Bob Katter launches new political party

Yesterday’s political news was dominated by the announcement by federal independent MP Bob Katter’s announcement that he will be forming a new political party to contest the next Queensland and federal elections. Katter has imaginatively called the party “Katter’s Australian Party”.

Katter has served as an independent since 2001, when he resigned from the National Party in protest at the Coalition’s neoliberal economic policies. He had previously held Kennedy as a National since 1993 and previously was a National state MP from 1974 to 1992.

While there have been comparisons to One Nation, Katter’s position does vary from that of Pauline Hanson when she founded One Nation in 1997. For a start, Katter has demonstrated a different attitude towards the indigenous population. More significantly, Katter has served almost continuously in federal or state parliament for the last 37 years. He also has ministerial experience.

Looking at Katter’s new party website, the party’s agenda is clearly aimed at a combination of economic protectionism, anti-neoliberalism and anti-environmentalism. His policies include stopping the sale of Queensland’s electricity assets, stopping the carbon tax, reducing the power of Coles and Woolworths and allowing people the freedom to fish wherever they wish.

The combination of right-wing stances on many issues with opposition to electricity privatisation and big business confuses many political commentators used to a simpler political spectrum, but it is definitely a niche that has been lacking in Australian politics.

Since the collapse of the Democrats, the Greens have close to a monopoly on progressive minor party voters. While small parties regularly contest elections with left-wing positions, only the Greens have representation in Parliament, and now have representation in almost every parliament in the country.

On the right-wing side, it is a very different picture. One Nation dominated right-wing minor party politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s but quickly fell away. We now have social conservative parties like Family First, the Democratic Labor Party and the Christian Democratic Party, who respectively have representatives in the upper houses of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Each has dominated this niche in their own state, and the DLP will have a federal senator from July 1 after narrowly defeating Family First’s Steve Fielding.

There are another group of right-wing political parties that are largely based on opposition to environmentalism. The only one of these to have parliamentary representation is the Shooters and Fishers Party, which has two seats in the NSW Legislative Council. Other small parties in this niche include the Fishing Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Outdoor Recreation Party. They generally support gun rights, oppose marine parks, and oppose protection of the natural environment if it impinges on the ability of people to use that space. You could also include the Climate Sceptics, as most of these parties tend towards denial of climate change science.

The third group I would classify to cover groups focused primarily on immigration and nationalism. These include the remnants of One Nation, Australia First and the Australian Protectionist Party. None of these parties have parliamentary representation. You could also say that Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party has taken on much of this agenda in New South Wales.

All of these parties tend to overlap on their agenda. While the Shooters and the CDP are elected on very different platforms, they usually vote together in the NSW Parliament, with the Shooters taking social conservative stances and the CDP supporting anti-environmentalist positions.

Generally, anti-environmentalist parties’ votes are concentrated in the country, while social conservative parties tend to do better in the outer suburbs of major cities.

I think Katter has a lot of potential to slot primarily into the niche currently occupied by the Shooters, as well as expanding it to cover a broader agenda of opposition to economic rationalism. His support is also likely to be concentrated in the country.

There is certainly potential there for Katter to build up a new minor party that could become dominant amongst right-wing minor parties, but it would take a lot of work. Katter has a reasonably high profile (probably much higher in rural Queensland) but he is no Pauline Hanson. The recent NSW Legislative Council election demonstrated the power of Hanson’s celebrity. A decade after her peak she still managed 2% of the statewide vote with practically no campaign.

For Katter to have any success he will need to work hard, building local branches campaigning on the ground and finding strong candidates to run. He’s unlikely to build much momentum if he only wins seats through defections from the LNP – these people will usually lose their seats at the next election. The question is whether he will have the commitment to do this.

It would be a massive victory for his party if he gained a single seat at the 2012 Queensland state election, but I think many would see this as a failure and you could well see Katter lose commitment to the idea of the political party if it doesn’t have an immediate payoff. Katter is now 66 and may not have the time to wait until he is in his 70s to see a real payoff. It will also be made hard for his party in Queensland due to the fact that Queensland does not have a proportional upper house. I think Katter’s best chance of gaining a seat will come in the Queensland Senate race in 2013.

If he does stick around and commit to it for a number of election cycles, I think he has got a set of political principles that could well allow a more powerful right-wing minor party develop in the way the Greens have developed on the left. The party that Katter reminds me most of is New Zealand First. New Zealand First was founded in 1993 by Winston Peters, a former minister in the National Party government. The party was based on opposition to globalisation, immigration and free trade and largely opposed to the fierce wave of economic rationalism that spread across New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s. Like Katter’s party, however, it avoided going ofter the indigenous population as a target for the party. While NZF now lacks any representation in the New Zealand Parliament, for a long time it was the clear third party and Peters has been a very influential figure in New Zealand politics.

The real question is whether Katter’s effort will move all of the small right-wing minor parties closer to forming a more significant national force that can compete with Labor, the Coalition and the Greens. This would have an interesting influence on the balance in the party system, but it would also put more pressure on Australian politics to see electoral reform, with minor parties on both sides of the spectrum suffering from the unfairness of the current single-member electoral system.