From anti-maskers to 5G conspiracists, the sovereign citizen movement is a broad tent

Some conspiracy theories seem harmless. Others are far from it. Picture: Shutterstock
Some conspiracy theories seem harmless. Others are far from it. Picture: Shutterstock

The rise of the nutters seems to have been quite rapid.

But in fact this cancer of the ignorant has in reality metastasised over decades, reaching a critical mass, and now, like the pandemic the world fights, is visible to all.

From anti-vaxxers to anti-maskers, from 5G conspiracists to those who see the UN as a tool of billionaires such as Soros or Gates - welcome to the world of the sovereign citizen. Supposedly educated, but with a self-professed anti "authoritarian" agenda, cynical of all things government.

Their origins can be traced back to ultra-right conspiracies, from the US John Birch Society and Posse Comitatus onward, that attacked the idea of government at its essence. Any government action - including criminal and commercial law - was proclaimed to be fundamentally anti-freedom. This lies at the heart of America's gun problem.

Sovereign citizen groups covered the spectrum from so called "patriots" to "survivalists" and fundamental religious fanatics. They fought against the civil rights movement of the '60s and the Equal Rights Amendment for women's equality in the '70s.

The Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was a self-professed sovereign citizen. He killed 168 innocent people.

They are regarded by US authorities as the No.1 internal terrorist threat to America, and now their underlying ideology - like the pandemic - has reached our shores.

In recent years - and weeks - we have seen this virus of ignorance and misinformation invade our community and polity, often spread by influencers the likes of Pete Evans - supposedly a chef, but now a guru on everything. Evans is proud to announce that the only genuine voice of leadership on the COVID-19 crisis is Donald Trump. He has over 230,000 followers.

Today, this sovereign citizen cohort believes COVID-19 is fake and a conspiracy for the "one-world" government of the UN, the Deep State, Big Business, Big Pharma etc. You name it, they believe it's out there trying to take control of your life.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram gladly support this proselytisation of fear for basic profit, refusing to engage in even the most basic tasks of editorial integrity. Even much of our mainstream media is happy to engage in whipping up fear and loathing for sales.

But it's important we track the history to this story.

Australians look back on the era of John Howard with somewhat naive fondness today.

The economic times were good, as they were globally. And yes, PM Howard tackled guns.

But then there was the tragedy of Iraq. And a few other troubling things we barely recall, like the Australian Wheat Board scandal, endless rorts and middle-class freebies we now know we can't afford: from CGT concessions on property and the $5-7 billion franking credits rebates.

Yet aside from the economics, we also have a cultural legacy from that era to be addressed.

As Donald Horne said about the Menzies era, under Howard we were a lucky country ignorant of just how lucky we were.

For it's clear that the attitude of the sovereign citizen down under today is a direct descendant of that held by the self-professed advocate of the "losers" of economic change - Pauline Hanson.

Let's not forget Howard's crucial decision to apply the his weight of his office behind her "free speech" to promulgate hate.


In 1987, Howard experienced his "Joh for Canberra" trainwreck (driven by Clive Palmer), so by 1996, as a new Prime Minister, he chose to act strategically - to keep Hanson and her supporters within preferencing distance of the Liberal Party.

It was a classic devil's deal.

With Melbourne now in lockdown Stage 4, where these sovereign citizens go with their ignorance and infection is a life and death issue, as we see in Trump's America.

And for Australia, opening the gate to hate speech has led to a poisoning of our democratic well, turbo-charged by what really should be called "anti-social" media.

Howard's lack of leadership continues to echo and magnify today.

All you need do to test this proposition is ask: How would Bob Hawke have handled Hanson?

I suspect that instead of giving Hanson freedom to promulgate hate, he would have called out her bigotry and declared Australians weren't that kind of people.

We are all entitled to freedom of speech, but not to assert our ignorance as a civil right.

We should never ignore the plumage of our democracy.

But let us never forget the health of the bird of democracy itself.

  • Tony Nagy is a business consultant who writes on politics, economics and culture.
This story From anti-maskers to 5G conspiracists, the sovereign citizen movement is a broad tent first appeared on The Canberra Times.