Keith Pitt on nuclear power, self-styled experts and how Canberra crushes free thinking | Australia news


Early in Keith Pitt’s first term in Canberra, the Queensland National got some bracing feedback from Craig Laundy, a plain-speaking Liberal from New South Wales.

“Craig told me very early in the first term – he said, ‘Mate, you are outspoken and opinionated, and I love it, but nobody else does’.”

Pitt, who spent time on the government frontbench before the saga of Barnaby Joyce upended the Nationals’ internal equilibrium, is a parliamentarian known for calling things as he sees them, whether that is convenient for the higher ups or not. But, in a conversation for Guardian Australia’s politics podcast, the Queenslander shared some reflections about what it is like to push against prevailing political wisdom.

He thinks there is an intolerance for healthy dissent in both political and media culture that sits counter to the desire of voters to see their MPs representing their interests in Canberra, and forcefully if necessary.

During a discussion about Queensland electoral politics, his pet passion, energy policy – specifically, his desire to reopen a conversation about nuclear energy – and political culture, Pitt observed that politics in 2019 is a “birds of a feather” business. There is a tendency for people to be inducted into the tribe on the basis that they look and sound like the other occupants of the profession, when the reality is “we need a better mix in terms of the individuals in the place”.

He has also discovered since leaving his career in small business and entering public life that politics is a vocation replete with self-styled experts. Pitt, who trained as an electrical engineer, became frustrated during the internal debate about the national energy guarantee during the Turnbull period because he felt some colleagues were not across the technical dimensions of how the energy system worked.



Keith Pitt and Michael McCormack at the annual NSW-Queensland political State of Origin football game last year. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The journalist Niki Savva in her book Plots and Prayers recounts a scene at the height of the Neg debate with Pitt in Malcolm Turnbull’s office as the internal debate reached crisis point. Pitt was championing policy to keep coal-fired power stations running longer, and was a long time opponent of the renewable energy target on the basis it made power more expensive.

The then prime minister attempted to persuade the Queenslander that the Neg would deliver security, lower power prices and lower emissions. Pitt demurred.

Turnbull, according to Savva’s account, asked Pitt if he thought the people who had designed the Neg, including people responsible for managing Australia’s electricity market, were “idiots”. Turnbull chased up Audrey Zibelman, the chief executive of the Australian Energy Market Operator, and put her on speaker phone. Pitt remained unconvinced by Zibelman’s pitch and left, maintaining opposition to the policy that collapsed with Turnbull’s leadership.

While one man’s claim to technical expertise can look much more like obduracy for the recipients of the wisdom, particularly in a policy area as contested and polarised and as beset by sloganeering as energy policy, Pitt’s general point about technical expertise not carrying much weight in politics when other imperatives are in play is valid enough.

While Pitt is a Queensland National to his bootstraps, people who enter politics from corporate backgrounds often struggle to adjust to the political ecosystem, and can feel like outsiders in the life compared to people who are socialised into the mindset, serving apprenticeships in political offices before winning preselection. Laundy struggled. So did Julia Banks, who ultimately quit the Liberal party for the crossbench.

“On something where you are actually a technical expert, so many people in this building want to tell you they know more than you do,” Pitt says. “Coming from the outside, that has been very difficult to accept – there are a lot of experts in the building on all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily right all the time, if I can be as polite as that. This is one of the challenges.”

Another challenge is the gap between what voters want to see from their local member and the talking points culture in Canberra. He says he won preselection for the Queensland seat of Hinkler, replacing the long serving Nationals MP Paul Neville, because of his plain speaking, which reassured his constituents that he understood what their daily lives were like. He thinks that helps explain why he was chosen in a grassroots preselection.

“‘You’ve been through a few dry gullies,’ was the description I usually got”. Pitt notes that he’s “found a few more recently” – a reference to losing his frontbench spot.

He points to a local member effect evident in recent electoral contests, which he estimates is worth two or three points on the primary vote. Voters will rally to candidates who they believe are “having a crack on their behalf”.

But while that works locally, speaking your mind isn’t rewarded in Canberra. “We want the parliament to be a better place, well it comes down to the people we send there,” Pitt says. He says a politician like Bob Hawke would not survive in contemporary political life, in the era of mobile phones and Facebook, “but he was recognised as one of those characters who appealed to people”.

“It’s hard to get that character out when you are stuck in a box of listing off [talking points] on a piece of paper. To be honest, I try and avoid that wherever possible. I just stick with a theme. But you have to have empathy for people. You have to recognise when they are doing it really tough and you’ve got to act on that.”

Pitt says there is certainly a case for message discipline, particularly during election campaigns, where it is easy to say something dumb, and pay a huge price for the misstep. But it has to be a balance.

If politicians want to restore their standing with a disillusioned public, there needs to be more tolerance for free spirit in politics. “You have to appeal to your people and you’ve got to act on their interests, and fundamentally that is our job as MPs”.



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