Bob Katter’s ‘An Incredible Race of People A Passionate History of Australia’ (2012)

What better souvenir of a trip to northern Australia could there be than this book, a present from a kind friend? Bob Katter is the MP for a remote electorate in the outback where people look at things in a different way from city folk and preserve values that were once more widespread in Australian society than they are now. It needs to be said that, despite its title, this book does not serve as an introduction to Australian history. It has hardly anything to say on the early period (Ned Kelly appears as early as page 11), relies on anecdotes, is heavily biased towards Queensland, and is driven by the interests of the author, to the exclusion of other things. This said, it is a most interesting book.

Katter devotes considerable attention to the Great Depression, arguing that a failure of governments to spend money and a misguided loyalty to Britain made its impact in Australia far more serious than it need have been. The theme of Australia being used by Britain becomes stronger in the account of World War II, in which it is argued that Australian troops serving far from home supported the British interest rather than that of their home country; a powerful account is given of the campaign along the Kokoda Trail, which is far more prominent than Gallipoli in Katter’s telling of Australian history. We then move on to the rise of Australian industry, exemplified by the development of the Holden car (here it is the USA that is cast as a villain), the achievement of the Thiess family and the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Jack McEwen, a leader of the Country Party who exercised great influence during the Prime Ministership of Robert Menzies, is praised, and a very positive evaluation of ‘the house that giants built’ is offered, that stands against many negative interpretations of the Menzies era (p. 293f). But Lilliputians were to follow, among them Gough Whitlam and a series of Liberal leaders, while the name Tim Fischer is absent from the book’s index. Under them the economy was deregulated as support for a free market became taken for granted (my father called Paul Keating the best Liberal Prime Minister Australia ever had.) As government support for industries was run down, manufacturing and farming experienced massive declines. Against this unpleasant contemporary reality, Katter sets the nature of the Australian people.

It’s hard not to warm to Bob Katter, a man of unexpected friendships and loyalties who calls his mates by nicknames. One also admires the larger than life characters who used to live in this country, many of them in the bush. While Katter’s vision may be touched by xenophobia, it seems utterly free of racism. He confronts us with a set of values that has been lost; we hear the voice of the shires crying out against the city (when did Sydney cease to be called the Big Smoke?), and, metaphorically, the fringe crying out against what has become central. Katter reminds us of values in public policy and society that were largely taken for granted until a few decades ago and fit neither the current right nor the left. Inevitably, Katter sits in the Parliament as an independent (it is safe to predict that the political party he has formed has no future.) Rather than as a piece of history, his book stands as a statement of some of the values that have underwritten the history of this country that are worthy of more than nostalgia.

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