“Because there are some people that have got hyperactive emotions,” Ashby continues. “There are others, that are like me, that don’t have any.”
It is as good a summation of the callous pointlessness of One Nation as I have heard, a perfect sentence to describe the vacuum at its dead heart.
This is a party that began as an anti-Asian immigration outfit, before flaming out and rebranding as anti-Islam in its 21st century incarnation. Since then it has scoured the darkest corners of the internet to come up with a policy pastiche of men’s rights issues, anti-vaxxer garbage, dangerous economic protectionism and flirtation with European replacement theory – the idea that whites are being “pushed out” by non-white immigrants.
This week the mask dropped far enough to reveal party leader Pauline Hanson apparently gives credence to conspiracy theorists who believe the Port Arthur massacre was a do-up to manipulate the public into accepting major firearms restrictions.
If it wasn’t so sickening, it would be plainly embarrassing how blindly One Nation follows US fashions on all matters wacky and racist.
The Port Arthur conspiracy theory bears a strong resemblance to the rantings of Alex Jones, the host of the US radio show and website Infowars. Jones says the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 26 people, mostly small children, were slain, was fake news.
One of the murdered children’s fathers this week killed himself following a campaign of harassment from conspiracy theorists, including Jones, who perpetuated claims he was a paid actor who profited from the killing of his six-year-old girl.
If you think that’s equal parts insane and awful, imagine how it must feel to be a Port Arthur survivor this week, or the loved one of someone killed there.
The soliciting of actual funds from the gun lobby (there is no evidence One Nation was successful in getting money from the National Rifle Association or others) is a natural progression for a political outfit that has pinched its strategies for years. As for those strategies, we learned a lot about them in the documentary.
Dickson and Ashby are filmed meeting with the media liaison for the NRA, Catherine Mortensen, who tells them the basics: find sympathetic reporters, ghost-write opinion columns for resource-strapped news outlets so they look “organic”, focus on the message of self-protection against violent social threats, win over mums, and never use the word “weapon”.
When gun massacres happen, go silent and refuse to comment.
When you break your silence, accuse your opponents of exploiting the deaths of innocents for political purposes.
Always keep the message simple.
“You want to put messaging out there that will get people outraged. That will get them mad. Easy to understand,” Mortensen tells them.
«When you start talking about issues that are too complicated or that make them think too hard, you kinda lost it.”
During the Washington tour, Ashby seems single-mindedly focused on the cash he might be able to grab.
Dickson is less disciplined, more excitable. He comes across as the slack-jawed yokel whose Walter Mitty-esque fantasies have come to life. At one point he boasts about the toys he’ll buy with all the money they’re going to get.
“I’m gonna to be in one of those drug dealer mansions on the beach,” he tells Ashby and Muller over dinner (and one presumes, or hopes, drinks). “I’ll hire it for a month! You know the ones – 25 rooms and the chef and everything we’ll drink and shoot the shit out of everything on the water. Machine guns and everything!”
Later, he gets boyishly excited at the prospect of visiting a gun shop. Once inside, he bounces around like a trigger-happy Tigger, chattering to the sales assistant.
“They took all my guns,” he laments of Australia’s 1996 gun reforms. “That was a bad time for us. It was like hell on earth.”
Then the American sales assistant says something very interesting. “What we’ve seen with Trump getting elected into office is there has been a rise of nut jobs,” he tells his Aussie window-shoppers. “There’s a lot more scary people, like, the burning-cross kind of people … they feel like they’re in a much more friendly political environment. So they’re coming out of the woodwork scaring a lot of people.”
He goes onto explain how that positively affects sales. “This is good because we are getting more left-leaning buyers – women, minorities, LGBTQ people … feeling they are in more danger. They’re protecting themselves.”
And just like that, this American gun peddler makes the case that certain sections of our media and politics have been denying since the Christchurch massacre – that politicians can create an environment in which dangerous, anti-social bigots are emboldened towards violence.
Above all, the airing of the Al Jazeera documentary has thrown into relief the extraordinary leadership demonstrated by then prime minister John Howard and his Nationals counterpart Tim Fischer when they pulled together the National Firearms Agreement in 1996.
They capitalised on the political momentum created by the Port Arthur killings, and deployed the old-fashioned art of persuasion to win the argument for gun control “in the public square”, as Fischer put it during a 7.30 interview this week.
The most terrifying thing about this week, for my money, was the thought experiment it raised: how would we manage to accomplish such a contentious, major reform in today’s divisive political environment? It’s likely we wouldn’t.
Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.