In the person of One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, it would appear that Queensland may have elected a follower of the sovereign citizen movement to the Senate. If this is true, it’s a surprise to Brooklyn-based Spencer Sunshine, who researches the far right for Political Research Associates, and is the author of an upcoming report on militia and sovereign citizen radicalism leading up to the occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge. “I haven’t heard of sovereign taking a national office in any country.”
That’s not just because sovereign citizens and related groups like the so-called freemen on the land share an ideology that is well beyond the pale of mainstream political discourse. It’s that the most fundamental tenet of that ideology is a rejection of the legal authority of governments.
“Normally they don’t want anything to do with national governments. It seems like a pretty clear contradiction.”
Roberts has denied in an ABC radio interview that he identifies as a “sovereign citizen”. “No I’m not, but by the way we are all sovereigns of this country, but I’m not a sovereign citizen, no,” he said. But Sunshine and another expert – Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League – both had the opinion that Roberts’s tactics and rhetorical style bore the hallmarks of sovereign citizen thought.
The theories underpinning sovereign citizens first emerged in the 1970s with the explicitly racist Posse Comitatus movement. They believed that the original US constitution – which guaranteed the freedom of white men – had been perverted by a vast conspiracy.
They issued a crude version of what groups following in their wake would develop further.
There are two widely-held beliefs across the now-diverse and international movement. First, that forms of common law citizenship have been eroded or supplanted by governments seeking to restrict liberty.
Second, they believe that the identity of citizens as defined by official documents – like birth certificates, passports, and licenses – is a way that corrupt governments raise money from citizens, and trap them in illegitimate contracts. The official identity is a “strawman” that financially bankrupt governments use to sell bonds on the productive energy of their citizens. Any document where your name is spelled out in capitals is likely to be artefact of the strawman. Sovereign citizens try to redeem this identity, and believe they can do so by refusing to consent to laws and taxes. Some even hope to reclaim the money governments raise by selling their identity.
Their main weapons are legal and procedural, including vexatious lawsuits whose filings are filled with strange language and idiosyncratic doctrine.
These theories spread and became a broad movement in the early 1980s, explains Mark Pitcavage. Two things underpinned this: “the worst recession since the Great Depression, and a farm crisis that destroyed people’s livelihoods”.
Like all far-right movements, SovCits thrive on human desperation.
Their current surge, from 2008, has also coincided with financial upheaval. But they don’t passively wait for people to be drawn to their ideas – SovCit “gurus” evangelise for the movement, offering nonsensical legal remedies to people whose houses have been foreclosed on, or people who simply hate bureaucracies.
Among the American adherents who have run seminars in Australia is Oregon resident Winston Shrout, who’s now facing a long prison term for, inter alia, issuing $100 trillion dollars worth of fake financial documents.
Pitcavage also says that social media has played a big role in facilitating the free flow of sovereign citizen ideas.
But Sunshine points out that some gurus and social media evangelists are also working to draw people further into hard right politics.
“As people try to take these ideas into courts, and go to jail, usually the ones who get burned but keep going fall further down the rabbit hole, and end up in radical rightwing revolutionary groups.”
The voluminous public evidence of Malcolm Roberts’s beliefs – you can see him pestering journalists and politicians, issuing bizarre affadavits to prime ministers, and authoring long reports – ticks most of the “SovCit” boxes.
And then there’s the way he repeatedly spells his name in correspondence and legal communication. The distinctive insertion of punctuation (“Malcolm Ieuan: Roberts”) is a way of avoiding inadvertent consent to the straw man identity set up by perfidious governments.
An additional preoccupation for Roberts appears the idea that climate science, and efforts to address the climate change it has demonstrated, are part of an effort to institute one world government, at the expense of the individual sovereignty that is at the core of his political theory.
This is more like the so-called Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, but Pitcavage says it’s common for people on the political fringe to have “a constellation of conspiracy beliefs”.
It might all seem simply barmy, but sovereign citizen type beliefs can lead people to dark places.
