MIKE SECCOMBE

With the as­cen­dancy of a Pen­te­costal Chris­tian leader, the Lib­eral Party slides fur­ther to the re­li­gious right. But can it find sal­va­tion with­out the cof­fers of Mal­colm Turn­bull? Mike Seccombe re­ports.

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“THE IS­SUE IS WHETHER WE, THE AUS­TRALIAN PEO­PLE, WANT A PRIME MIN­IS­TER WHOSE WORLD VIEW IS FRAMED BY A NAR­ROW FAITH?”

Mal Washer is no longer a fed­eral Lib­eral MP, which is prob­a­bly just as well for him, be­cause it’s re­ally not his party any­more.

Washer is a man of sci­ence, not faith, a med­i­cal doc­tor and an athe­ist. For 15 years, from 1998 to 2013, he rep­re­sented not only the Western Aus­tralian seat of Moore, but also a dwin­dling strand of sci­ence-based pro­gres­sive lib­er­al­ism.

Dur­ing his time in Can­berra, Washer had a num­ber of notable run-ins with the party’s pow­er­ful re­li­gious right wing. He took on Tony Ab­bott when Ab­bott sought to ban the abor­tion drug RU486. He fought the party’s right over its op­po­si­tion to stem cell re­search.

Though Washer was ul­ti­mately on the win­ning side of med­i­cal his­tory on those is­sues, it hasn’t soft­ened his dis­dain for those who op­posed him.

“I fought this type of re­li­gious ide­ol­ogy right through,” he says. “… And I saw this tribal be­hav­iour, where they’d bring their re­li­gious ide­olo­gies and come and talk a bunch of crap that didn’t stack up sci­en­tif­i­cally or log­i­cally. It was rit­u­al­is­tic think­ing.”

Cli­mate change was an­other one. Washer was on the rel­e­vant par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees on cli­mate and the en­vi­ron­ment, and, dur­ing Mal­colm Turn­bull’s first stint as Lib­eral leader, chaired the Coali­tion’s back­bench en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee.

“I re­signed af­ter Turn­bull lost the lead­er­ship the first time. Th­ese faith­based peo­ple don’t be­lieve the sci­ence,” he says. “Yeah. I’ve got some bit­ter­ness.”

Th­ese days Washer’s old en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee is run by Craig Kelly, a Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive, cli­mate scep­tic and coal ad­vo­cate with no sci­en­tific back­ground. The seat Washer used to rep­re­sent, Moore, is now held by Ian Good­e­nough, a pil­lar of Glob­al­heart, a Pen­te­costal church that has deeply in­fil­trated the Lib­eral Party in the west.

Washer says there is now a cer­tain irony to the old Lib­eral cliché that the party is a “broad church”. In fact, he says, it is a nar­row­ing church.

He says the Lib­eral Party he be­lieved in was a party of free en­ter­prise and sound eco­nom­ics.

“But when peo­ple go to vote – and I think I know peo­ple, hav­ing been a doc­tor and a mem­ber of par­lia­ment for 15 years – they don’t vote just on eco­nomic is­sues. Th­ese days the peo­ple, most of them sec­u­lar, are vot­ing for a more lib­er­ated view on so­cial is­sues as well.”

Yet his party, in­creas­ingly in­flu­enced by the re­li­gious right, is be­com­ing more dis­tant from those views – “on cli­mate, on women’s rights, on free­dom of choice on abor­tion, on new ideas about sex­u­al­ity, about a whole range of things … Ba­si­cally they are out of date and out of step with com­mu­nity views. They are bloody dam­ag­ing, to be re­al­is­tic.”

It’s not that there are so many of them, he says, but they are “tribal” – or­gan­ised, ide­o­log­i­cally com­mit­ted and not averse to bul­ly­ing. And as the party base nar­rows, those of more mod­er­ate views “tend to walk away from the show”.

Washer’s as­sess­ment is sim­ple: “They de­feat us, and we de­serve it for our ap­a­thy.”

He is not alone in his views, although few will say so pub­licly. But, re­ally, they don’t need to. The ev­i­dence is every­where. It is there in re­cent sto­ries from this pa­per and oth­ers about the Chris­tian right and the Mor­mon push into the Vic­to­rian party, the dom­i­nance of the Abetz fac­tion in Tas­ma­nia, the threats against the pre­s­e­lec­tions of any mem­bers in Queens­land who vote with their con­sciences in favour of abor­tion law re­form.

