Where did he get his insight? He’d worked down there, two miles deep. Sworn to secrecy. Of course.
One caller became a regular. He was special, because his concerns covered both the things that went bang and the threat of dark forces operating in the cause of a mysterious one-world tyrant.
He called himself a different name every time he phoned, but the voice was soon unmistakeable.
“Are you well today?” he’d begin. Pleasant. Smooth. There’d be a few benign niceties before he slid towards the subject he felt I ought to be compelled to report to the world.
Port Arthur, then a fresh horror. And guns.
The massacre of April 1996 was a set-up, he offered. Martin Bryant wasn’t the real shooter. Those behind it all had framed him.
Unseen, malevolent forces associated with the one-world government wanted to take our guns.
They’d got to John Howard through the killings and he’d turned against his own citizens, outlawing their right to own the sort of weapons they needed for their defence when the international forces of despotism came for us.
My batty caller was certain Bryant couldn’t have killed 35 people and wounded 23 others. He didn’t have the skills of such a marksman.
That last bit, alone, was true. Bryant wasn’t much of a marksman.
He didn’t need to be.
Those he murdered were almost all stationary, frozen, most of them trapped at point-blank range or within a metre or two of the barrel of whatever rifle he happened to be shooting at the time: 20 of them cornered in a cafe and a gift shop, most of the others in a coach, in a car and kneeling by the side of a road.
Each time Bryant tried for a shot from distance, his shots went wild, hitting gravel and trees and zinging off into space. He had no need of marksmanship. He simply had powerful, quick-firing weapons — a semi-automatic and a self-loading rifle.
I never bothered hanging up on my sick, obsessed caller.
I wanted to know where he lived (Toowoomba, Queensland, I eventually established), I wanted to get his real name (I failed), and I wanted to keep him on the line for as long as possible to drain his pockets, because those days you paid by the minute for long-distance calls. Sometimes I simply put down the phone for long periods, picking it up every now and again to say something encouraging like “really?” or an outright lie, like “that’s interesting”.
I learned early on that there was no point arguing: his variety of neurosis is reinforced by the knowledge that others are unbelievers.
Conspiracy theorists hold it to be self-evident that unseen forces manipulate events for covert purposes. Everything is connected. Nothing happens by chance.
They are convinced they have special, privileged access to this knowledge, and this makes them vastly superior to ordinary people, the poor suckers who swallow rational, official versions.
Argue with a conspiracy theorist and you are branded as covering up the truth, too stupid to understand, or someone who must be converted for your own good.
What I didn’t realise all those years ago was that this bloke was almost certainly part of a network of like-minded conspiracy theorists whose shared derangement about Port Arthur and guns would, over the coming years, ooze into a wider community.
Who in the mid-1990s could have imagined that this madness would actually slime into the conversation of the leader of a political party who has won enough support to sit in the Australian Parliament, and whose latest high-profile colleague in the NSW Parliament once had a serious chance of becoming the nation’s prime minister?
But there it is.
Pauline Hanson, leader of One Nation, whose ludicrous lieutenants have been caught trying to extract millions from the repugnant National Rifle Association in the US in an effort to undermine Australia’s gun laws, slyly questions in 2019 the truth of the Port Arthur massacre, thinking she was speaking privately.
“Those shots, they were precision shots. They didn’t muck around. I read a book on it. Port Arthur. A lot of questions there.”
Hanson was parroting my old crank caller.
Later, publicly commenting on her private thoughts (caught on camera by al-Jazeera, a major global news organisation which she calls an “Islamist” outfit), Hanson offered an alternative story. She had been taken out of context, actually believed Martin Bryant was the only shooter and insisted he should have been given the death sentence. But the One Nation leader has been here before, having to distance herself from such conspiracy theories in 2001.
In fact, there never have been any questions among those who suffered at Port Arthur and saw what happened with their own eyes, or among those who investigated the slaughter.
The only pressing question is how many Australians apart from Hanson have swallowed this loathsome bilge that has been slopping around the lower reaches of our nation’s more paranoid communities for more than two decades?
And how dangerous might their infection prove to be?
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.