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An American conspiracy theory about a Satanic child sexual abuse ring has gained a foothold in Australia. Tim Stewart is one of the believers, and also a long-time friend of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. By Richard Cooke.

The QAnon conspiracy

Scott Morrison and Tim Stewart enjoying a beer.
Credit: Twitter

Absent the fog of culture war, it is hard to understand how a single episode of Four Corners could furnish a week-long national news cycle, before it was even broadcast. It’s more perplexing still that the story behind the story had no real bombshells: the program was only delayed, rather than cancelled, and David Anderson, the managing director of the ABC, assured staff that it “may very well go to air”. The “allegations” in the yet-to-be-aired episode centre on a relationship that is noteworthy, rather than improper, and security concerns that are speculative, not imminent.

But one of the parties in the story is Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the other is Tim Stewart, one of Australia’s most prominent adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. And the story came at a time of historic tensions between the government and the public broadcaster – in the same week the ABC and a minister of the crown settled a defamation suit – and galloping conspiracism in the polities of the developed world.

Media, in particular the news sites Crikey and Guardian Australia, have already reported on the Morrison–Stewart relationship in some detail. The two men have been family friends for 30 years. They met through their wives, Jenny Morrison and Lynelle Stewart, who have been friends since they attended high school together. Both women were bridesmaids at each other’s wedding. Since Scott Morrison won high office, the old friends have introduced a professional component to their relationship, with Lynelle Stewart employed at Kirribilli House, which means she requires a security clearance.

Perhaps, while reminiscing, they marvel at their husbands’ respective fates: one becoming the prime minister of Australia, the other a leading proponent of a conspiracy theory that purports the world is controlled by Satanic paedophiles who have their base of operations in Hollywood and the Democratic Party, and that Donald Trump is leading a global effort to defeat these demons, leading the forces of light in a Manichean struggle for the soul of humanity.

QAnon began as an American conspiracy, and its roots run deepest there. According to recent research conducted by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, as many as 15 per cent of Americans subscribe to some version of the QAnon world view. The report described a “nontrivial” cohort who affirm the statement that “the government, media and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation”. Among Republican voters, this number rises to nearly 25 per cent.

The methodology of this and similar polls has been contested, because QAnon offers an unparalleled opportunity to troll pollsters. In late 2020, Pew Research numbers suggested about half of Americans had never heard of the movement. But this does not account for large numbers who hold beliefs that originated with QAnon without recognising their origin. In Britain, for example, the research body Hope Not Hate found that 25 per cent of respondents agreed that “secret satanic cults exist and include influential elites”. Among 18- to 24-year-olds the proportion was 35 per cent.

As yet, similar polling has not been conducted in Australia, but it is one of many countries where QAnon beliefs have been franchised. Time magazine declared Australia and New Zealand especially prone to QAnon, which had proved “remarkably malleable for export”, quoting Joshua Roose of Deakin University on the “emergence of transnational, amorphous conspiracy-theory based movements”.

The shared community of English-language social media posts and groups provided traction, although Germany, Japan, Spain and France also have active QAnon movements; so too did stringent lockdowns in the Antipodes, which helped hothouse existing anti-governmental feelings. Anecdotally, Q paraphernalia has become a familiar sight at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests, and rough headcounts of local Facebook groups, many now banned, suggested memberships, or viewerships, in the tens of thousands.

In 2019, the United States was worried enough they declared QAnon a domestic terror threat, along with a suite of other “anti-government, identity based, and fringe political theories … [that] very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places and organizations, thereby increasing the risk of extremist violence against such targets”. The QAnon example given by the US government was mild in comparison with planned bombings and shootings: a man had blockaded the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge with an armoured truck, demanding that a Justice Department report into child-trafficking be released. The report did not exist.

In the US, perhaps 10 crimes have been linked definitively to QAnon, or its precursor ideology, Pizzagate. The most serious of these, a murder, is also the strangest: in 2019, a 25-year-old Staten Island man named Anthony Comello shot dead Francesco Cali, an underboss of the Gambino crime family, then told police he had done so to help then president Trump. In court, he flashed a Q-sign scrawled in pen on his hand, and addressed the court in what the New York Post called “a bizarre rant”. “I just want to say there is a lot on my phone and a lot of data about drug smuggling, human sex trafficking all over the country,” Comello said. “I have everything from Australia to Ukraine to Italy to … Russia.” He was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

Locally, there are no prominent examples of crimes linked to QAnon, so fears are more nebulous. In an online piece, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute declared the local branch an “international conspiracy theory posing a threat to Australia’s vaccination rollout against Covid-19”. Morrison, in a statement made after the Four Corners imbroglio, called QAnon a “dangerous organisation”. For this reason, he said, the “aspersion” that he had any involvement or support for the organisation was “deeply offensive”. Four Corners’ inquiries had targeted not only him but also members of his family, which he said was “really poor form”.

In the past, Tim Stewart has claimed to have influence with Morrison. In 2018, during a formal apology to victims of institutional abuse, Morrison used the phrase “ritual sexual abuse”, which was not terminology used by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Stewart, tweeting under the handle @ BurnedSpy34, was elated. He told his tens of thousands of followers he had influenced Morrison to use the phrase, and before the speech took place, he texted a colleague, exclaiming, “I think Scott is going to do it!!” The Prime Minister’s Office said the phrase came instead from survivors but did not comment on QAnon.

Stewart has also suggested former Foreign minister Julie Bishop was connected to the child abusing “cabal” because she wore red shoes. “If you want to do your research into the US context, the red shoes are purported to be very much a paedophilia shout out,” he told The Guardian. The outlet added: “There is no evidence that Bishop is connected to any such conspiracy.” Stewart’s freelance theorising has also ensnared Alexander Downer during his time as British high commissioner, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and other prominent Australians.

A benign view is that Stewart has no influence over Morrison, that their relationship has no real political component, and that he is not the only person close to the corridors of power with eccentric views. One Nation’s policy platform, for example, borrows from the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, which contends a 23-year-old United Nations resolution is actually a plan to entrench eco-totalitarianism. Decades of polling in many countries have found surprising support for all kinds of outlandish propositions, so much so that political commentators sometimes refer to the “crazification factor”, the purported 26 per cent of the population who might support anything.

What distinguishes QAnon is its ambition, and its reach. Two Republican members of the most recent freshmen class of the US congress – Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert – were both avowed QAnon adherents who only distanced themselves from the movement after taking office. Trump broadcast QAnon-linked accounts on dozens of occasions, and in his dying days in office he was surrounded by increasingly Q-adjacent figures. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, addressed a QAnon conference in Dallas and appeared to endorse a coup, similar in nature to the coup that had taken place in Myanmar.

Some studies of QAnon supporters are sympathetic. Supporters are very likely to suffer from mental illness – one paper found that up to 68 per cent had received a formal diagnosis. Their rage is said to be justified but misplaced. There is a child abuse crisis. Powerful forces are working in concert to undermine democracy. But, increasingly, QAnon itself appears to be one of those forces.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Ever and QAnon".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.