As Crikey today looks at the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re republishing this Inq investigation into how an Australian promoter of the far-right QAnon conspiracy claims to have influence over the prime minister.
Standing in parliament last October, less than two months after becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison was visibly moved as he delivered the nation’s formal apology to the survivors of institutional child abuse.
“Look at the galleries, look at the Great Hall, look outside this place and you will see men and women from every walk of life, from every generation, and every part of our land. Crushed, abused, discarded and forgotten,” he told a packed house of parliamentarians, survivors and their supporters, some of them holding back tears.
“The crimes of ritual sexual abuse happened in schools, churches, youth groups, scout troops, orphanages, foster homes, sporting clubs, group homes, charities, and in family homes as well.”
“Ritual sexual abuse”? This was not a phrase used by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse — yet it had made its way the PM’s historic address to the nation.
Why “ritual” abuse, and what does it mean?
Tim Stewart is a 51-year-old family man, Cronulla Sharks supporter, one-time operator of an online health food venture called Fruit Loop, a former bankrupt who came out of insolvency in 2015… and long-time friend of Scott Morrison.
Stewart is also a prominent promoter of the US-based far-right “QAnon” conspiracy movement that believes there is a secret “deep state” plot against Donald Trump and a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles who rule the world and control politicians and the media. The FBI has identified fringe conspiracy theories, including those promoted by QAnon, as a domestic terrorist threat in the US.
Stewart’s wife is best friends with the prime minister’s wife, Jenny Morrison, a relationship which goes back to teenage years. The two women have been bridesmaids at each others’ weddings and, since August, Stewart’s wife has been employed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on the recommendation of the prime minister’s office, working at the PM’s Sydney residence Kirribilli House.
In the days before Morrison’s apology speech, Tim Stewart — who tweets as “Burn Notice” under the Twitter handle @BurnedSpy34 — claimed to have influenced the prime minister to make a reference to “ritual” abuse. In the hours before Morrison’s address to parliament Stewart sent a text to a colleague foretelling that it would happen: “I think Scott is going to do it!!”.
While sex abuse survivors waited for Morrison to deliver words of contrition, Stewart and key supporters specifically wanted Morrison to use the word “ritual” as applied to sex abuse because it introduced the idea of secret ceremonies with satan’s involvement, which aligns with QAnon’s theory of global threats.
Morrison’s use of the word “ritual” — instead of “systematic” or “repeated” which are factually accurate — was picked up by an international blogger who specialises in exposing religion-based conspiracy theories, but otherwise the reference went largely unremarked in Australia.
For the Stewarts, though, it was a triumph.
“Great moment,” tweeted Stewart’s son, Jesse, as @jesse_onya_m8. “You know #theGreatAwakening is in full swing when the Australian Prime Minister @ScottMorrisonMP mentions #RitualAbuse.” Jesse described it as a “big step in a good direction for Australia”. “Scott is a patriot”, he remarked.
“A new conversation began today in Australia,” Tim Stewart AKA Burn Notice tweeted out to his 20,000-plus followers. “It was a stepping stone to be sure, but we took the step. @ScottMorrisonMP took control of the narrative powerfully and commenced phase 1 of our restoration.”
A prominent QAnon figure from the US was thrilled: “Do my ears deceive me?,” asked Joe M. “The new Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison must be a rider in #TheStorm.”
Richard Bryant, a professor of Psychology at UNSW and an expert in PTSD, told Inq that “ritual sex abuse is a term that sprang up in the 1990s in the context of satanic cults”.
“In the modern iteration people have sometimes used the word ‘ritual’ instead of common or habitual. But the word ritual relates to rites. We can’t say it didn’t happen in institutions but there is no evidence of ritual abuse in the sense as initially intended, though there may be some instances of habitual sexual abuse in a church setting.
“It’s a furphy that people should get excited about ritual abuse. We can’t make claims that this is a common occurrence.”
