Sugaring the poll

Throughout the life of the Howard Government, the threat of a rural revolt has been the dog that never quite barked. It was widely predicted that One Nation would sweep all before them in National Party heartland in 2001 as well as 1998, and when the Government’s failure to have sugar included as a component of the United States Free Trade Agreement became apparent in February it was feared there might be a localised backlash in the key electoral battleground of Queensland. The sugar-growing areas of this state mostly have a history as Coalition strongholds but have become dangerously unpredictable over recent state and federal elections, and National-turned-independent member for Kennedy Bob Katter has made little secret of his desire to exploit the situation. As a trial run he promoted five independent candidates at the February 2004 state election with extremely limited success, the only candidate to score 20 per cent having done almost as well without Katter’s help at the previous election. By May, Katter was taking a slightly different tack, threatening to form his own party to damage the Coalition not by winning seats on its own account, but by cutting a deal where his candidates would direct preferences to Labor provided they blocked the FTA. This could well have delivered Labor the marginal seats of Herbert and Hinkler, and at least raised the possibility of upsets in Dawson, Leichhardt and Wide Bay.

Labor of course did not block the FTA (or at least it does not appear that this is what it has done), and in any case Katter says he has had to limit his ambitions due to "lack of finances". Another reason might be fear of losing his own seat, it being quite common for voters to drift back to their natural major party after flirting with independents. Paul Daley of The Australian reported last week that internal polling showed Kennedy "again within the Nationals’ grasp"; one person who thinks differently is Martin Tenni, north Queensland party executive member and former Bjelke-Petersen Government minister, whose letter to state president Terry Bolger reporting "one thing is definite, we cannot win Kennedy" was leaked to The Australian. Whatever the reason, Katter is not forming a new party and will endorse only four independents, one of whom will run in the far-away Victorian seat of Murray where Liberal member Sharman Stone is unlikely to face sleepless nights.

Last Friday Katter unveiled Lars Hedberg as his candidate for Wide Bay, held by Warren Truss for the National Party. Much of the coverage focused on the response of Katter’s sparring partner, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, who ridiculed Hedberg for owning a McDonald’s franchise. Pretending not to have noticed the difference between the agrarian socialism and the campus left, Boswell said it was "hypocrisy" for such a person to run on a "platform of anti-globalisation". It is hard to imagine Hedberg seriously troubling Truss on his own account, but his candidacy could complicate things in a seat that is less secure than its 9.9 per cent margin makes it appear, having swung 10 per cent to the Nationals in 1996, 15 per cent to Labor in 1998 and 8 per cent back to the Nationals in 2001. Only one of the two other Queensland seats targeted by Katter has been identified, that being De-Anne Kelly’s seat of Dawson. Here it is expected that his seal of approval will go to Margaret Menzel, wife of former state National Party MP Max Menzel and co-ordinator of the Sugar Industry Reform Committee.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.