Ban the burqa, cut immigration, stop same-sex marriage and reject climate change: the battlegrounds of George Christensen, often the Australian government's most divisive MP. How did a poverty-stricken, shoeless kid grow up to champion the ultra-right?
By Frank Robson
In the shadowy recesses of a little-visited Chinese restaurant, George Christensen is consuming a variety of deep-fried creatures. There is chicken, beef, pork, fish, prawns and scallops, all disguised within thick blobs of batter. The big politician munches steadily through the impressive pile he served himself at the restaurant’s bain marie, seemingly without concern over which mystery animal will enter his mouth next.
He’s equally amenable about the order in which we discuss his many public controversies, ranging contentedly across such volatile themes as his attacks on Islam, his rejection of climate change science, and his personal and religious opposition to same sex marriage. Every so often, when he can’t recall a name or a date, the Nationals MP for Dawson in north Queensland puts down his fork and reaches for his government-issue iPhone.
“There may have been themes where I’ve thought, ‘I’ll just go ahead and light the fire and see what happens.’”
This omnipresent thing, its plastic housing stained and twisted by excessive use, is the weapon Christensen uses to fire the ultra-right thought bombs that have apparently made him the most abused federal politician online. Sometimes, when he hits the right offensive note, his political enemies react with such fury - [“I want to] punch this twat repeatedly in the face!” - that the “issue” finds its way into the mainstream media. This invariably leads to covering fire from Christensen’s adoring social media supporters - “You, sir, are our champion… we’ll make you prime minister!” - and further bolsters his soaring “visibility” within his electorate.
“Sometimes you do get sick of it,” he confesses, still fingering his phone. “There are only so many fights you can pick. Do I court controversy? Well, some of the things I’m passionate about are controversial subjects. And, yeah, there may have been some [themes] where I’ve thought, ‘I’ll just go ahead and light the fire and see what happens.’”
Mild-mannered and affable, with a large, round head and a sort of Elvis hairdo, Christensen finds what he’s been searching for on the phone. It’s the title of a book - Stealing From a Child: The Injustice of Marriage Equality - snappily summarised by its author, Toowoomba doctor David van Gend, as laying bare “the subversive ‘genderless agenda’ that comes with genderless ‘marriage’.”
Christensen, who launched van Gend’s anti-same sex marriage book only weeks earlier, is 38, never married, and by his own admission too busy with his career to change that in the foreseeable future. Yet he seems quite at ease holding forth about the “one purpose” of marriage being to “protect children”, and in supporting van Gend’s proposition that children “do better” when raised by their biological parents.
He developed such a passion for Catholicism, he almost became a priest.
“Of course,” he adds, “I’m gunna hear from a lot of children of gay parents who’ll say it’s fine, and of course they’re gunna say that. But, interestingly enough, there are some that say ‘I love my gay parents, but I yearn for a father, or I yearn for a mother.’”
Has he personally spoken with any such children?
Christensen: “Well [no], but with adults who once were kids from [same sex] relationships. One was an American, Katy Faust - who is derided because she didn’t speak out until after becoming a born-again Christian. And there’s another, a young Australian woman who‘s an atheist, but I can’t remember her name off the top of my head.”
Christensen’s own religious beliefs have waxed and waned intriguingly. He began as a reluctant Catholic, dragged to a church among the cane fields by his grandmother, then developed such a passion for the faith he almost became a priest - motivated, he tells me, by “seemingly supernatural” experiences - only to abandon Catholicism a few years ago and join the Antiocian Orthodox Church.
“For some reason I’ve suddenly become the new go-to guy.”
A “geek” child, he inherited his ultra-conservative political views from his ALP-hating father, Ian (an amputee who built and raced dragsters under the track name “Peg Leg” Christensen), joined the notoriously zealous Queensland Young Nationals while still at school, and has been immersed in local government or federal politics since leaving university with a communications degree in 2000.
Well liked within more hard-line sections of his sprawling electorate, which extends from his home territory of Mackay north to Townsville, Christensen is revelling in the attention he derives from the Turnbull Government’s one-seat majority, and his potential to upset this fragile balance by crossing the floor on key issues. “Most of my constituents probably don’t [understand] it that way though,” he suggests. “Only that for some reason I’ve suddenly become the new go-to guy.”
