Bob Katter.

Bob Katter. Photo: Andrew Meares

What does a new dam in far north Queensland have to do with a traffic snarl in western Sydney? Nothing at all actually, despite some heroic connect-the-dots efforts by Labor ministers last week. But the question sets up some thinking about frontier politics and their impact on our federal election contest.

The first parliamentary week of the year spotlighted Labor pitching to an outer-urban ''frontier'' - western Sydney, where it is in dire political trouble; and it revealed the Coalition's early thinking about how to court Katter country.

Katter is nipping at the heels of Labor's blue-collar base. It's perhaps not widely understood that he is strongly pro-union.  

Labor meant to fire up on western Sydney. The Coalition did not mean to have a discussion about northern Australia and how you could develop it through differential taxation, infrastructure projects and population measures - that was a leak, and a helpful one.

Helpful to Labor because it could renew its efforts to portray Tony Abbott as a wild-eyed whack job - a man of uncosted retro thought-bubbles, unconstitutional tax regimes and forced public service relocations from Penrith to Karratha (There was even a hashtag, #troppotony).

And helpful to voters in the sense of shining a light - not so much on the policy detail itself because, in fairness to Abbott and his colleagues, that was work-in-progress, but on the thinking behind it.

Developmentalism is having a renaissance. Gags about the ghost of Joh Bjelke-Petersen wafting around miss the point that this isn't actually nostalgia - this is present thinking from elements of the mining industry and the once tinder-dry champion of free markets, the Institute of Public Affairs; and, politically at least, a response to the Katter effect of 2013.

Bob Katter's Australian Party wants Senate balance of power. If his movement can raise the requisite cash and not implode, it's at least a possibility. So we need to start thinking beyond the usual media narratives about Katter: the man-in-the-hat stunts promulgated by the man himself feeding the contemporary ''chooks''; the predictably ''outrageous'' utterances of publicity seeking KAP candidates.

Voters need to be able to consider Katter's world view and what it might mean if he's in a position to influence policy-making directly through parliamentary horse-trading.

His indirect influence is already evident. Given the on-the-ground appeal of Katter's new-fashioned developmentalism, it will embolden the Nationals to dream big. It will prompt a lot of enthusiastic talk by folks like Queensland senator Barnaby Joyce about building dams in Queensland.

Frontier dreaming is popular - a recurrent strain in our history and the history of countries where new inhabitants have occupied territory and set up thriving outposts of civilisation. One visit to Charters Towers puts Bob Katter immediately in context: the grand buildings of the gold rush era, over-sized and incongruous in their landscape.

But just how big and activist government gets is always a matter of contention within the Coalition between economic dries and those who would be pure, but not yet. An outbreak of Barnabyism always makes for a bit of tetchiness - and someone was troubled enough by that northern Australia policy draft to leak it. Not a great sign.

But Katter isn't only a problem for the Coalition. He's also a problem for Labor in a state where the party is counting on a political recovery of sorts.

Katter is nipping at the heels of Labor's blue-collar base. It's perhaps not widely understood that he is strongly pro-union. In addition to being a big government man, the ethanol industry's chief spruiker and an unapologetic protectionist, Katter supports the return of the old industrial relations architecture - conciliation and arbitration. He's also fiercely opposed to foreign workers coming to Australia on temporary migration programs, and is busy telling his constituency it is Labor that's letting them in to take their jobs on lower wages and conditions just to please billionaires like Gina Rinehart.

This sort of populism is hard yards for Labor, and cuts across its efforts to woo back blue-collar votes after the ructions over the carbon price.

''Keep the cheap foreigners out'' is not only a pleasing political message for the ''new working class'' - Katter's term for his voters, the blokes who once would have inherited the family farm but, given it has more-then-likely gone to the wall, now work down the mines. It's also a fairly unsubtle pitch for union donations.

The temporary foreign workers issue is red hot within the union movement, and it stirs and divides the Labor caucus in the same way that developmentalism sends ripples around the Coalition party room. There are genuine philosophical differences between occupants of the same party.

Unions have donated to Katter before. When I visited Charters Towers just before Christmas for a chat about the political year, he showed me a hard hat in the shape of a stetson that Dean Mighell of the Electrical Trades Union bought for him in Texas.

And when it comes to labour market regulation, Katter is more or less on the same page as the Greens on some policies, which could make life interesting for either a newly elected prime minister Tony Abbott - or a re-elected Julia Gillard.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age and writes The Pulse blog for The National Times.

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