Likewise, Ian Coyle, a forensic psychologist and adjunct professor of law at La Trobe University, told Inq that “the prevalence of [ritual sexual abuse] is vanishingly remote at best. Cases where cases [of] ritual sexual abuse have been reported have been thoroughly discredited. Indeed I am not aware of any verified cases of ritual sexual abuse in Australia.” He added that “this is not to deny the plague of child sexual abuse that the royal commission identified”.
A spokesperson for the PM told Inq that “the term ‘ritual’ is one that the Prime Minister heard directly from the abuse survivors and the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Reference Group he met with in the lead up to the Apology, and refers not just to the ritualised way or patterns in which so many crimes were committed but also to the frequency and repetition of them”. The PM’s office made no comment on the alleged influence of Tim Stewart.
A conspiracy of satanic paedophiles
For Stewart and his supporters, Morrison’s apology speech was an important moment because, according to QAnon, there is a conspiracy of paedophiles at the highest levels of the judiciary and government who behave in a way more grotesque than the common understanding of child sex abuse.
In his guise as Burn Notice, Stewart refers to “Luciferian” or satanic ritual abuse. He depicts elaborate ceremonies where children are prepared for sacrifice by groups of adults operating in secret.
One document posted by Stewart purports to show key dates in the calendar of satanic ritual abuse categorised according to the type of ceremony conducted. These include human sacrifice of children, orgies involving the rape of children and drinking of animal blood.
Burn Notice reveals his mission in his Twitter bio to be “Justice. Building new networks. Promoting truth and transparency. Dark to Light” — code words which hold particular meaning for other QAnon followers, who believe there is an anonymous operative in the White House known only as “Q” who has a secret, all-encompassing plan to save the world against a conspiracy of deep state actors. Critically, Burn Notice and other followers believe “Q” will triumph over a cabal of satanic, or Luciferian paedophiles who secretly control everything from government to banking to the media.
A Stewart family affair
The coming-to-power of Scott Morrison has been hailed by Tim Stewart. Stewart marked the day — 24 August, 2018 — by launching his new Twitter identity, Burn Notice. Address: Miami. Message: “Totally burned. Dropped in a new city.” His first tweet cryptically announced “A fresh start. Rebuilding a new identity.”
Those in the know would recognise the reference: Burn Notice is a US television series about a covert intelligence operative who has been “burned”, or identified as a dangerous agent.
Stewart’s 22-year-old son, Jesse, is also an enthusiastic promoter of the QAnon conspiracy.
And Stewart’s wife has publicly signalled her support for “The Awakening”, a key QAnon concept in which the world turns away from “the Dark” — and likely a reference to the revivalist Christian movement of the 18th century aimed at revitalising an individual’s personal relationship to God at a time when the rise of rationality posed a threat to religion.
A post on Stewart’s wife’s Instagram points to a website operated by her husband, where followers can read a four-part book called Feeding the Egregore, effectively a QAnon manifesto which explores “oneness with God, the power of consciousness, quantum energy, belief systems [and] the teachings of Christ”.
“The Great Awakening is revealing that dark forces have found their way into the highest levels of influence,” the site explains. “This book helps illuminate the true battle-lines and the insidious nature of this deception.”
The world of conspiracy theorists
Inq’s investigation reveals that behind the scenes Stewart and his son worked in tandem with one of Australia’s most notorious conspiracy theorists, Fiona Barnett, as part of efforts to have the prime minister endorse the idea of ritual abuse in the national apology.
Barnett’s lurid claims include that the late Kim Beazley Sr. (father of former ALP leader Kim Beazley) had taken part in “a well documented, CIA-backed psychological operation” and that, as a member of parliament, Beazley Sr. was “the man who oversaw the trafficking of Fiona Barnett to VIP’s at Parliament House in Canberra — as part of a ‘dirty tricks’ operation to compromise and control politicians”. Barnett has claimed that as part of a government operation she was supplied as prostitute to US president Richard Nixon and forced to have sex with him at Fairbairn air force base.
Barnett’s website conflates the ideas of ritual abuse and CIA mind control, a common link made by the ritual abuse community. And like Stewart, Barnett alleges there is a powerful conspiracy of “Luciferian paedophiles” at work in the world. In one video she offers eye-witness testimony of what she claims was a satanic child sacrifice ceremony held in Bathurst NSW where the late Beazely Sr., aided by late cricket legend Richie Benaud among others, beheaded children before an orgy took place involving adults.
