Nationals MP George Christensen lately copped condemnation from federal parliament for spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
The member for the central Queensland seat of Dawson falsely claimed masks and lockdowns had been ineffective in opposition to the unfold of COVID, demanding governments “open society again up” to “restore our freedoms [and] finish this insanity”. In a uncommon transfer, each Labor and the federal government backed the movement in opposition to him.
The feedback had been outrageous, however not stunning. Christensen, who has been in parliament since 2010, has an extended historical past of courting controversy, together with feedback on Muslim immigrants and international warming.
Why do folks hearken to him? The place does his energy base come from?
Democratically elected, so…
Understanding why Christensen could make such statements — and why the information media report them — is straightforward: as a democratically elected MP, he’s entitled to air even probably the most egregious views underneath parliamentary privilege.
In fact, the parliament is equally entitled to sentence him. And the extra novel his views, and the extra battle they produce, the extra doubtless they’re to be reported.
What’s harder to clarify, nonetheless, is how and why maverick politicians reach a liberal democracy like Australia, the place the confines of political discourse have historically been fairly slim.
Not like many European polities, Australian politics have by no means actually entertained onerous socialism on the left or ultra-conservatism on the fitting, at the very least till the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation within the late Nineteen Nineties.
The maverick custom in Australia
But mavericks have existed because the earliest days of Australian politics.
Earlier than the evolution of the fashionable get together system 130 years in the past, rogues had been widespread in legislatures free from get together constraints. Right this moment, given the most important events’ self-discipline over their MPs — most of whom boast frontbench ambitions — and an aggressive Fourth Property, political mavericks are a lot rarer.
Twenty years on, One Nation continues to be chaotic, controversial and influential
And those that fail to toe the get together line are sometimes compelled out. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, Fraser Anning (Queensland seems to be a pure house to mavericks) are just some examples of those that left established events to guide their very own, self-titled brigades.
Different mavericks embrace Graeme Campbell (Western Australia), Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) and Fred Nile, Mark Latham and Craig Kelly (NSW).
Whereas overwhelmingly from conservative ranks, mavericks have come from the centre, resembling South Australia’s Nick Xenophon. They’ve additionally come from the onerous left, within the case of Queensland’s Fred Paterson, Australia’s solely Communist Celebration MP, elected to a central Queensland seat within the Nineteen Forties.
What’s it about Queensland?
However what’s it about Queensland regional voters and their predilection for mavericks?
The reply lies in understanding Queensland’s distinctive political tradition – steeped in a populism that vilifies “elites” and “outsiders”. This itself constructed upon 5 pillars:
a reverence for robust, opinionated leaders
a requirement for regional providers throughout Australia’s most decentralised mainland state
a requirement for native infrastructure
a desire for political pragmatism (“widespread sense” options to advanced issues)
a Queensland chauvinism that encourages locals to really feel superior to different Australians.
In a decentralised state overwhelmingly depending on major industries, the place regional voters boast considerably increased charges of Christian identification and decrease charges of upper training and multiculturalism, it’s maybe unsurprising regional Queensland has lengthy been formed by frontier politics.
And any regional MP hoping to take care of electoral assist should pander at the very least to a few of these components.
Christensen, for instance, has beforehand referred to as for a ban on the burqa and Muslim immigration from “radicalised” nations. In 2016, he floated the return of the dying penalty. In 2014, the MP labelled environmentalists “terrorists” and, in an announcement he later regretted, described the “Protected Colleges” program as paedophile “grooming”.
But Christensen additionally supported a banking royal fee when his Coalition colleagues wouldn’t. And whereas his pandemic libertarianism – rooted in Donald Trump’s Republicanism – is a brand new improvement on the Australian onerous proper, it’s hardly stunning it finds a prepared viewers amongst regional Queenslanders, already suspicious of capital metropolis energy.
The method seems to work. The seat of Dawson, based mostly on sugar farming districts surrounding Mackay, has been in Nation/ Nationwide/Liberal-Nationwide get together arms for all however 12 of its 72-year historical past. However over the previous decade, Christensen has turned a skinny after-preference margin of two.4% right into a protected 14.6% buffer.
Nevertheless, the Christensen fashion has come at a price. In sating the urge for food of native voters, the MP has inevitably angered metropolitan colleagues and, due to this fact, blocked any likelihood of promotion.
Apparently, returned Nationals’ chief Barnaby Joyce, himself one thing of a maverick, refuses to rebuke his MP — Joyce insists it’s worse than ineffective to “prod the [Christensen] bear”. Given the Morrison authorities’s razor-thin majority, an undesirable by election may plunge the Coalition into disaster.
In April, Christensen surprised observers when he introduced his retirement on the subsequent federal election. On Sunday, Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Andrew Willcox was preselected because the Liberal Nationwide Celebration’s candidate for Dawson. Coal miner Shane Hamilton will contest the election for Labor.
Christensen’s successor gained’t must mirror him to carry the seat, however partaking in at the very least a few of his populist behaviour will go far in constructing assist over the long term.
In selecting the timing of his personal departure from a protected seat at age simply 43, it appears Christensen stays a maverick to the very finish.
Proper on the market: how the pandemic has given rise to excessive views and fractured conservative politics
Dr Paul Williams is an affiliate of the T.J. Ryan Basis.