Interview with Drew Pavlou Part 2: Bob Katter, the Left & Student Protest
TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE & VIOLENCE
Earlier this year, the On Dit team interviewed student activist, controversial firebrand, and former University of Queensland Senator Drew Pavlou. In part two of the interview Drew discussed: his comradery with controversial firebrand Member of Parliament Bob Katter; his thoughts about the state of Left-wing politics today; navigating alliances/cooperation across the political spectrum; and the importance of protest and student activism.
How did a young radical university student like you find such a strong alliance with rural conservative Bob Katter of all people?
This is the thing that’s very underrated about Katter, he’s very radical in his own way, people don’t realise that he’s one of the most left-wing members of Parliament when it comes to economic matters. He’s the only member to my knowledge, from either chamber of Parliament, to call for a royal commission into the free market in Australia. We’ve discussed these matters and he’s said that he would back Bernie Sanders in America. Talking to me he referred to himself as on the hard-left, the old hard-left, in contrast to what he calls the ‘lilypad-left’ which I think is his term for tree-tory types, like inner-city nimbies who claim to be very left-wing but when push comes to shove advocate for the free-market and want to protect their privileges in the current economy.
So, Bob is quite radical in his own way which people don’t actually really get because he’s said, as well done, things that have left him with his foot in his mouth a couple of times. At the end of the day he is an old bloke from rural North Queensland. He’s going to be socially conservative and I don’t expect him to have read 700 pages of radical queer and gender theory, I don’t think anyone can really expect that of him but in his own way he tries his best. He’s turned away from his past comments about homosexuality and stuff like that, he’s a big-time supporter of First Nations Australians. I know from talking with his office that Bob and Lidia Thorpe, a First Nations senator from Victoria who is one of the most radical voices in Parliament, are having a dinner soon to talk about how they can work together on First Nations issues. Bob’s always been one of the biggest supporters of First Nations, and he’s honest when he says this, he’s like the old time hard-left. He doesn’t really have much time for virtue-signalling, nor has he extensively read critical theory. He also doesn’t have time for the arcane nature of university style debates.
I have, however, seen him promote a post-colonial text in the media with a title something like ‘Why White Australians Can Never Help Black Australia’. But that being said, he doesn’t go around saying burn down this racist, piece of shit colony, he doesn’t go around burning the Australian flag, he doesn’t say ‘pay the rent’ or whatever because he’s not versed in the cultural language coming out of the universities. What he cares about is though, at a fundamental level, the material standards of First Nations Australians and working-class Australians, so he’s really in the old left as opposed to the new left.
That’s why I am able to work with him, because he is radical in his own way, a way most people don’t recognise or appreciate. It’s easy to see the caricature of Katter and everyone has seen some of his more dumb statements where he’s said some stuff that was pretty ‘how are you going’. But, at a core level I think he is quite radical in his own way.
Do you think there is much camaraderie and compatibility between your more libertarian socialism and the traditional agrarian socialism of Katter party?
I think there can be. That’s something other people on the left have not appreciated before. Other people on the political left have not realised that there’s scope to work together on this. I have a theory about the reason why the left has been struggling in Australia for a decade or more now, struggling in Britain for fifty years (Blair came along for a bit but he was neoliberal) and struggling in the US, even though Biden is in. I personally respect Biden, I like him because he did some good things, he had some good policies before he first came in like cutting child poverty, but at his core he’s not really on the actual left. I think the reason the left has been struggling for so long is that it has become culturally alienated from the working-classes it is supposed to represent. I think it’s part of the professionalisation of these parties as they’ve become managed by this sort of managerialist class that is all university educated and have internalised this worldview.
If you want real action on left-wing issues like making industries public again, making sure no Australian is living in poverty, no more homelessness, if you want real action on these issues you have to work with people who can speak the cultural language of the working-class and that is what Bob is able to do. That is my kind of personal thesis, us on the left who really desperately want societal change. Since the ’70s we’ve been fucked by neoliberalism and we desperately want societal change because we are on a path towards fascism. If we keep this up any longer the working-class will turn towards fascist tyrants and demagogues. If the alternative is more neoliberal management, they aren’t going to vote to contain fascism. I almost see this as a life or death struggle for the left now and either we maintain our ideological purity and we continue to pursue the PR language of the progressive activist set or we look hard at ourselves and become willing to make some compromises. I’m not saying overnight abandon the LGBT community, I am not calling for that, but I’m just saying I think that the focus has to be overwhelmingly on the material concerns of workers and not these culture war issues.
That’s what the political right uses against the left; they realise their economic agenda is so overwhelmingly unpopular, no one wants to sell off these utilities, no one wants children starving, no one wants people having no healthcare. Everyone knows their fucking agenda is so unpopular so the way they try and maintain power is through culture war issues and every culture war battle they set up is always going to be on their terms. They know how to make people fearful, they know how to make people angry, they know how to make people scared — it’s a swindle because we all know it’s the billionaire class funding this stuff, people like Rupert Murdoch. Sky News, Fox News, they fund this culture war and what they’re able to make people vote against their own economic interest. They’re able to make people scared, fearful, terrified. People who are already desperate look to the left and see people burning the flag.