The in­flu­ence of the re­li­gious right was clear in the de­bate over same-sex mar­riage, where, sup­ported by the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby, it worked so dili­gently to block change.

Many of the same re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives were prom­i­nent again in the re­cent lead­er­ship tur­moil within the Lib­eral Party, push­ing and in some cases al­legedly bul­ly­ing their col­leagues to dump Mal­colm Turn­bull.

Lucy Gichuhi – her­self a de­vout Pen­te­costal Chris­tian – tes­ti­fied to it.

On Mon­day last week, be­fore Scott Mor­ri­son suc­ceeded in per­suad­ing her against nam­ing in par­lia­ment those al­leged bullies, Gichuhi con­firmed on Ra­dio Na­tional that she been pressed “as a good Chris­tian woman” to vote for Peter Dut­ton.

“That line is used a lot in the party, on the con­ser­va­tive side of things, and that is a cul­ture,” she said, adding that such in­tim­i­da­tion and ha­rass­ment were anath­ema to her be­liefs.

That goes to the heart of the is­sue with re­li­gious in­flu­ence in con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics: it is not re­li­gion, per se, that is the prob­lem, but the way it man­i­fests it­self as a re­ac­tionary force.

Mar­ion Mad­dox, a pro­fes­sor at Mac­quarie Univer­sity and per­haps Aus­tralia’s fore­most ex­pert on the in­ter­sec­tion of pol­i­tics and re­li­gion, says this has not al­ways been the case.

In the early days of John Howard’s prime min­is­ter­ship, “the main­line or ma­jor churches were a ma­jor force of crit­i­cism of con­ser­va­tive so­cial pol­icy on refugees, the en­vi­ron­ment, In­dige­nous rights, so­cial wel­fare and women’s rights in the work­place,” she told a fo­rum con­vened by Sydney Crim­i­nal Lawyers ear­lier this year.

Howard, though, “re­ally set out to cul­ti­vate con­ser­va­tive churches as an al­ter­na­tive con­stituency”.

“Within any re­li­gious tra­di­tion,” said Mad­dox, “there are peo­ple who hold a whole range of po­lit­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal views.”

But con­ser­va­tive politi­cians had not only al­lied them­selves to the re­li­gious right, they also drummed up a bo­gus con­cern about a “threat” to re­li­gious free­dom.

Mad­dox wor­ried in par­tic­u­lar about cur­rent Coali­tion moves to leg­is­late ac­cord­ingly, sug­gest­ing that

“the free­doms that are go­ing to be given the force of law are those at the most con­ser­va­tive end”.

She sug­gested it would amount to en­trench­ing their right to dis­crim­i­nate against those who held other views.

“The whole time that we were hav­ing the mar­riage equal­ity de­bate we kept hear­ing about the re­li­gious free­doms of those who didn’t want mar­riage equal­ity,” she said. “What about the re­li­gious free­doms of gay Chris­tians? Forty per cent of gay and les­bian cou­ples in Aus­tralia iden­tify as Chris­tians, and some of them want to get mar­ried in churches. What about their re­li­gious free­doms?”

It’s a good ques­tion, and all the more press­ing now Aus­tralia has its first Pen­te­costal prime min­is­ter. Ar­guably no leader – not John Howard or even Tony Ab­bott – has pitched him­self so bla­tantly to the re­li­gious right as Scott Mor­ri­son.

For his first ma­jor speech last week, in the birth­place of his party, Al­bury, Mor­ri­son of­fered lit­tle in the way of pol­icy, and cer­tainly no rea­son for the dump­ing of his pop­u­lar pre­de­ces­sor. In­stead he talked about faith, re­li­gion, rit­ual. The need to pro­tect re­li­gious free­dom – from un­spec­i­fied threat – has been the most con­sis­tent feature of his many me­dia ap­pear­ances since.

