Federal Nationals MP George Christensen is interesting not because of the content of his views; they are largely unremarkable, an incoherent patchwork of recycled Facebook comments, Trump tweets and conspiracy dog whistles unglued from material reality.
He is interesting because these views function as trial balloons, indicating the extent of the moral transgressions people like Scott Morrison are willing to permit in order to retain power. With a slim parliamentary majority, you can only afford so much backbench disunity.
Last October, in service of this majority, Health Minister Greg Hunt refused to condemn either Christensen or his fellow social media enthusiast and then-Coalition MP Craig Kelly for advocating against all medical advice for the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment. Hunt claimed that the members were "entitled to their views".
Similarly, when Scott Morrison was asked whether he'd condemn Christensen for repeating Donald Trump's lie that Joe Biden benefited from "dodgy votes" in the 2020 presidential election, the Prime Minister responded, "You know, Australia is a free country. There's such a thing as freedom of speech in this country and that will continue." Facing no consequences for parroting disinformation, Christensen has seen no reason to alter his behaviour.
It is unsurprising, then, that this week Christensen was interviewed by Alex Jones - a man resembling a balloon stuffed with dynamite - the face and proprietor of InfoWars, a website which is banned from every major social media platform and is among the world's premier originators and distributors of disinformation and conspiracy.
Jones is a bad guy. Last month, a Connecticut judge found him liable in a defamation case brought by parents of children murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting - Jones having claimed they were complicit in faking the murder of their own children. He once insisted Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were demons "from hell" who smell like sulfur and attract flies. He was a key proponent of the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory, proposing that a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant was a front for a Clinton-involved child sex trafficking ring. A man later brought a rifle into said restaurant, firing it and causing staff and customers to flee as he looked for a basement which wasn't there.
When welcoming Christensen to his program, Jones described Australia as "the beta testing of the worldwide slave colony that the globalists are building". Not only did Christensen not object, but he responded warmly: "Good on you for standing up for freedom as well; you're one of those beacons we have around the world." Over the ensuing 30 or so minutes, the pair described COVID restrictions as a tool deployed by global elites to erase individual freedoms. Jones compared Australian quarantine facilities to Auschwitz (Christensen chuckling in response), and insisted that those double-vaccinated against COVID-19 were twice as likely to die as the unvaccinated (this is, of course, not true); Christensen encouraged "freedom-loving" people to protest outside Australian embassies, repeatedly described Australia's lockdown laws as "medical apartheid", and said of vaccines that "there is actually probably no difference in transmission or protection or anything else after a period of time. So why the need for medical segregation?"
Towards the interview's end, in response to Christensen saying he wished for "peaceful" protest, Jones ranted: "They're the ones engaged in violence, and I really hope that they can be defeated peacefully, but I gotta tell you this is really, really a dark situation. That's why everybody better get involved peacefully now, so that we don't have the other option because we're so cornered and under such attack."
"That's right," responded Christensen.
David Littleproud, who is leading the Nationals while Barnaby Joyce is in the UK, condemned Christensen, describing his appearance on InfoWars as "an error of judgment", but the condemnation seemed to entail no material consequences. Littleproud, like Hunt and Morrison before him, retreated to the rhetoric of free speech to let Christensen off the hook: "Obviously George is at the extremities of much of what mainstream Australia thinks, but it's a view that should have an opportunity in any democratic society to be aired."
In these instances, condemnations and free speech rhetoric are invoked not to signal the limits of moral acceptability, nor to penalise the transgressor; instead, they are a distancing manoeuvre, an attempt to avoid responsibility by association without alienating Christensen or his supporters. The Prime Minister's office initially resisted responding, arguing that the incident had already been dealt with by the Nationals, but eventually Morrison released the following statement:
"I denounce the comments in the strongest possible terms. The Holocaust was an evil abomination. Respect for the victims requires that it never be referenced in such a trivial and insensitive manner."
This statement is odd. It conjures the mirage of a decisive response, but doesn't mention or even implicitly refer to Christensen, who made no reference to the Holocaust. Morrison is denouncing Jones' comments (note that he's not even denouncing Jones, simply one comparison he made). And while what Morrison says is obviously true, it also distracts from the matter at hand, which is that a member of his government was interviewed by and gleefully endorsed Jones' reprehensible views, and furthered the reach of several extraordinarily dangerous conspiracies.
This language used by Morrison and Littleproud enacts a sleight of hand, detaching the comments made from the speaker as if the words spoken are free-floating, having nothing to do with the person who said them. If someone can be neatly separated from their words, and anything said can be excused as free speech, then there is no scenario in which the adoption of any stance can be penalised. Of course Christensen should be allowed, under the law, to say what he wishes wherever he wishes to say it. But his actions have quite obviously rendered him unfit for public office.
Christensen is retiring at the next election, but will no doubt try to monetise and expand his reputation. In April, he released a statement announcing that "While I'm in Parliament until the next election and while there's still breath in me, I'm going to continue speaking out on the issues that matter, without fear or favour, or the need to get re-elected."
John Howard, during his prime ministership, avoided directly challenging Pauline Hanson so as to court her supporters, tolerating her xenophobic style, and thus helping make such racism permissible. In refusing to designate Christensen's behaviour as morally unacceptable, the federal government tacitly permits all such behaviour, encouraging conspiracy that frays the social fabric for the sake of a shot at election victory.
If Christensen suffers no consequences, the rest of us will.
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