Still Fighting the Frontier Wars

Claims to care about ‘our First Australians’ reveal a virulent white supremacy

The Kennedy federal electorate stretches from the Coral Sea at Innisfail westwards past the Gulf of Carpentaria to Mount Isa, the Barkley Tablelands and the Northern Territory border. It’s the home of thousands of Aboriginal people. The seat is occupied by Bob Katter of Katter’s Australian Party (KAP). Overlaying the federal seat of Kennedy are three Queensland state electorates—Traeger, Hill and Hinchinbrook—which are also represented by the KAP, the vast state seat of Traeger being held by Robbie Katter, the party president.

At the time of the 1967 referendum, which addressed long-overdue constitutional reform with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the incumbent federal member for Kennedy was Bob Katter Senior. Katter Sr was a member of the Country Party, later to become the National Party. He was the father of the current member, Bob Katter, and grandfather of Robbie Katter. In 1967 Bob Katter Sr spoke in Parliament in support of constitutional reform in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs:

I rise tonight not to sing any sanctimonious hallelujahs, but merely to say that at long last another step is being taken to give these people appropriate status. In my town we simply live with these people. I am 48 years old and I have been associated with them all my life. I have been to school with them, grown up with them and mixed with them. Psychologically we can never see any difference. This may sound a little silly to people who live in the cities but it is perfectly true. At long last they are to be given the dignity of coming at least a little closer to being full citizens of this nation.

Encouraged by cross-party support from both the Liberal–Country Party Coalition government of the time and the Labor opposition, 91 per cent of electors Australia-wide voted ‘Yes’ for reform in the 1967 constitutional referendum. Many Kennedy voters were slow to let go of their worldview from the bloody past, with the remote northern electorates recording among the lowest percentage of Yes votes in Australia—75 per cent in Kennedy and 68 per cent in Leichardt, compared with a 94 per cent Yes votes in the Brisbane seats of Bowman and Ryan. In smaller area counts within Kennedy the resistance to change was even stronger. In the electoral subdivision of the remote Gulf district of Georgetown only 37 per cent voted Yes.

Fifty-six years on and a KAP media release calls the Voice to Parliament ‘paternalist’ and a ‘distraction’: ‘KAP Leader and Traeger MP Robbie Katter said the party could not support the “separatist, tokenist and paternalist” agenda sought by the Voice … our First Australians are suffering; it is the ultimate distraction’. The expression ‘our First Australians’ is regarded as offensive by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but not in Katter country, apparently.

Taking a thoroughly Orwellian approach, KAP’s ‘Newspeak’ produces a twisted white supremacist discourse that easily forgets the killing times and the destruction of Aboriginal knowledge, as well as the ongoing extinctions of flora and fauna, the failing river systems and dying coral reefs, the depredations of the cane toad and the cat. The media release continues:

The events of our past have seen us, the Australian people, build one of the most successful civilisations the world has ever known,’ Mr Katter said … We must use an understanding of our past, good and bad, to move forward and continue to build prosperity, security and the Australian way of life for generations to come.

The inference is that Aboriginal society had to wait for white settlement for ‘one of the most successful civilisations’ to be built—a tired old slur, reiterated by former prime minister John Howard only recently. KAP urges Aboriginal people to ‘understand’ the arrival of the invaders and put it behind them, to ‘move forward and continue to build prosperity’. In North Queensland it is the building and service industries that get rich constructing and running the ever-expanding billion-dollar gaols in Townsville and Mareeba, which are full with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children. As the Queensland Statistician’s office reports,

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 12 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous Australians in 2021 … Rates of juvenile incarceration are also high, with Indigenous children accounting for some 70% of detainees across most of Queensland, and over 90% in the state’s north.

Longstanding grievances ‘serve only to divide us’, says KAP, as if stuck in a bell chamber with Pauline Hansen. But the qualities of Newspeak are perhaps best seen in the following:

We are not convinced that the Voice to Parliament—and the ensuing arguments around Treaty, sovereignty and self-determination are occurring in the spirit of unity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Instead, these agendas serve only to divide us and the KAP will not participate in that. [my emphasis]

Instead of taking up the Voice to Parliament, KAP parades a miserly ‘five-point policy for urgently addressing quality of life, employment and health outcome issues for Queensland’s Indigenous citizens’. In the time-honoured tactic employed by the powerful against the weak, it takes control of the policy planning process and jumps straight to the very bottom of the agenda, where it misrepresents a handful of cherry-picked activities as a coherent policy. In doing so it skips past the stages usually regarded as fundamental for successful planning—the higher-order planning tasks such as the proper negotiation of power relationships and the terms of engagement of the planning participants. Who has standing and a ‘voice’ at the planning table? Who is planning for whom? Who has power and control to make policy? KAP’s policies are carefully crafted to avoid any clash with the regional landed elites who now own what was once Aboriginal land and who loathe having their authority challenged.

By contrast, the Uluru Statement from the Heart seeks

constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

Speaking in favour of not only a Voice to Parliament but a voice to the Executive, Aboriginal leader Pat Anderson has said that she won’t be begging any more: ‘Whatever happens, I am not begging … we have to go back and justify, to explain who we are for goodness sake to every new government, to every new bureaucrat’. KAP’s approach to policy planning evokes the begging style so despised by Anderson, which has continually failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and which inspired the push for the Voice to Parliament in the first place. Lurking behind its rickety planning architecture is the age-old coded message from the ‘Protector of Aborigines’: ‘we know what’s good for you’. This is paternalism.

