It’s tempting to think Pauline Hanson chose Malcolm Roberts because he looks like a puppet. Barely five feet tall, One Nation’s second senator for Queensland perches beside me on a Parliament House couch like a ventriloquist’s doll, an image I can’t shake when I meet his bright blue eyes.
But Roberts, who is 61, presents himself as fiercely independent, not least of scientific orthodoxy. On the evening of 15 August, the then senator-elect burst out of Hanson’s shadow when, as a panellist on the ABC’s Q&A program, he accused NASA and the Bureau of Meteorology of manipulating climate data, and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of relying on inaccurate and flawed modelling. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Roberts told the dismayed English physicist Brian Cox, were a result of temperature changes, not the cause.
A month later, in his maiden speech to the Senate, Roberts outlined a libertarian agenda of slashing taxes, rejecting the institutional impositions of the climate change “scam”, and severing ties with global institutions, most notably, in a neat (if unintentionally hypocritical) paraphrasing of Paul Keating’s slight, the “unelected swill” of the UN. We need, Roberts said, an “Aus-exit”.
Over four interviews in between a day’s Senate sittings, Roberts is easy company, open and friendly. He is also kooky. Before I have the chance to ask if he will allow me to record our interviews, I notice he is recording me. Does he record all journalists? “I always do. Everyone.” His office wasn’t amused when SBS Comedy depicted him in a tinfoil hat, but his history suggests a conspiracy theorist’s worldview of a shadowy, omnipotent Illuminati pulling the strings of their puppets: you and me.
Roberts has a background in the mining industry, having worked as a coal miner, mine manager and mining engineer, and in management consultancy. Before being elected to the Senate in the July federal election he was the project leader of the Galileo Movement. Australia’s chief climate change–denialist organisation was formed in 2011, Roberts says, to prosecute an argument “not through song and dance routines and games like the Greens do, but through genuine science”. He says he refused payment to preserve his objectivity.
For Galileo he wrote material and campaigned against the carbon tax. He also authored several papers under his own consultancy, Conscious. The 135-page manifesto Why? Motives Driving Climate Fraud (2013) argues that a cabal of private banks, acting behind the fronts of ostensibly public institutions (the UN, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, among others), is establishing a worldwide socialist government through the imposition of emissions controls and the trading of carbon credits.
Goldman Sachs, the Warburgs, the Rothschilds and the (not Jewish but widely believed to be) Rockefellers are singled out, which prompted Andrew Bolt to distance himself from the Galileo Movement. “I certainly am not anti-Semitic,” Roberts protests to me. “What’s happening is the environmental movement is being hijacked by a political movement that wraps itself in green. And it’s not the least bit environmental. But everyone thinks it’s environmental.”
The byline of Why? is perhaps most revealing: “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts.”
Two years earlier, “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul” sent an affidavit to Prime Minister Julia Gillard – or in his words, “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” – demanding personal exemption from the carbon tax and compensation of up to $280,000 if she didn’t provide him with disclosure on 28 points, including evidence that “the Commonwealth of Australia CIK# 000805157 is not a corporation registered on the United States of America securities exchange”.
These idiosyncrasies of view and formatting are consistent with the sovereign citizen movement, whose members aspire to exist outside both the social contract and legal framework, and use colons and hyphens to evade government enslavement, which they claim is done through grammar.
Roberts has had no involvement with sovereign citizens, he says, but, as journalist Graham Readfearn has pointed out, a list of acknowledgements he wrote in 2013 – “I have learned much about science from many people internationally. You have encouraged, supported and advised” – includes “William-Vaughan: Izard”, “Romley-Stewart: Stover”, “Peter-Wayne: Fisher” and “Gregory-John: Tudehope”. (Also on the list are Hereward Fenton, a September 11 “truther”, and Leon Pittard, a bedroom broadcaster who monitors the New World Order.)
Roberts says the affidavit was a last resort to make politicians act. The majority of the Coalition, he says, are privately climate sceptics. Roberts claims Barnaby Joyce told him in 2011 that climate change is “complete bullshit”. (A spokesperson for the deputy prime minister said Joyce refutes that he made this comment.) Apparently this is a view shared by the “vast majority” of working academics, too scared to speak out for fear of losing research funding.
It’s a big jump from demanding exemption from laws to legislating them. Roberts had to buy a new wardrobe for his new role, and has only recently put together an office. His staff includes dual US–Australian national Darren Brady Nelson, formerly of Team Trump, and media adviser Sean Black, a one-time local councillor who in 2009 was briefly banned from entering the Logan council chambers without a security escort following complaints that he had bullied and intimidated colleagues.