Recently, some black nationalist groups in the US have become infused with sovereign citizen doctrine. Gavin Long, who killed three police officers last month in Baton Rouge appears to have subscribed to just such a blend of ideas. That’s the latest in a long line of shootings and bombings attributed to sovereign citizens. Even in Roberts’s online screeds, his talk of cabals of bankers has a disquietingly familiar ring.
The ideology appears to be on the march. Late last year, New South Wales police warned of the rising threat of domestic terrorism from the growing number of sovereign citizens in the state. In 2014, the Saturday Paper reported that efforts were being made to evangelise Indigenous communities.
That Pauline Hanson has associations with far right conspiracists is only to be expected. It was the same story in the 1990s. Then as now, her core positions are so incoherent and perfunctory that they invite fans and opportunists alike to fill in the blanks. One Nation, as always, acts as a big tent for an array of rightwing fringe actors.
First time around, her party and its members selected parts of their ideology from rightwing groups that could never have hoped to enjoy One Nation’s electoral success.
One was the League of Rights. The league was and is antisemitic; opposed to democracy; advocates of “social credit”, a fringe economic theory; and obsessed with the idea that global elites (especially Rhodes scholars) were conspiring to create one world government.
The group began in South Australia but spread throughout Queensland in the late 1960s and early 1970s during a rural recession. Country party leader Doug Anthony was moved to warn rural Australians of the danger of becoming involved with the group in 1971.
In 1998, dealing with what many thought was an existential threat to the Nationals, in parliament Ron Boswell compared One Nation to the league:
Their approach is recognisable. They enlarge some of society’s problems and make up others … The finger is pointed at scapegoats who can be easily identified either because they are in public life, they look different or they practise a different religion. Distil the message of One Nation today and you have the same themes as the League of Rights had five, 25 and 50 years ago: fortress Australia, anti-immigration, Aboriginal welfare, secret international plans and community referenda.
As well as the league, One Nation mark one drew members and inspiration from other groups that had briefly prospered in rural Queensland, a place that always provides ample kindling for wildfire right-populism in times of hardship.
Among One Nation’s predecessors in that regard were the Larouchite Citizens Electoral Council, which once won a state by-election in the seat of Barambah, and the Confederate Action party.
If history is any guide, One Nation will fragment when it’s under the national spotlight. The party won 11 seats in Queensland’s parliament in 1998. During the term, most of their sitting parliamentarians left the party, and they only won three seats in 2001. The grab bag of grievances that each senator brings are unlikely to be aggregated into a coherent political platform. Reportedly, senators will not be bound to vote in accordance with any collective position.
But the Senate is tight, and come what may, One Nation senators including Roberts will be warming the leather for a while. The Liberal government – with or without Malcolm Turnbull at its head – may be tempted to negotiate with Roberts and co, and there’s a real risk of debate and policy being dragged further to the right.
What should we do?
Sunshine stresses he’s not intimately familiar with the Australian case, but based on the US experience he recommends a measured approach to far right actors in elected office.
“Give them their due, but no more than their due” when it comes to attention, he recommends, warning that disproportionate coverage can be counter-productive.
It might be a mistake, too, to allow the flamboyant extremism of Malcolm Roberts to blind us to what’s happening closer to the centre of power.
Hanson has demanded a royal commission into Islam. Though it’s obviously an outrageous idea, it’s not such a leap from the Senate inquiry into halal food, spearheaded by the likes of Cory Bernardi.
Pauline Hanson herself was disendorsed by the Liberal party for expressing views on Aboriginal welfare issues and George Christensen has attended a Reclaim Australia rally without any consequences.
Which is to say that since the first appearance of Hanson and her extremist entourage, Australian politics has moved markedly to the right. To prevent it further, we need to make sure Malcolm Turnbull does not make deals with One Nation, or with individuals like Roberts. But we also need to be mindful of the pressure exerted by the right fringe of his own party.
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