At the same time as KAP declares the Voice to Parliament unnecessary and divisive it unashamedly uses the power of its own voice, in this case via its website, to valorise pioneer ‘heroes’ from the killing times. The Kennedy Development Road runs through the middle of the Kennedy electorate. Some in the local population have battled to get it properly sealed but in doing so have also sought to name it the ‘Hann Highway’ after the murderous, pioneering Hann brothers.

The Hann family were pioneer pastoralists in the days of early white settlement in North Queensland. Today, outside the town limits of regional cities and towns like Hughenden, Charters Towers and Mount Garnett there are almost no Aboriginal people resident in the ‘Hann Highway’ area. Their populations, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, were decimated by systematic killing, recorded in the Frank Hann diaries among other places, and forcibly removed to places like Doomadgee, Mornington Island, Palm Island and Townsville. Outside these towns there is usually nowhere for Aboriginal people to live, because their traditional lands are now large cattle stations owned by the descendants of the original invaders or companies from far-afield centres of capital such as Melbourne, Cape Town, London, Shanghai or the Cayman Islands.

Frank Hann and his brother William were actively involved in the murder and mutilation of Aboriginal people, as well as in taking them as slaves, displacing them from their country and taking their property. Timothy Bottoms in his Conspiracy of Silence provides documented evidence:

An old gulf prospector, John Tim Swann, wrote in December 1891: ‘I seen Hann chain up a gin to a tree one leg on each side of the tree then a pair of handcuffs on her ancles [sic] for being too long out looking for horses. I went and looked at her the ants were running all over her person and his favourite gin pleaded for her release … after two hours she was liberated.’ … Previously, in 1880, Hann recorded how, about 240 kilometres west of the Queensland border, he; ‘caught Ophal the gin here’ on Cresswell Creek.

Emily Caroline Creaghe, who was staying at Riversleigh station—a Gulf station neighbouring Frank Hann and Jack Watson’s Lawn Hill station—recalled an anecdote heard in 1883: ‘Mr Watson (of Lawn Hill) has forty pairs of blacks’ ears nailed round the walls collected during raiding parties after the loss of many Cattle speared by the blacks’. In his diary, Frank Hann describes riding past a conical hill on his property called, for 150 years, ‘Nigger’s Bounce’. The meaning is clear enough. The Hann brothers were responsible for ‘Nigger’s Bounce’ getting its name. Only in very recent years has it been renamed. Change can be slow to come in Kennedy.

Many Aboriginal people find this celebration of the Hanns grotesque. ‘Hann Highway’ is still not an official government name for the road, but the KAP emblazons it across its website anyway. Its highway naming project is a declaration of how the Hanns and regional history will continue to be asserted and imagined—as being free of any entanglements with murder, mutilation, slavery, land theft and genocidal activity. Inconvenient truths are being consigned to Orwell’s ‘memory hole’.

KAP’s ‘Hann Highway’ proposal might appear a trivial case of regional politicians cynically dog-whistling to their voting base. But it has real-life consequences. This discourse of the denial of settler barbarism suits the land owners and encourages the myth of terra nullius to continue, one of the consequences being that local Aboriginal people, decades after the Mabo judgement, are often excluded from traditional Country and still struggle to exercise their rights on the pastoral estates of North Queensland. It’s precisely this type of grotesque manifestation of settler power that provides the impetus for Truth-telling and the Voice to Parliament: it is the history of their stolen lands, the challenge to their sovereignty and the killing times that drive the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander claims for a Voice to Parliament. Again from the Uluru Statement:

We seek a Makarrata Commission … supervising a process of agreement-making and overseeing a process of truth-telling … a process that allows the full extent of the past injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be uncovered and revealed. Such a process would allow all Australians to understand our history and assist in moving towards genuine reconciliation.

Bob Katter Jr was Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs in the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government, which was still symbolically fighting the frontier wars and protecting settlers’ opportunities for profit taking in the 1970s and 80s. It threw millions of dollars at expensive legal cases, resisting movements for change in the twentieth century—for sovereignty, self-determination, the Mabo judgement, and the debunking of terra nullius. Katter was emphatic in the lead-up to the Mabo decision that Cabinet introduce and pass the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985, which sought to extinguish native title retrospectively and without compensation. In 1987, he said that this was a critical ‘constitutional action not only in the Torres Strait but possibly throughout mainland communities’. The loss would ‘threaten the sovereignty of the State over the lands, sea-bed and reef areas of Queensland as well as raise the question of compensation’.

Kennedy voted Yes in 1967, but it was a notable foot-dragger. Philosophically KAP is still stuck where it was sixty years ago, despite the more generous perspective of Katter Sr. It is as if once Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were ‘let in’ as citizens and ‘equals’, no other outstanding business remained to be settled—no Treaty, no question of sovereignty, no Voice, no debts to be paid for stolen land or people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still expected to swallow the bitter pill of assimilation—let’s all be just one (nation) and move on.

How Kennedy will vote when the Voice referendum day comes around seems clear enough. KAP is responding to its imagined voting base and doing what’s required to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people stay disempowered, including supporting the naming of highways after William and Frank Hann. It will continue to give voice to the pastoralists and their fellow travellers, influencing how the frontier wars should be remembered and how our present and future should be imagined.

About the author

Brian Burkett

Brian Burkett is an independent researcher and writer based in Townsville. His research and interests are currently directed towards examining the workings of power, discourse, race and exclusion in rural and regional Australia.

More articles by Brian Burkett

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