Australian government faces new setback

CANBERRA, Australia, AP

The conservative government’s re-election hopes took another blow Sunday when a maverick lawmaker said its support in rural areas is collapsing and he will run as an independent.

Bob Katter, a member of the federal parliament, said the government’s economic deregulation policies had been a disaster for rural districts with the collapse of many businesses. He said there was a drift in the countryside to independent candidates that would devastate the government in its traditional rural strongholds.

“There is a huge, ugly situation for the government” in rural areas, Katter told Nine Network television.

“They are going to be dealt a terrible blow outside the capital cities,” he added.

Katter said he would formally announce on Monday that he was leaving the National Party to run as an independent in national elections expected in November or December. The Nationals are the junior party in the government coalition with the Liberal Party.

Katter has long been openly critical of government policies and his defection had been expected.

A Newsweek poll published on Saturday showed government support in marginal seats had slumped from 36 percent to 32 percent. Support for the main opposition Labor Party remained steady at 44 percent in the marginal seats, it said.

The government must hold a significant number of marginal seats to have any chance of winning a third term. The poll did not provide a margin of error.

The government has been battered since the start of the year by poor opinion polls and a series of defeats in local elections. Voters are angry about high fuel prices, a new sales tax and what they see as government arrogance and indifference.

Katter said the government’s deregulation policies, designed to spur competition, were hurting farmers and rural industries. He called for help for farmers.

“Change their policies or there will be many, many more prices that you have to pay for a continuation of these stupid, ridiculous policies inflicting so much pain on people that have really just done nothing wrong,” Katter said.

The government tried on Sunday to play down Katter’s defection, saying he would not win re-election as an independent in his Queensland state seat. Industry Minister Nick Minchin said Katter had long been operating as an independent, so his defection came as no surprise.

Minchin rejected Katter’s complaint that the pace of economic reform and rationalism was too fast.

“To try to say to the world ‘please stop, we want to get off, to go the Albanian route or the Cuban route,’ is simply not an option,” he said.