As the crumpled suits from the day’s trade shows trundle out into a wet evening, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre prepares for An Entertaining Evening with Nigel Farage.
In the foyer, a crowd of three distinct groups builds: most numerous are the white-haired retirees, dressed up for a night in town; then there are the keyboard trolls, all young males, dishevelled, eyes darting; finally, figures dressed like Fox News anchors, well-coiffed in chintzy glamour, shaking hands and kissing cheeks like they’re already on the campaign trail.
On the face of it there is diversity; many are white but many are not. Besides a conspicuous gap in the early-middle, the age distribution is even.
So, how did a British Eurosceptic and former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) arrive in what he will tonight call “the realms”?
Farage’s trip has been bankrolled by Damien Costas, the “porn king” responsible for transforming Penthouse Australia into a right-wing magazine before vanishing into personal bankruptcy, only to re-emerge last year with his bankruptcy annulled.
Farage is not the first right-wing provocateur imported by Costas. In 2019, he tried to fly in Milo Yiannopoulos, until the former Breitbart senior editor was barred for comments about the Christchurch mosque attacks. Costas is the head of right-wing advocacy group Turning Point Australia, a domestic franchise of the conservative non-profit Turning Point USA.
While here, Farage will also speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney, alongside former prime minister Tony Abbott and a string of other conservatives: Ian Plimer, Alan Jones, Malcolm Roberts and Johannes Leak.
Globalising a populist movement that is anti-globalist is a paradox championed by many conservative strategists, most notably former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who was recorded in 2019 discussing the idea directly with Farage and had once marked Australia as “a hotbed of populism” due to friction with China.
Regardless of the political success of global populism, which appears on the wane, the business model of a multinational franchise has its advantages. As with McDonald’s, each country can license and localise branding, complement a core menu of “talent” with local options and cross-promote global campaigns over social media.
It appears to be paying off. Tickets tonight are tiered from $49 for a concession all the way to a private dinner with Farage for $1250, the latter selling out in all three stops: Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Tonight’s show is running late. An elderly couple, arguing about whether they should have eaten dinner at home, want to hear more about “this global warming thing”. A small, elderly lady, one of the few wearing a face mask, bought a ticket because it had “come up on Facebook” and she is tired of all this “my way or the highway ‘woke’ talk”. Another couple: wife, deep in conversation about mainstream media refusing to report what regular people think; husband, of Greek heritage, tells me about moving to Phillip Island and how he doesn’t like the food. “It’s all Chiko Rolls,” he says. He wants “more diversity, like in Melbourne”.
Dozens of police form a perimeter around the growing crowd but there are no protesters to face down. The lady has stopped criticising mainstream media to ask, “Why are they all here?” Last time Farage visited, a young man says, there had been “leftist plants who had yelled things and played sounds on their phones”.
“Well,” she says, “I have two bottles of water in my bag, in case things get out of hand. Here, feel how heavy it is.”
She passes her bag to me. It is. “I’m just joking,” she says.
We are soon ushered into the Plenary with a bag check on entry, during which a scruffy man unpacks a copy of a Daniel Andrews biography. He hugs it to his chest and dashes in. The theatre will reach about two-thirds full, about 400 or 500 people, at a guess.
The lights go down. A short video begins of Farage “owning” politicians – his famous denouncement of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, together with Hillary Clinton complaining about “a man named Nigel Farage, who stoked anti-immigrant sentiments”. Big cheers.
Enter Ross Cameron, a former Liberal Party minister who was sacked by Sky News for making racist comments on air. Cameron apologises for being late, sneering that Qantas is “essentially a sexuality and Aboriginality advisory corporation”. His intro is a grab bag of literary and philosophical references, from Epictetus to Don Quixote. The response is lukewarm but flattery cuts through: “You indeed may be part of the elect who did not fall for this crock of shit in the first place,” Cameron says, before finally assuring the audience, “you are fully sane”.
Another video and Farage enters in a blue suit, opening with: “I must say I thought you’d be locked down forever!” He begins with the Queen and how she represented the values of “honesty, decency, patriotism, Christianity, duty, service and selflessness and I’m worried would those values die with her?”
Moments later he describes Theresa May’s Brexit deal, saying “Mrs May signed us up to a deal that frankly was so treacherous I wouldn’t have minded reopening the Tower of London”.
Over the next 40 minutes, Farage stalks back and forth, laying out a mostly generic conservative platform. “What we actually face is a battle for the very existence of Western civilisation,” he explains.
To Farage, Western civilisation is besieged from without by a predatory Beijing and within by a “Marxist” left obsessed with race. These talking points could be made in the US, Britain or Canada without amendment.
Farage’s solution, however, is more novel: “The most potent force in the world against the spread of this form of Chinese imperialism from Beijing is the Commonwealth.”
As Farage continues, he cycles through ideas like memes. There are cheers for Farage’s really quite good imitation of Trump: “Great guy, great guy, so great he’s unbelievable.” There is uproarious laughter for the concept of 70 genders, boos for Greta Thunberg, louder boos for Scott Morrison.
Such is the true power of the franchise model – a standardised ideology, disseminated by a high-profile personality, with a tweak for the local palate.
After intermission, promoter Damien Costas speaks. He denounces big government and says net zero “will bankrupt us once and for all”. He then plugs Turning Point, stating that Farage brokered the connection for the organisation to come to Australia. “We have many more, at least three or four of these a year coming.”
With Cameron, Farage returns onstage and plants himself in an armchair with a glass of red to fortify him for questions from the audience. Here Farage really earns his fee. Regardless of what is lobbed, he nimbly retrieves the ball from the deep conspiratorial wilderness back into the bounds of his earlier ideological edifice.
And some truly are wild: “Do you as a politician know of organised paedophilia and control of politicians through paedophilia?”
Without skipping a beat Farage responds: “I know of control of politicians through money.” From here, he’s off about elites again.
After the show I go backstage, located right beside the garbage area. Gauzy curtains and an open bar do not divert some people’s attention from the stench that wafts through. One woman exclaims, “I reckon I could light up a ciggie here and nobody would mind!”
Farage enters for photos in front of a screen with Turning Point branding. Despite a 20-hour flight, he maintains a smile throughout. “It’s good to see young people like you here. It gives me hope,” a lady confides in me. “Hopefully you can take the mantle.”
Soon Farage is whisked away and takes the energy with him, leaving only the smell of the bins.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Farago of nonsense".
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