The Right Climate For A Con: Introducing Senator Malcolm Roberts


Politics is about sales, and what One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts is selling smells like a global conspiracy. Thom Mitchell breaks it down.

As he delivered his maiden speech last week, Senator Malcolm Roberts’ concedes his knees shook slightly. Nerves knotted in his stomach. He swivelled his arms for oratory affect, and said: “Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.”

In a hurried voice, the recently elected One Nation Senator sketched a conspiracy. “It is clear that climate change is a scam,” he said. A former coal mine manager in a tin-foil hat, Roberts fished for a series of “undeniable facts” from the grab bag he’s built up over many years.

“Firstly, changes in the carbon dioxide level are a result of changes in temperature, not a cause. That is the reverse of what we have been told.

Secondly, we do not and cannot affect the level of carbon dioxide in air. That too is the reverse of what we have been told. That means we cannot and do not affect global climate.

Thirdly, warming is beneficial — after all, science classifies far warmer past periods as climate optimums. Again, that is the reverse of what we are told.”

The man is quite literally trapped in a lucid dream about a spectacular global cover-up. For the last few years, at least, his life seems to have been dedicated to blowing the lid on this colossal con, cooked up by corrupted scientists who’ve fooled everyone but him.

I’ve interviewed Roberts a few times over recent months, but there’s not much point. He’s too fixated on the global conspiracy to explain rationally why a scientific pariah like him should be taken seriously. Much of the interview is invariably taken up by gloating demands for “empirical data”, which doesn’t really help in explaining his position.

One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, appearing on ABC's Insiders program in August 2016.
One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, appearing on ABC’s Insiders program in August 2016.

Malcolm Roberts knows a trick or two. He cut his political teeth alongside the likes of Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, at the climate denying Galileo Movement, and as part of what he calls a “grassroots” uprising of the Australian people against the carbon tax.

When he joined forces with Pauline Hanson, Roberts copied over the paranoiac policy platform developed by the Galileo Movement. One Nation’s policy is an almost carbon copy: No taxes, emissions trading schemes, international agreements, and no support for renewable energy.

In the absurd political drama which Roberts has now brought to Canberra, facts are shunned so completely that he’s cast as an almost messianic figure. He presents as a self-appointed Goliath, set on sharing the truth about climate change with the common-sensical masses.

And certainly his message is a very comforting one: Everything is basically fine.

The Queensland Senator’s anachronistic world-view is populated by blurry socialist overlords, United Nations types who dream of Electric Sheep. They conjured up this climate con. “Unlawful agreements like the Paris sham” are – of course! – merely accoutrements to this insidious bid for global government.

Performing in this way, Roberts plays the martyr to turn attacks to his benefit. Criticism is co-opted – it serves only to drive nails deeper into the crucifix he’s slung himself up on. Any rebuttal based on facts or grounded in expertise is passed off to adherents as evidence of the ‘climate change cult’.

It’s them that are crazy, not us.

new matilda, pauline hanson
One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, in a 2016 video.

Last Tuesday, Roberts assured voters that One Nation “are not worried what the establishment says about us”. “We are not here for the establishment,” he said. “We are here for everyday people and our nation.”

Out with the laws of political gravity, and the old stickiness that still cling sometimes to facts! Every rebuke is further proof that we’re right! Every attack is symptomatic of One Nation’s healing affect on the jaundiced Establishment!

In this way, we’re invited to view climate change as someone else’s Frankensteinian fabrication. As a monster which grew legs in a bacterial ooze of self-censorship – then hauled itself out and went to work at dinner parties, gagging anyone who dared to expose the gargantuan lie.

Roberts’ narrative constructs an amorphous enemy while also offering absolution to voters concerned by climate change but unmoved to do anything about it. Reality is swapped for a political pin-cushion, which the punters are invited to stick full of responsibility for more or less any of their problems.

The strategy is a neat lift from the Hanson playbook. One Nation’s leader harvests the generalised gripes of racists, and makes political hay out of Aboriginal people, Muslims, and asylum seekers. Roberts has simply opened a new shopfront to trade in the same greasy fish-and-chip politics.

The current zeitgeist works well for political spectacularists. Donald Trump is storming the Whitehouse because he scrunched up the agreed rules of the political class, which govern what can be said, and then ate them for the cameras.

It’s a phenomenon American commentators increasingly explain by reference to a class of people cut adrift in a globalised world, who pine for the halcyon America that Trump has promised to revive. Never mind that this Great America has died in the arse.

Rio Tinto's Warkworth Mine, near Bulga. (IMAGE: Lock the Gate Alliance, by D. Sewell, FLICKR)
Rio Tinto’s Warkworth Mine, near Bulga. (IMAGE: Lock the Gate Alliance,
by D. Sewell, FLICKR)

It’s the gratification of having someone or something else, anything to blame for a world-turned-on-you, which is proving so attractive – not necessarily an actual belief that the gaffe-theatre of Trump or Hanson offers a credible path back to a simpler past.

Touching on a sentiment not unlike Trump’s, on Tuesday Roberts pledged to help “rebuild Australia and hold back any push to de-industrialise our nation”. Who knew Australia was barrelling down the path to de-industrialisation? For her part, Hanson used the first speech of her second political coming to condemn “their push for globalisation, economic rationalism, free trade and ethnic diversity”.

At One Nation’s election party in July, its youngest candidate, Brad Trussle, complained that “these people have not worked 12 hour shifts in a factory, you know – or worked in a mine”. Incidentally, Trussle has worked in the mining industry. And his partner’s is a family of owner-driver truckies.

Perhaps Trussle and his loved ones entered these industries thinking their jobs would last, only for them to be whittled away by globalisation and technology. Those seem to be the people for which wholesale political grievance-wringing of the sort practiced by One Nation has most appeal.

One Nation’s offering to this confused class is a permit to blame asylum seekers or climate action. A chance to simplify bigger problems, by blaming them on some foreign-feeling figure. But Muslims! But climate alarmists!

Parts of Malcolm Roberts oration on Tuesday seemed squarely targeted at this disgruntled demographic. In his Maiden speech, the Senator-elect recycled well-worn mining industry propaganda, lamenting lost jobs and condemning stifling taxes. This story would likely sell well in many of the struggling mining towns strewn throughout One Nation’s heartland in rural and regional Queensland.

(IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.)
(IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.)

Roberts made promises to these people: “All of us One Nation senators are going to say the things that need to be said and do the things that need to be done.” What’s worrying is that in the saying and doing of those things, a revitalised One Nation will inevitably hollow out a space for outright climate denial amongst the major parties too.

Australia already has some of the highest rates of climate denialism. Debate which pointlessly probes the scientific consensus will promote, legitimise and license wilful ignorance among the public and politicians. “I’ve had a number of Liberals and Nats come to me and slap me on the back and say, ‘good on you, keep going’,” Roberts revealed in a recent interview with the National Broadcaster.

We have a Deputy Prime Minister in Barnaby Joyce who has only just found cause to “start to wonder whether climate change might really be happening”; we have an Attorney-General in George Brandis who declares himself “agnostic” about the science of climate change; and we have a climate denying Resources Minister in Matt Canavan, whose understanding of climate science resembles a swiss cheese turned bad. (I checked with climate scientists when he was promoted in July.)

And they’re just the start. Last year a cabal of rural and regional Coalition MPs tried to establish an inquiry which would “examine the scientific evidence that underpins the man-made global warming theory”. This year, Cory Bernardi’s ‘Australian Conservatives’ might find that a compelling cause to agitate in support of too.

You can just imagine Malcolm Roberts grinning out from behind the mic: Chief inquisitor at last!

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.