Not for the first time, George Christensen has hijacked national attention — pushing the boundaries by embracing the fringe.
At the weekend he appeared on the show of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He indulged the borderline deranged commentary of Jones while adding his own fear mongering and dog-whistling — all while promoting his newsletter, naturally.
The appearance earned the strongest condemnations yet from the prime minister, deputy prime minister and members of his partyroom.
But the condemnation doesn’t matter one bit. The MP is treading water until the election which he isn’t contesting. In the meantime, he’s spending a lot of his waking hours trying to grow his audience by promoting his newsletter and social media audiences — including spending thousands of dollars on Facebook ads, presumably paid for by the taxpayer.
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As predicted by Crikey in April, he’s well on his way to a post-politics career as an online political influencer who monetises his audience. Soon he’ll be fully unleashed and largely irrelevant.
What he leaves behind, however, is a blueprint for other conservative politicians. In a world where attention is power, any politician can dog-whistle to the fringes, embrace their key figures, and revel in any backlash.
We’re already seeing other MPs take lessons from the Christensen playbook. Senator Matt Canavan is now a professional social media troll who went on the podcast of Steve Bannon, the former Trump lieutenant who has emerged as a major source of misinformation and conspiracy in the post-Trump right-wing media ecosystem.
Senator Alex Antic, who also went on Bannon’s podcast, has done interviews with anti-vaxxer group Reignite Democracy Australia’s Monica Smit, who has called for chief health officers to be tried for crimes against humanity. She also interviewed Senator Gerard Rennick, who has spent the month posting pictures of people he claims have received vaccine injuries, a common trope of anti-vaxxers. While none of them have explicitly promoted conspiracy theories, they’ve all rubbed shoulders — thereby endorsing — people who are making careers out of undermining trust in institutions and sowing discord based on lies.
Importantly, Christensen has showed there are no real consequences to being told off.
The rebukes have come too late to affect Christensen, and even then they’re just words. There’s been no public discussion about kicking him out of the partyroom, even as he said he’ll vote only on his conscience. If anything, Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce has repeatedly defended his right to free speech — despite the disgust of his fellow partyroom members about some of Christensen’s comments.
Whether it’s because these politicians hope to harness the votes of the fringes or because they don’t want to draw attention to it by responding to it, we’ve seen a remarkable reluctance to condemn members of the government for undermining its own work.
The benefits are growing your audience, triggering the left (which in modern politics is something that culture warriors are rewarded for doing) and, if things go right, even some news coverage that can be used to paint the politician as the victim. And unless you’re someone in a marginal seat, the only people you ever have to answer to is the increasingly polarised members of your own branch or party.
By the middle of next year, Christensen will be gone from federal politics. But the member for Dawson has shown the way forward for a new generation of modern conservative politicians.