When Shane Knuth defected from the Liberal-National Party to join Bob Katter’s newly formed Australian Party in October last year, he told The Sunday Mail that he could no longer tolerate being forced to support policies that ran counter to the interests of his constituency. “True democracy,” said the member for Dalrymple, meant representing the views of the electorate.

A speech Knuth made in May last year gives an indication of what he believes is at stake. “When I was first elected member for Charters Towers in 2004, Moranbah was a town that thrived on a deep sense of community involvement and social participation,” he told state parliament. “The whole town was involved in whatever was happening. But the mining boom saw a massive increase in a non-residential workforce which has resulted in a decline in social interaction and community participation.” Knuth called on the government to oppose current plans for a 100% fly-in fly-out workforce at the Caval Ridge mine.

As the Mackay Daily Mercury reported in September, the plan went ahead regardless:

Queensland Mining Communities president and Moranbah Action Group chairwoman Kelly Vea said yesterday’s announcement was a “slap in the face” for the region. “Our community has donated hundreds of hours to being a constructive stakeholder in this process … and it is clear the government has simply acted as a rubber stamp for BMA’s $50 billion money tree in the Caval Ridge Mine.”

The state election campaign in Queensland has exposed sharp discrepancies between the views of the major parties and those of the people they purport to represent. Major parties are cumbersome vehicles, of course. They have to incorporate a wide spectrum of opinion within their own ranks while conveying a unified message to the public, and to maintain a consistent set of agendas in rapidly changing circumstances. Any contradictory signs, any veering from the declared line on a major issue, becomes grounds for attack from the opposition.

In this atmosphere, being on message is largely an exercise in avoidance: of issues that may be problematic, language that may offend, views that may conflict with the agreed position. In policy terms, it is easier to attack than to advocate. Once a significant policy has been declared, it is up for challenge from all directions and can become a liability, potentially fatal to the party’s chances at the next election. For a party member to make a statement in contravention of the established policy position is not free speech but a form of treachery.

Last week, Knuth once again found himself compelled to speak out against his party, but at least he had the freedom to do so. His problem this time round was not an intractable policy environment, but one so volatile it was taking impulsive lurches in unpredictable directions — in this case, Bob Katter’s decision to release a campaign advertisement caricaturing gay marriage. Along with Darren Hunt (representative for Cairns), Damian Byrnes (Mulgrave), and Brendan Fitzgerald (Barron River), Knuth voiced his unhappiness about the advertisement publicly.

These four have in common a strong commitment to community and social welfare. Hunt is a former police officer who has been a director of emergency services, Byrnes is a medical practitioner with experience in the reserve defence forces, Fitzgerald has a focus on mental health, disability and child protection, and Knuth was shadow communities and disabilities minister during his time with the Liberal-National Party.

The biographies of the 73 candidates standing for Katter’s Australian Party display an impressive array of qualifications and experience, and some surprising examples of principle-based boundary crossing. Will Keys (Ipswich) is a former general manager at Coles Myer who “finds it completely irresponsible for our governments to allow 85% of the retail dollar to be channelled through two corporations”. Peter Pyke (Toowoomba North), a former state Labor MP, believes that the major parties can no longer operate according to genuine democratic principles.

Democracy is a recurrent keyword in the candidates’ statements, and the issues that unite them include opposition to the sale of state assets, opposition to the Coles/Woolworths retail duopoly, commitment to transport infrastructure that serves remote areas and to regional hospitals and schools, the revival of local industry and agriculture, a moratorium on coal-seam gas mining, and restrictions on foreign investment. These concerns are widely shared in the electorate and the two major parties have manifestly failed to respond to them convincingly.

*Read the rest of the article at Inside Story

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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