On the day of the national apology, Stewart was quick to acknowledge Barnett’s help in getting the prime minister’s official endorsement of the term ritual abuse. “Well played,” he tweeted to a trio including Barnett and his son.
The role of paedophilia in the “deep state”
Tim Stewart’s tweets reveal a deep concern, bordering on obsession, with the idea of paedophilia and child sacrifice. He charges that the media is doing the work of the “deep state” in “conditioning us” to “ritual” child sacrifice.
This September, Stewart again had occasion to back Morrison on paedophilia when the government moved to legislate for the mandatory sentencing of convicted sex offenders, covering federal offences such as internet grooming or downloading child pornography (most paedophilia offences are covered by state laws).
The Law Council of Australia is sceptical of the government’s case for the law — the government claims 28% of convicted paedophiles receive no prison time, though it will not reveal the data publicly. The council opposes the law because it takes away the court’s power to exercise discretion in individual cases. Studies also show that mandatory sentencing (for any crime) results in higher incarceration rates, but does nothing to reduce crime rates.
The prime minister has championed the tough new laws which introduce life imprisonment “for the most serious offences” and mandatory minimum sentences. He has recorded an impassioned video announcement, posted to his Facebook pages, and has dared Labor to oppose them. “These offenders are the lowest of the low,” Morrison said, “and we’re going to ensure they go to jail with new mandatory sentencing laws. We owe it to our kids to protect them.”
Burn Notice immediately backed in Morrison’s announcement with a well informed tweet at the ready for his QAnon community. “Australia has had notoriously short sentences for pedo’s [sic] for decades. Many have watched in shock as sentences measure months or 2-3 years,” he claimed. “It seems that light is finally being shone on this issue.”
Another QAnon supporter, known as Corruption Detector, tweeted his delight at Morrison’s “coming war on pedophiles [sic]”. “Take a look,” he says, “Making Australia Great Again.”
Stewart and the PM
Tim Stewart has denied that he uses his access to Scott Morrison to influence the prime minister on policy. In early October, speaking as Burn Notice, he told The Guardian, “I have never spoken to Scott about anything of a political nature. I’m not an adviser. The idea of me talking to him about this … it’s just not true.”
Yet that is the opposite of what he has told at least one close confidante. In the past few weeks a former fellow traveller, Eliahi Priest, has published his text exchanges with Stewart, conducted through encrypted messaging app Signal.
Priest points to more than 50 mentions of “Scott” in text exchanges with Stewart. He has signed a statutory declaration which claims Stewart told him he had passed on “several” letters to Morrison via Stewart’s wife. Stewart is on the record telling Priest of a “massive connection with Scott tonight”. “We are moving fast,” he texted. “Scott is awakening.”
In one exchange Priest points out a reference in the Victorian schools curriculum that 13 year olds will be taught about anal intercourse. “I am in shock,” Stewart responds. “This is going straight to Scott.”
In better days Priest and Stewart together hosted a leading US proponent of the QAnon movement, Isaac Kappy, an actor who alleged that Hollywood was run by paedophile rings. Priest is no stranger to the world of conspiracy theories and he has been the subject of counter-terrorism investigations. Yet he shakes his head at the idea that Stewart has any influence at all with Scott Morrison.
“He is embroiling the prime minister of Australia in a conspiracy theory that exists on [defunct extremist-linked site] 8chan,” he says, “the very same 8Chan that Scott Morrison banned because of [the shootings] in New Zealand.
“This is happening outside official process.”
Inq approached Tim Stewart for comment but he declined to respond.
Inq has also established that tweets by both Tim Stewart and his son Jesse which refer to Morrison’s apology speech have now been deleted. This occurred after Inq put questions to the Stewarts and the Prime Minister’s office.
Inq took the precaution of saving copies of the relevant tweets and will publish these as needed and can share them with other journalists.
Additional reporting by Amber Schultz.