(Christensen’s rise from unknown backbencher to man of the moment began with Malcolm Turnbull’s deal with the Nationals last year. To depose Tony Abbott, Turnbull agreed not to meddle in policy areas dear to ultra-conservatives, including climate change and same sex marriage.)
I’d hoped to meet with Christensen at his Mackay apartment. Instead, he nominated this restaurant, explaining that his younger brother, Antony, is temporarily sharing his apartment while “working through some issues”. (In 2014, Antony was jailed for four months for a home invasion and assault against the lover of his former de facto partner. Christensen gave the court a character reference on his brother’s behalf.)
Although he’s been in Canberra more than six years, the man the left loves to hate still has a weakness for the sort of cringe-worthy utterances he makes when, as he puts it, “I forget I’m a politician.” When asked how the Antiocian Orthodox Church feels about same sex marriage, his laughter booms and echoes through the restaurant, still empty apart from us.
“I could make a joke about Greeks and homosexuality!” he guffaws. “One of my Italian friends says we’ve got the Greeks to thank for a lot about sexuality, but the Italians were the ones who perfected it with women.”
Next morning, searching for Christensen’s electoral office, I pull to the side of the road and ask directions of a man in hi-vis clothing. Hearing the politician’s name, the man assumes a look of horror and makes a cross with his fingers. Only then do I notice that he’s standing outside the local CFMEU office.
“Any message?” I ask when he’s provided directions.
The union guy gives the air a vigorous forking, then says, “Or, to be more succinct,” and switches to a rigidly extended middle finger. When I pass this message on, complete with gestures, Australia’s most polarising pollie beams happily.
Among the issues that make him so divisive are his calls for the return of the death penalty for drug dealers and terrorists, and for a ban on Muslim immigration from “radicalised” countries; his appearances at anti-Islam rallies organised by Geert Wilders and the Reclaim Australia movement; his likening of the Safe Schools anti-bullying program to “grooming” by paedophiles; his efforts to ban the burqa, and his unbridled aggression towards the “gutless green grubs“ of the anti-mining and conservation movement.
As we tour Mackay in his white SUV (which bears a markedly slimmer than life caricature of him above the slogan, “Standing up for the North”), Christensen points out that his strongest support among Dawson’s 100,000-odd voters occurs in the Burdekin agricultural region further north, and in the Whitsundays tourism zone between here and Townsville. Dawson was held by the LNP’s De-Anne Kelly from 1996 to 2007, when it fell to Labor’s James Bidgood. Christensen won it back in 2010; in this year’s double dissolution election his margin fell four points to 3.5 per cent.
He worked as De-Anne Kelly’s press secretary between 2001-4, then spent six years as a part-time local councillor, and was “tired of it all” - meaning politics - when approached to run for Dawson in 2009. By then, although only 31, he’d been beavering away at conservative politics more than half his life. He tells me he had to be “coaxed” into nominating for Dawson by retired Nationals senator Ron Boswell.
“Why can’t we argue a conspiracy by the UN and most of the world’s scientists?”
“What finally sold me on the idea was the prospect of helping to get rid of Labor’s emissions trading scheme,” he says with sudden enthusiasm, as though discussing a cure for all known ailments. Christensen’s position on man-made climate change is that, a: It isn’t really happening except in the “beliefs” of the majority of climate scientists, and, b: even if it is happening, it “won’t be catastrophic” as predicted by the “elite of the world”, and at worst will involve temperature increases of “only two or three degrees“ and the loss of some species - “but that‘s always been happening, anyway.”
Who are the elite of the world?
Christensen: “Oh, the United Nations, the heads of governments.”
And why are they all conspiring to deliberately lie about climate change?
“Well, if you can argue a conspiracy by [fossil fuel sources], why can’t we argue a conspiracy by the UN and most of the world’s scientists?”
But why? A conspiracy based on what?
“A lot of people stood to make money out of the world wide carbon trade, even though it’s now fallen flat on its face,” he says. “So it boils down to money on both sides I suppose…”
Cruising through cane field country on Mackay’s semi-rural south-western fringe, we pass numerous rooftop solar arrays. Christensen reckons he’s all for alternative energy - “…but only if it’s as cost-efficient as the [fossil-based] energy we’re already using” - and doesn’t require public subsidies. He insists that although “we have made temperatures higher in all of the places we’ve populated around the world”, this somehow doesn’t constitute man-made climate change.