What symbols does the working class even have left these days? Everything has been fucking gutted. Church and faith, that’s been gutted; unions, they’ve been gutted; community, that’s been gutted. What do most people have left? The flag, and they see people on the activist left burning the flag or saying destroy the nation. They think, we’re already desperate, we’ve already lost so much over the past four decades, our wages are stagnant, there’s no hope left for us. They are burning the flag and not speaking to our economic problems.
l look at what Bob does and think about how this guy who has railed against the free market for three decades consistently wins and has a huge support base, but also has not even let on that he is actually a radical left-winger. If you spoke to most people in Queensland they would tell you that Bob Katter is conservative but he is actually in Parliament saying re-nationalise all these industries, that’s very radical. We should look to people like Bob Katter and consider how they have all these people voting for them thinking he’s conservative when in reality he has got this radical economic agenda. That’s how I think of it. I am a libertarian socialist but we should work with agrarian socialists like Bob Katter.
We should rethink our approach and consider why aren’t we connecting with ordinary working class people anymore? Why is there nothing we can do? Why can’t we stop the right’s relentless march through everything? We haven’t been able to stop them for four or five decades, so it’s time to rethink our approach. I just think of it in very resolute pragmatic terms. Look at America, people are freezing in the streets of Texas right now. In Australia we have hundreds of thousands of kids starving every year and our First Nations are living in absolutely deplorable conditions. When it comes to these life or death issues we can’t maintain ideological purity because when you do, you forsake the opportunity to change things. You just have to change things, that’s the whole reason to be on the left, you want to change society.
What did Marx say? I’m not a Marxist, but he said that up until now the point of philosophy has been to understand the world. We should be trying to change the world instead, that should be the core issue of the left — not who on campus can be the most pure and ideologically radical person screaming into the void.
How do you balance your left-wing views with your marriage of convenience with the likes of Pauline Hanson and Alan Jones?
Look I don’t agree with Pauline Hanson at all and I’ve rejected her support the one time she tried to latch on to me to increase her own popularity. I mean, we were on Sky News together. I wasn’t aware she was going to come on and she was sort of mad at me saying ‘you should thank me young man because I am backing you’. I didn’t know what to think because I didn’t want her support at all.
As for Alan, he has been very kind to me. There’s lots of things he’s said and done in the past that I strongly disagree with but he really helped me when I was in a tough situation. I was facing down a billion dollar institution, the University of Queensland, that hired internationally respected law firms out to destroy my life. There were people like Alan Jones that were willing to give me a branch and help try and avoid that catastrophic outcome.
Initially I wanted primarily to work with left-wing political parties and left-wing media. Guardian Australia was really helpful, but no one else in the left-wing media in Australia helped. I tried to reach out to the Greens, I tried to reach out to Labor. There was one Labor member Kimberly Kitching, a great person, she backed me. Also there was one Green in Queensland who backed me, Jonno Sri, a local councillor who’s very radical and is one of my favourite politicians. I didn’t have any choice at the time, I needed desperately to combat the University of Queensland’s campaign against me, they had brought in millions of dollars worth of legal resources, they were waging warfare against me. If I had been ideologically pure I would’ve told all the people who tried to help me who are right-wing to fuck off but what would’ve happened me? I would’ve been massacred, I would’ve been skewered by the university, instead of it being a 6-month suspension as it was in the end. I would’ve lost my degree, I would’ve lost everything. I would’ve had to leave my city because for philosophy UQ has the best program. I didn’t have the resources for that, it would’ve destroyed my absolute life and so I didn’t have the luxury to be ideologically pure. That’s what we’re talking about here, it’s really a luxury. Some people are always going to be darlings of the progressive media and the progressive left on twitter. I never will be that, because the issue I was campaigning on was China and a lot of people on the progressive left are very anxious to be involved with that issue. Trump said China’s bad and now Drew says China’s bad, so they must be the exact same. It really is a privilege that some people can have their voices heard and get the backing of progressive media, academics, media figures, all those types of people.
There were two academics at the University of Queensland that stood up for me, two academics out of two thousand when I was about to get expelled. Some people have even said to me ‘why did you let Tony Morris represent you?’. I was like ‘man, I have five hundred dollars in my bank account. I don’t have the luxury like some people to pick and choose some lawyer that agrees with me on every single issue.’ I am honestly so glad that it was Tony Morris because he’s an absolute legend, he’s a genius.
What would you say to fellow students who would like to have their voice heard but think that protesting is a waste of time?
It’s not a waste of time because it puts a lot of pressure on the people in power, the people in power want you to think it’s a waste of time. That’s why they’ve been successful in inculcating a culture of apathy, a culture where it’s seen as embarrassing to protest. There’s a quote by Desmond Tutu: ‘silence in the face of oppression is to choose the side of the oppressor’. I might have butchered that a bit but that’s the rough idea. We had a few dozen people out protesting with us today, it would have been a lot more powerful if we had five hundred. That’s what you should be expecting given the scale of the atrocities here.
We’ve got Uyghur’s friends, their family members in concentration camps, their family members are being tortured, raped, beaten and bashed by a fascist government. When the university vice-chancellor chooses to forge close ties with that fascist government everyone should be on the street protesting. The Uyghur community in Adelaide is still quite small and so they need people to stand with them. Again, don’t just choose the luxury of silence, some people don’t have the luxury to choose silence, some people don’t have the luxury to choose to be apolitical. Adila doesn’t have the luxury to not be political because her family members are being tortured in concentration camps and so I would ask people to decide to put other people at the centre of their lives and realise that there are terrible sufferings in the world. If you put these people at the centre of your thoughts, you won’t choose silence. You have to stand up and speak, there’s nothing else left when there are concentration camps where innocent people are being tortured, raped and beaten.
Stand up, make your voice heard and say ‘I do not accept this’. History will one day judge us for where we stood during this time and people should choose the right side. People should think ‘what will my grandchildren think of me?’ Will my grandchildren respect me because I stood up and made myself accountable when all these terrible things happened or will I be asked like many others, how did your generation allow this to happen? I think that’s the core issue!