Take this ex­am­ple, from his dis­cus­sion with Alan Jones this week about Philip Rud­dock’s in­quiry into re­li­gious free­dom: “I’m go­ing to pro­tect it. I’ve got the re­port back from Philip Rud­dock and I’m work­ing through that now as we speak. I’ll be mak­ing some an­nounce­ments about that over the next few months…

“I think, if you don’t have free­dom of your faith, of your be­lief – and in what­ever re­li­gion that is – then you don’t have free­dom in this coun­try at all.”

We’ll see what comes of the Rud­dock re­port, on which the gov­ern­ment has been sit­ting for months. We know noth­ing of its rec­om­men­da­tions, only that it prompted some 15,000 sub­mis­sions.

The new gov­ern­ment is run­ning it hard. Mor­ri­son’s at­tor­ney-gen­eral, Chris­tian Porter, also seized on the slim ev­i­dence of re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion to ar­gue the need for leg­isla­tive pro­tec­tions.

A re­port in Guardian Aus­tralia this week shows videos of Pen­te­costal pas­tors re­spond­ing to Mor­ri­son’s vic­tory, var­i­ously as­sert­ing that it was di­vinely in­spired, claim­ing to have re­ceived mes­sages from God pre­dict­ing it, ex­hort­ing the flocks to fast, pray and vote for him, and pre­dict­ing “dark­ness” and the per­se­cu­tion of Chris­tians if he lost.

Fa­ther Rod Bower, an Angli­can priest and archdea­con for jus­tice min­istries and chap­laincy in the dio­cese of New­cas­tle, points out that Pen­te­costal­ism is a broad stream.

But hav­ing watched Mor­ri­son and those videos posted by his Pen­te­costal sup­port­ers, he is con­cerned.

“Of course, the PM is free to ex­press his faith in any way he chooses, and that’s a right I would up­hold stren­u­ously,” Bower told The Satur­day Pa­per. “But the is­sue is whether we, the Aus­tralian peo­ple, want a prime min­is­ter whose world view is framed by a nar­row faith?

“We’ve seen in re­cent days with his state­ments about trans­gen­der peo­ple and gay con­ver­sion ther­apy – the fact that he didn’t come out clearly and stren­u­ously against that kind of be­hav­iour is cause for con­cern. Clearly, too, that par­tic­u­lar pas­tor in the video, that this idea of al­most a di­vine right that God had called this man to be our prime min­is­ter … when this par­tic­u­lar per­son has be­haved in a man­ner ut­terly con­trary to the Ju­daeo-Chris­tian nar­ra­tive on asy­lum seek­ers and refugees, in par­tic­u­lar, is quite dis­turb­ing.”

Bower wor­ries that “the pros­per­ity gospel is cer­tainly part of the Pen­te­costal stream of the­ol­ogy, which is es­sen­tially the re­li­gious ver­sion of trickle-down eco­nom­ics”.

“I think that is a cause of great con­cern, if you have a prime min­is­ter who seems to have an eco­nomic ar­chi­tec­ture that holds to that trickle-down model… and if that eco­nomic ar­chi­tec­ture is sanc­ti­fied by a the­o­log­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, that makes for a very dan­ger­ous mix.”

Iron­i­cally, the rise of Mor­ri­son has not helped the pros­per­ity of the Lib­eral Party. As for­mer leader John Hew­son notes, Mal­colm Turn­bull was the big­gest sin­gle donor be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, putting in $1.75 mil­lion of his own money.

And the for­mer deputy leader,

Julie Bishop, was one of the party’s most suc­cess­ful fundrais­ers.

“And they’ve just canned the top end of town in terms of tax cuts,” says Hew­son. “They’ve threat­ened a royal com­mis­sion into the power com­pa­nies. They’ve dumped the NEG [na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee]. From a busi­ness per­spec­tive, there hasn’t been any­thing pos­i­tive in what Mor­ri­son has said. I reckon it’s go­ing to be hard to tap busi­ness for funds.”

Michael Yab­s­ley, a for­mer Lib­eral Party trea­surer both fed­er­ally and in New South Wales, agrees. “They are run­ning on empty,” he says. “There’s no se­cret about that.”

And so we are left with the ques­tion: how deep are the Pen­te­costal pock­ets?

It’s an im­por­tant ques­tion at this point, be­cause you can’t win elec­tions on faith alone.

MIKE SECCOMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional correspondent.

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