(Does Christensen, as some have speculated, only pretend to believe this stuff to appease his more primitive constituents? Not according to his father, Ian, who recently told a journalist, “Don’t in any way, shape or form be confused about George or where he’s coming from: he’s a true blue conservative.”)
Born to a local cane farming family, Ian lost a leg to cancer at 19. He met his wife, Margaret - who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy - at a Brisbane rehabilitation centre. “They were both in their twenties,” says Christensen. “Back in Mackay they moved in with my [paternal] grandparents because they had no money. Maybe my grandmother wasn’t as strict a Catholic as I thought, because she let them live together for ages before they were married.“
“Some of the kids at school called me the barefoot bandit because I couldn’t afford shoes.”
We pass the cane farm at Te Kowai once owned by his late grandparents, and an adjoining property where Ian and Margaret still occupy the modest house they built on land given to them by Ian’s parents. Christensen tells me his father didn’t want to survive on welfare, and always did some form of work even though it reduced his social security entitlements.
“I guess we lived in what’s called relative poverty,“ he says. “Some of the kids at school called me the barefoot bandit because I couldn’t afford shoes, and my clothes were always passed down to my brother. I became a studious kid later, and a bit of a goody goody…I was always last in [running] races and that sorta stuff… There are two ways you can handle kids picking on you: you can go and cry in a corner, or roll with the punches and go along with the joke…I really didn’t care. If they were gunna make fun anyway, I’d just go along with it.”
He pauses to point out a creek bed where he fell off his bike and almost got bitten by a basking black snake.
“Bad day?” I say.
“Shocker!” he laughs.
Each Sunday, Christensen’s grandmother “dragged” him off to St John’s Catholic Church in the nearby village of Walkerston. “A lot of times I didn’t want to go…I can remember wanting to get out as soon as possible because it was so boring.” He developed the habit of packing all his grandmother’s stuff into her bag so they could leave the moment she finished with communion. “I’d be like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ I remember the one time she got really angry with me over this. She grabbed me by the hair and shook my head all around!”
Christensen and Klibbe shared a great regard for Bjelke-Petersen, especially over his “stance on law and order.”
Along with God and Gran, the other constant in his early life was his father’s politics. “I guess I got interested by osmosis through hearing Dad [railing against Bob Hawke or Paul Keating as they watched the evening news]. (One of Christensen’s former girlfriends, Natalie Batzloff, remembers his father as “a hard-core National Party man, very outspoken…[whereas] his mother is as meek as George is on a one-to-one basis…”)
Christensen’s closest friend through high school and university was another junior conservative - “only much more gung-ho than me” - Martin Klibbe. The pair joined the Young Nationals together, and later both worked for De-Anne Kelly. “We were like an inseparable sorta team,” says Christensen. At 19, Klibbe was president of the Australian Flag Association; he later joined the Australian Family Association, and was widely known as a square dancing caller. In 2004, when he was 25, Klibbe was killed in a road accident while en route to a square dancing callers’ conference.
Christensen says he and Klibbe shared a great regard for Bjelke-Petersen, especially over his “stance on law and order.”
He considers this for a moment, then adds, “But I wonder today whether I’d have the same view, because my conservatism has sorta changed a bit….[it’s] infused with a strong streak of libertarianism now.”
I tell him I must have missed his libertarian side.
Christensen: “Well, there’s a lot of stereotyping that goes on.”
(In 2004, Christensen was fondly acknowledged in News Weekly, the journal of the National Civic Council, as “an outspoken critic of the more social libertarian position some older…colleagues are seen to be advocating for the [National] party regarding issues such as stem cell research, homosexual law reform and marriage.”)
He had to publicly apologise for his “clearly stupid statements”.
With an OP score of five, Christensen could have studied constitutional law (his first choice) at Griffith University in Brisbane, but it wasn’t to be: “My parents couldn’t afford it; I couldn’t afford it… that was one of the few times I was truly unhappy with my lot in life.” He settled for majors in journalism and public relations at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton.
In 1998, as editor of a conservative uni newsletter called The Student Advocate, our emerging political hit man wrote and published articles joking about AIDS, insulting women - “the truth is women are stupid and that is that”, and questioning why publishers of a new edition of the Bible had “removed accusations that the Jews killed Christ.” These musings caught up with him during the 2010 federal election campaign, when he had to publicly apologise for his “clearly stupid statements”.
