant,” said Newburrie. That was probably because he had just asked the council to censure Robbie’s dad. “I was interrupted by the mayor, a lot, which as the chair is his right. In the end he did gavel me off before I finished.”
The rally will go ahead this Sunday from 11am on the footpath on Simpson Street, near Grace Street, opposite Bob Katter’s office.
“I would be astonished if more than 20 people turn up,” says Newburrie, joking that in the end it might just be “one short guy with a sign”.
“With some clear exceptions — Ali Hogg of Equal Love Victoria, Equal Love Brisbane, Michael James of the Adshel Campaign, the Victorian Anti-Violence Project , Rodney Croome, and a few others — gay advocacy organisations don’t want to get involved,” he said.
Carl Katter, while he fully supports James, won’t be in Mt Isa either. Too many bad things happened to him there.
“Mt Isa is the one place I never want to go back to,” he said, “It has bad memories for me.”
James Newburrie, a modest, honest and courteous man, armoured with the knowledge that what he is doing is right and necessary, will take his stand opposite Katter’s office Sunday, even if he has to do it alone.
He’s determined to do what he can to bring an end to the culture — exemplified by Bob Katter — that allows and encourages the “bad things” that happen to gays and lesbians in Mt Isa, and far too many other rural and regional towns.
There may be few who will dare stand with this one man. But only a fool would stand against him — the one in the office across the road.