The four One Nation senators, all in their first terms, are having to learn parliamentary procedures for themselves. Our second interview is abruptly ended by the Senate’s bells. Roberts turns to a staffer and says, “Might be a quorum again.” There’s some question about the number of senators required to be in the chamber.
“I don’t know,” says Roberts, “but I was told by [Liberal Democratic Party senator] David Leyonhjelm, who’s pretty decent, that it was just a tactic for the Greens to get longer to speak. So I’ll just find out if it’s the same deal.”
Roberts likes the freedom and personal responsibility a minor party provides. He says the Liberals do what they’re told, Labor even more so, then tells me that he recently ran into a Liberal MP who was also elected in July. They each asked the other how they were getting on; Roberts told the Liberal MP he was daunted by the rules and procedures, and that it must be easy being a Liberal backbencher. The MP responded, “It’s better for you, because you get to think and speak.”
So far One Nation’s senators have voted as a bloc, but Roberts tells me they will not be bound to a party position if, for instance, a bill divides Rod Culleton’s Western Australian constituents and Roberts’ Queenslanders. Pauline Hanson wants her team to be disciplined and united on most issues, according to Roberts, rather than “yes” men. The day before, One Nation had voted to support the government’s Country Fire Authority bill, but only after, Roberts says, robust internal debate.
The problem with politics is parties, he says, citing French philosopher Simone Weil’s 1943 essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties. “She says the moment you form a party its goal is to grow. And that is straight away at odds with the community’s goals.”
How will One Nation avoid that fate?
“We’re not loyal to the party ahead of Australia. We use the party as a vehicle for Australia; we don’t use Australia as a vehicle for the party.
“The number one reason we got so many votes − and why we’re still getting even more votes and still growing − is that we are not [the] Liberal Party, [the] Labor Party or [the] Greens. People are tired of the establishment, because they know that the establishment is tired itself, and it’s not doing anything.”
If that sounds like Clive Palmer wearing Ronald McDonald’s wig, it’s worth noting that One Nation’s return to federal representation corresponded with the Palmer United Party’s electoral obliteration; it was the protest voters of 2013, more than bleeders from Labor and the Coalition, who turned to One Nation in 2016.
Roberts himself received 77 first-preference votes. “Pauline is a very good magnet for getting votes,” he admits. People often tell him, “I like Pauline. I don’t agree with everything she does but at least she says what I’m thinking.”
At the 1998 Queensland state election, One Nation won 11 seats; within a year six of its MPs had defected, and went on to form the short-lived City Country Alliance. “[Hanson] has learned her lesson from the past,” Roberts assures me. “She grew so quickly 20 years ago that none could have managed that growth, no one. It was just out of control. And then we had all kinds of people coming in and riding on her coat-tails. Well, now what she’s doing is putting quality ahead of quantity … So she attracts people who are like her, and who like her.”
Roberts certainly seems to like her. (“I will refer to her,” he gushed in his maiden speech, “as everyone knows: Pauline. Our Pauline, the people’s politician.”) But is he like her?
The two first met when Roberts was working for the Galileo Movement. “So one day she called me, about three or four years ago, and she said, ‘Tell me about this carbon dioxide thing, and climate change being caused by humans.’” Roberts told her it was a sham. “She said, ‘I guessed that.’”
Running in the 2015 Queensland state election, Hanson asked Roberts to advise her on climate policy. When she wasn’t elected, Hanson turned her focus to the 2016 federal campaign and asked Roberts to run. They met for 12 hours (“it was like a two-way job interview”), and he signed up. He says their views align on many issues – respecting the Constitution, rejecting the UN’s 1992 Rio Declaration for 21st-century global governance, restoring Australian sovereignty and industry, promoting coal as energy – but admits he didn’t know much about Islam, Hanson’s current bugbear. “I started reading books about it and articles about it, and I came to realise that Islam’s pretty serious. So that’s the only major thing that was really new to me, and I quickly came in on that.”
Roberts says One Nation’s senators have their specialisations. “I’m strong on climate, Pauline’s strong on Islam [and] foreign ownership; Rod Culleton’s very strong on the banks. [NSW senator] Brian Burston’s got some issues with the defence department [for allegedly ignoring communities living in areas contaminated by chemicals from two defence bases].”
But Rod Culleton might not be in the Senate much longer – he faces a charge of stealing related to a hire car – and even if he stays, he disagrees with Hanson that multiculturalism has failed. Brian Burston has already been sacked by Hanson once, in 2000. And Roberts’ free marketeering seems at odds with the protectionism One Nation has traditionally espoused. If the previous Senate crossbench was “feral”, what’s this one going to look like by the next election?
For now, Roberts at least sounds like a Hansonite. When I ask him about the quotidian realities of having constituents, he complains about the volume of emails he’s received since 2 July. “We’ve been swamped.”
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