In fact, he tells me, they were adaptations of satirical material published in an Oxford University newsletter: “The only criticism that really shocked me was that I was anti-Semitic, because I’m anything but. In fact, in recent times I’ve found out that my great grandmother’s father was a Jew.”
“I assume the tests were to weed out sociopaths and people who’ve got the potential to be kiddy-fiddlers.”
While he was still a student, “something happened” that Christensen took as a “sign” he should become a priest. “I don’t want to go into specifics, because you and half your readers will just go, ‘Wow, what’s he been smoking!’ But something happened. It’s not unusual when someone believes they have a calling, for something seemingly supernatural, something beyond explanation, to actually happen… For me it was a series of somethings, actually, over a period of months.”
As a consequence, Christensen took himself off to a Melbourne seminary. “They did a heap of psychological tests, then at the end they said, ‘You’re in. We’ll accept you.’ I assume the tests were to weed out sociopaths and people who’ve got the potential to be kiddy-fiddlers,” he says. In the end, though, he changed his mind and returned to uni. “I often wonder now whether not going down that [priestly] path was the wrong thing to do…”
Christensen seems uneasy discussing child abuse within mainstream religions. He says it was part of the reason he left the Catholic church, and that the culprits “should be flogged”, but becomes a bit difficult to follow when stepping delicately around “suggestions” that homosexuality and paedophilia are somehow linked.
In the past, he ventures, some men ended up as priests because they “didn’t feel the vocation of marriage was for them”, and because “we weren’t free in saying they could pursue relationships with other men…and…and I’m not saying gay equals paedophilia, it doesn’t. But I think there has been an element of that, unfortunately…[where the church] has taken these men in, and then put them in a situation where two things have developed: relationships between priests, and relationships between [priests] and younger adolescent men. That‘s what‘s going on and it’s a big problem.”
Christensen mentions various inflammatory comments he “regrets” having made online, including his “paedophile grooming” hit on the Safe Schools program, and a suggestion that those critical of Tony Abbott’s 2014 federal budget (condemned for favouring the rich) should “do a tour of Asia and live like those [impoverished] locals”.
“Yeah, people really blew up about that one,” he reflects mildly in the car. “And I guess it was a let-them-eat-cake sorta statement…”
According to Federal Labor MP Graham Perrett, Christensen’s social media bombshells are all carefully calculated. “George is a deliberate beast,” he says. “It’s all part of the plan. Which makes it even more upsetting for me, because I’ve got a significant Islamic community [in his South-East Queensland electorate of Moreton], and when he…vilifies people of faith, that has consequences for those people, including kids.”
“Some of the caricatures and stuff, are just really nasty. I dunno how he doesn’t go home and cry.”
Perrett believes Christensen misleads voters by “playing the anti-politician…it’s a Queensland thing that’s part of George’s political lineage, through [Barnaby] Joyce and right back to Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It‘s a form of duplicity that takes a particular type of cunning, and that‘s something George has in spades.”
Christensen’s former girlfriend, Nicole Ratliff - with whom he owned two local newspapers in 2004-5 - tells me his brawling political persona is in “complete contradiction” to his private self. “The real George is a kind, soft puppy,” says the now-married restaurateur. “He always puts his needs secondary to everyone else’s, and he’s a very, very generous man….yet some of the stuff people say about him, some of the caricatures and stuff, are just really nasty. I dunno how he doesn’t go home and cry.”
“I can be derided, Pauline and Trump can be derided. Yet all we’re doing is listening to people, then repeating what they tell us they want.”
The reality, of course, is that these are heady days for the once-bullied boy from the cane fields. The boy who learnt not only to roll with the punches, but to throw them - viciously and often - on behalf of his political masters. Except that like the ubiquitous Pauline Hanson, whose views he pretty much shares, and the appalling Donald Trump, who he backs to become US president, Christensen insists that all he’s doing is listening to the voters.
“That’s the key to it,” he says at a shopping centre, where a stranger has just thanked him for his “brave” political stances. “I can be derided, Pauline and Trump can be derided. Yet all we’re doing is listening to people, then repeating what they tell us they want.”
Does he really back Trump?
Christensen assures me he does.
I can't contain myself. "But he’s such a lying prick!" I respond.
“Yeah, he is,” Big George agrees. “But which politicians aren’t?”
Photography by Paul Harris.