Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison and QAnon

The relationship between the Australian prime minister and the country’s highest-profile devotee of the QAnon conspiracy cult became even more problematic this week for the absent Scott Morrison.

The Labor opposition seized on revelations in the much anticipated Four Corners program about Tim Stewart to claim serious questions of national security are involved.

The longstanding family friendship between Stewart, his wife, Lynelle, and the Morrisons was not news. What was groundbreaking was the rift in Stewart’s own family over his obsessive immersion in the theory of a global satanic paedophile organisation that has infiltrated the highest levels of government, the media and the entertainment industry. In its American iteration, followers saw then president Donald Trump as a bulwark against this evil establishment. By their reckoning, tragically, he was defeated by it. In Australia, Stewart claimed influence on Morrison.

The ABC program documented firsthand how Stewart’s father, a retired Baptist pastor, his mother and his sister reported Stewart to the national security hotline several times. They feared the same world view that led dozens of “Q” followers to storm the United States Capitol in January might have similarly gripped Tim and his son Jesse.

Tim’s family members told of their heartache and how their son and brother could talk of nothing else. This in itself raises questions on whether he also bashed the ears of his mate Scott Morrison. The Louise Milligan report showed a number of text messages where Stewart boasted of his access to the prime minister and his ability to influence him.

Stewart claimed credit for Morrison using the QAnon formulation of “ritual sexual abuse” in his apology to victims of institutional sexual abuse. Son Jesse tweeted: “You know #TheGreatAwakening is in full swing when the Australian Prime Minister @ScottMorrisonMP mentions #RitualAbuse.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said the words “ritual” and “ritual abuse” occurred many times in victims’ evidence to the royal commission. But the point is Morrison’s mate says he urged the PM to use it and Morrison himself has not explicitly denied it. The prime minister’s department told senate estimates they don’t know where the phrase came from and others who worked on the speech told the ABC they did not recommend it.

For months Morrison ignored previous revelations of his long and close friendship with the Stewarts in Crikey and Guardian Australia. When questions from Four Corners were sent to his office, the prime minister brought heavy pressure to bear on the national broadcaster to stop the program going to air.

In the meantime, he took out some pre-emptive insurance. After ignoring questions from the opposition and the ABC, he revealed his view on QAnon at a press conference last week, following a question from a Sky News reporter. The reporter had asked if Morrison was concerned that “the ABC is involved in so-called vigilante journalism. Were the allegations put to you and what is your connection to the man at the centre of that story?”

Morrison said he found it “deeply offensive that there would be any suggestion that I would have any involvement or support for such a dangerous organisation”. He told the media “I clearly do not” and said it was very disappointing that the program through its inquiries would “seek to cast this aspersion, not just against me but … members of my own family”.

That was a reference to the fact that his wife, Jenny, had hired her lifelong friend Lynelle Stewart as a household attendant at the prime minister’s Kirribilli residence. That job ended in December 2020 without explanation. Lynelle Stewart’s Facebook page had linked to her husband’s blog post, “The Reason For Treason – a conversation for the Great Awakening”.

Karen Stewart, who admits to having very different political views to her brother, said it was alarming to see his radicalisation. The family is worried what it could mean for Australia. In the US, the FBI has identified the cult as a driver of domestic terrorism. The head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, has warned MPs here to be wary of the people they associate with because there are significant security threats not only from other countries but from within.

Burgess wrote to MPs and senators last year but his letter did not mention QAnon. To this point, Australia has not followed the US’s assessment of the menace the conspiracy cult poses. This, despite the prime minister’s description of the conspiracy as “dangerous”.

Last year in its worldwide crackdown on QAnon accounts, Twitter permanently suspended Tim and Jesse Stewart’s accounts for “engaging in co-ordinated harmful activity”. When Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong, asked the then leader of the government in the senate, Mathias Cormann, if he was aware of the ban, he said he wasn’t. This week in the senate Wong had another go, asking Cormann’s successor, Simon Birmingham, why Morrison has refused for two years to answer any questions about his friendship “with prominent QAnon supporter Tim Stewart”. Birmingham said Morrison had been very clear in his condemnation of the organisation and that he takes his security advice from the nation’s security agencies.

The Liberal chair of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, senator James Paterson, told The New Daily he had better things to do with his time than to watch the program. He said while QAnon is not currently listed as a terror threat in Australia, “any organisation that presents a credible threat will be listed”. Paterson may have been too busy, but many others were not: Four Corners won its time slot and had its biggest audience for the year.

The PMO rejected the carefully researched program as “a personally motivated slur against the Prime Minister and his family” and said it gave credence to “irrational Twitter conspiracy theorists”. Whether that description of Morrison’s close friends was run past him is an interesting question. To date, he has pretended that crazy ideas somehow do not reflect on the people who propagate them.

Morrison’s absence overseas shielded him from any direct questions in parliament. He returns next week and will attend parliament virtually, from quarantine at The Lodge. But the opposition used members’ statements just before question time on Tuesday to have two of its frontbenchers go on the attack. The aim is to dent Morrison’s “daggy dad” image and paint him as a much more sinister character.

Labor’s cybersecurity spokesman, Tim Watts, said it was an inappropriate relationship for the prime minister to have with a “very creepy individual” who brags about his influence over Morrison “while posting photos house-sitting at Kirribilli”. Labor wonders what access this would have given Stewart to sensitive documents.

The shadow minister for Health, Chris Bowen, accused the prime minister of avoiding accountability over whom he hires at Kirribilli House, at taxpayers’ expense, and whom he invites there. Bowen said Morrison “cannot just smear Four Corners” – he has to answer the serious questions that have been raised. “QAnon incites violence,” he said, and “undermines confidence in the institutions of this country.” Bowen noted that the prime minister initially “refused to condemn” the QAnon-linked raid on the Capitol Building in Washington.

This imbroglio will do nothing to address the slide in Morrison’s personal ratings, picked up in yet another poll this week. The Resolve Strategic poll in The Age cuts the prime minister’s net performance rating almost in half, from 15 to 8 per cent. This is largely due to voters being unimpressed with the vaccine rollout and pandemic response. The pollster says his research in two-party terms was “too close to call”.

Whether the news from Morrison’s Group of Seven trip is sufficiently impressive to have an impact is very moot. While the leaders of the seven richest democracies did criticise China’s coercive policies, they did not go as hard as US President Joe Biden wanted. Germany and France appeared to agree with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who warned Morrison on his way to Europe that China should be dealt with in a partnership. “You have to be able to work on that basis,” Lee said, “that this is a big world in which there are different countries and work with others who are not completely like-minded but with whom you have many issues where your interests do align and where your mutual co-operation is necessary.” Diplomatic sources in Canberra say nothing Morrison did at the G7 did anything to repair our deteriorating relationship with our biggest trading partner.

Morrison followed the Cornwall meeting with a free-trade deal with Britain. But the sad fact is the new arrangement does very little to compensate for the losses with China. Britain takes 3 per cent of our exports, compared with China’s 40 per cent. Still, it was better for the prime minister than having to answer questions about QAnon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "The rude awakening".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.