GERARD HENDERSON June 19, 2012
Illustration: David Rowe
You've got to take your hat off to him. Bob Katter, the independent MP for Kennedy, now has the most famous hat in Australian politics, which he uses to create attention and promote an idiosyncratic style.
Katter was a hit at the Sydney Writers' Festival where he was interviewed by Kevin Rudd about his recently released book An Incredible Race of People: A Passionate History of Australia (Pier 9).
The author has also received a number of soft interviews about his book. The only angst has occurred when interviewers wanted to talk to Katter about his opposition to same-sex marriage - a topic which is not covered in his tome.
This is understandable, in a way. After all, it's easier to confront Katter about previous bouts of apparent homophobia than to wade through close to 450 pages of his take on Australian history. Opening An Incredible Race of People is akin to walking past the statistics stacks at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library only to have the entire contents collapse on top of you.
Katter's political bible is a rambling document replete with figures which are scattered about randomly. Yet the author's thesis is clear enough. Katter wants a highly regulated and protected economy. In short, Katter wants to take the nation back to where it was in the 1920s.
The newly formed Bob Katter's Australian Party was successful in this year's Queensland state election. It won two seats and has a good chance of gaining a Senate seat at the next federal election.
At a time of continuing international economic instability, the message in An Incredible Race of People is inherently dangerous. In this case, you can judge a book by its heroes. Katter's heroes are Ted Theodore (treasurer in the Scullin government from October 1929 until July 1930 and from January 1931 until January 1932), Ben Chifley (Labor prime minister from July 1945 until December 1949) and Jack McEwen (Country Party deputy prime minister from December 1958 until February 1971).
According to Katter, ''Chifley's was a prime ministership without a peer''. Yet Chifley was a democratic socialist who attempted unsuccessfully to nationalise the private trading banks. If he had had his way, Chifley would have introduced a 1950s British-style socialism and cradle-to-grave welfare.
Katter believes that McEwen had a ''profoundly positive impact on the development of Australian industries and economy''. He praises the widespread protectionism that was a feature of Australian life in the 1950s and 1960s and comments that ''much of the clothes and footwear'' that Australians ''wore and the cars that they drove were Australian made''. And so they were. But clothing, footwear and vehicles were prohibitively expensive.
And then there is Theodore.
An Incredible Race of People contains many factual errors. For example, the author misunderstands the conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, the background to the Labor Split of the 1950s, the defection of the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov in Australia in 1954 and more besides.
However, the most serious howler in Katter's book turns on his coverage of the Great Depression.
Katter believes that if Theodore remained treasurer of a Labor government he would have introduced an F.D. Roosevelt-style New Deal in Australia marked by big spending funded by big borrowing. On the contrary, in 1931 Theodore supported the contractionary and economically responsible Premiers' Plan.
According to Katter, the failure to follow what he believes was Theodore's economic agenda led to a situation where the Depression in Australia was ''probably worse off than that of any other country''. This leads him to describe Joseph Lyons, Australia's prime minister from January 1932 until his death in office in April 1939, as ''dead wrong''.
Not so. As recent studies of the period demonstrate, Australia and Britain, where contractionary policies were followed, recovered more quickly from the Great Depression than the United States under FDR's New Deal. As Amity Shlaes documents in The Forgotten Man, the US in 1937 had a ''depression within the Depression''. Australia and Britain, on the other hand, recovered gradually through the 1930s. This explains why Lyons was re-elected in 1934 and 1937. The Australian electorate is not stupid.
In glorifying Theodore, Katter whitewashes his involvement in the Mungana affair, stemming from his time as a senior Labor politician in Queensland in the 1920s. As K.H. Kennedy demonstrated in his book The Mungana Affair, Theodore was corrupt in that he benefited from the sale of over-priced assets to the Queensland government.
B.H. McPherson, in The Supreme Court of Queensland 1959-1960, wrote that it ''is impossible now for a rational doubt to survive as to Theodore's part in the [Mungana] venture''.
Reading Katter's book you would get the impression that Australia has one of the worst performing economies in the world. In fact, due primarily to the economic reforms of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, Australia's economic performance is among the best of the OECD nations.
Katter wants to substantially increase protection in manufacturing and rural industries and to restrict foreign investment in the mining sector. This would be counterproductive. In any event, it is not clear what problem Katter wants to overcome. As the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, commented in Adelaide recently, ''the respective shares of mining and manufacturing in Australia's GDP at present are almost where they were in 1900''.
The lesson from An Incredible Race of People is to beware (hatted) protectionists selling economic snake-oil.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.
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