Under ordinary circumstances, egging a politician mid-speech might have been seen as unspeakably rude. But at a moment of raw emotion and mass grief, the teenager, whose real name is William Connolly, quickly emerged as a cult hero. Anning was easily cast as the villain.
It was a familiar role for Anning, a fringe figure in Australian politics who landed in his current position in 2017 thanks to a loophole in election law, and proceeded to make a name for himself with incendiary comments that even his onetime allies called “racist.” The 69-year-old hotelier is up for reelection in May, and experts predict he has little chance of winning a second term, which may explain why he keeps making inflammatory and attention-grabbing statements.
“He’s always been someone who is trying to get the headlines,” Zareh Ghazarian, a political scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, told The Washington Post. “I think part of that is because of the precarious position he holds in Australian politics.”
On Friday, Anning drew international attention when he wrote that Muslims “may have been the victims today; usually they are the perpetrators” in a statement that was released just hours after at least 50 people were killed in an anti-immigrant terrorist attack in two New Zealand mosques. While noting that he was opposed to violence and condemned the actions of the gunman, he also claimed that the “real cause of bloodshed” that day had been “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”
Anning, who could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday, has been in office for less than two years. If his name sounded familiar before this past weekend, it likely was because of the furor that he sparked in August, when he gave his first speech before the Australian Senate and called for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration. As The Washington Post’s Rick Noack reported, that choice of words directly mirrored how Adolf Hitler had described his plans for what would later become known as the Holocaust.
Anning refused to apologize, but said he hadn’t meant to invoke the Nazis with his remarks. During the same speech, he also suggested Australia might want to return to the days when immigration from non-European countries was restricted by what is known unofficially as the White Australia policy, and claimed Muslims, as an immigrant group, had been “the least able to assimilate and integrate” to life in Western nations.
It isn’t the only time Anning has seemed to flirt with the views espoused by white nationalists. In March 2018, while speaking to supporters, he claimed white South African farmers were being attacked and were at risk of genocide, echoing a debunked myth propagated by white supremacists. According to the Guardian, he appeared at a far-right rally in January that was attended by neo-Nazi sympathizers, then later blamed the “loony left” for the Nazi salutes witnesses had seen taking place. He also defended his choice to use taxpayer funds to attend the rally, describing it as “legitimate business.”
During the weekend, Anning was once again condemned by lawmakers from all political parties, as well as by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who added he should face the “full force of the law” for hitting the teenager who had egged him. But he remained defiant.
“He got a slap across the face, which is what his mother should have given him long ago, because he’s been misbehaving badly,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “When someone cracks you on the back of the head you react and defend yourself.” As for his fellow lawmakers’ plans to censure him for his comments, his response was dismissive: “What, is Mr. Morrison going to give me a flogging with his lace hankie?”
Along with his controversial remarks, Anning has also come under scrutiny for his financial dealings. In January, the Guardian revealed he had been using a taxpayer-funded per diem allowance to stay at a hotel owned by his brother, and, separately, was being chased down by liquidators who had spent months trying to get him to turn over documents related to a failing business venture he hadn’t disclosed to Parliament. At the time, a spokesman for Anning defended his decision to stay at his brother’s hotel, saying everything had been aboveboard and it had been the “most appropriate venue to host events.” He has yet to respond to questions about his defunct business.
Anning grew up in Queensland, where his family grazed sheep and cattle, and served in the military before going on to own a number of hotels with his wife. The state, located in northeast Australia, has a history of producing anti-establishment politicians and is considered the birthplace of the far-right One Nation Party, which is largely made up of immigration hard-liners. Anning ran for Australia’s House of Representatives on the One Nation ticket in 1998 but was unsuccessful.
The fact he was able to get a seat in the Senate nearly a decade later, in 2017, was “a bit of a fluke,” Ghazarian told The Washington Post. He had run in 2016, in what’s known as a double dissolution election, meaning all 76 seats in Australia’s Senate were up for grabs, when normally only half of them would be. That lowered the barriers to entry, Ghazarian said, making it easier for minor parties to gain representation.
One Nation, which had typically struggled to win seats in a general election, ended up electing two senators from Queensland that year. Anning still didn’t get enough votes to qualify. He came in third and was beaten out by the party’s longtime leader, Pauline Hanson, and Malcolm Roberts, a climate change denier who previously had worked in coal mines.
Then, Australia was rocked by a crisis that resulted in 15 members of Parliament resigning or being ousted from their seats because they held dual citizenship in other countries. (Under the Australian law, dual citizens cannot be elected to the Parliament unless they have taken “reasonable steps” to renounce their foreign citizenship, but some members of Parliament hadn’t even been aware that they qualified for dual citizenship by nature of where they, or their parents, had been born.) Roberts, it turned out, was also a British citizen and couldn’t legally hold on to his position. In October 2017, he was ejected from the Senate, and Anning, the next runner-up, took his seat the following month.
Even then, he was nearly disqualified: He and his wife had been the subject of bankruptcy proceedings and owed more than 212,000 Australian dollars (US$150,560) to the bank, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. If Anning had been declared insolvent, he would have been barred from joining Parliament. The case was dropped after he entered a confidential settlement in October 2017, just in time to succeed Roberts in the Senate. Immediately after being sworn in, he parted ways with the One Nation Party and became an independent.
The fact Anning wasn’t actually elected to his seat in the traditional sense and instead was installed to fill a vacancy, indicates he “has come from essentially a very small electoral base,” Ghazarian said. He added that the senator’s stoking of controversy is probably a strategy to get attention and appear different from other candidates in advance of the May election, but the fact his remarks have been so widely condemned suggests it may not be paying off.
The One Nation Party, whose ticket Anning initially ran on before joining Parliament, has been accused of racism and xenophobia before: Hanson claimed in 1996 that the country was “in danger of being swamped by Asians,” and was later widely criticized for a 2017 stunt in which she showed up in Parliament dressed in a burqa. But even by the party’s standards, Anning’s rhetoric has been extreme, Ghazarian said. Hanson distanced herself from Anning after his “final solution” speech, describing it as “straight from Goebbels’ handbook from Nazi Germany.” Similarly, Anning had briefly joined the hyper-conservative Katter’s Australian Party in 2018, becoming its only senator. But two months after his “final solution” comments, he was ousted from that group, too, with its president, Shane Paulger, calling his remarks “clearly . . . racist.”
“In the overall scheme of things, his views don’t appear to be gaining resonance to the extent that Mr. Anning would have us believe,” Ghazarian said.