Law & Politics

Liberal Party: Following the Christian right into electoral wilderness

Christian right lobby groups now have the Liberal Party they want – a lot more conservative and no doubt a lot more favourable to their pet issues.

Too bad that this party, once proudly a ‘broad church’ but now, perhaps, just a church, seems unelectable.

With many of the moderates now gone, booted out of their seats in big-city suburbs across the country, it appears clear the Liberal Party’s long-running internal divide between moderates and conservatives is resolved.

For many of the party stalwarts, the weekend’s election result was a disaster. For the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby, there were silver linings.

During the election campaign, the ACL specifically targeted a number of sitting Liberal Party members who had listened to the concerns of their electorates and voted to block Scott Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

The powerful lobby group distributed leaflets and conducted push polling in the electorates of Trent Zimmerman, Dave Sharma, Bridget Archer and Fiona Martin, arguing, according to The Guardian, that these members of parliament had “voted against protecting people of faith from discrimination” and had swung a wrecking ball into religious schools.

Yesterday, the ACL’s managing director, Martyn Iles, told Christian radio that the defeat of moderates was one of the “silver linings” of the election outcome. In dancing on the grave of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, he boasted that the ACL’s targeting of moderate politicians had been successful.

“I’ve known that the Liberals are going to lose at some point soonish. And the question for me is, ‘What will be the manner of their loss? Will it be an improvement or will it not?’ And I’m here to say that, without a doubt, that it has improved the Liberal Party significantly going forward as an opposition force and as a potential future government,” he said.

“And I think the ACL had a role in this improvement.”

For many of the party stalwarts, the weekend’s election result was a disaster. For the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby, there were silver linings.

By his own calculation, of 15 Liberals who lost their seats, at least 12 were ‘moderates’ – or, as he put it, these were the sorts of people “who weren’t really Liberals at all” and who stood up for “nasty anti-Christian social policies”.

As a result, the Liberal Party would, in going forward, have “stronger Christian values – I’m pretty confident of that,” he said.

Iles revealed that data showed the ACL’s targeting of the moderates’ in the electorates of Reid, Wentworth, North Sydney and Bass had been successful, with awareness of the ACL campaign message hovering at around 40 per cent two days before the election.

“And, of those people, we found that between 25 to 33 per cent, depending on the electorate, said that the message affected their vote,” he said.

“So we [inaudible] didn’t make the difference, as the ACL, between the Liberals winning and losing, but we certainly made sure that what happened was that, as they lost, four of the five Liberal MPs who crossed the floor to vote against ‘religious freedom’ and vote against Christian schools have lost their seats today. And the last one hangs in the balance.”

Although right-wing commentators have been quick to blame the Liberal Party’s demise on its pandering to moderates and progressive social causes, they appear oblivious to the community’s concern about the efforts of religious fundamentalists to infiltrate the party in many parts of the country in recent years.

The same commentators suggest there’s some mythical ‘quiet’ majority behind them, though it’s not clear if this is the same majority that was supposed to come out and vote against same-sex marriage but didn’t turn up.

Wherever the Christian right has sought to infiltrate or exercise overt influence over the party – such as in South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria or at the federal level – voters have abandoned the Liberal Party in droves.

The Christian right’s agenda is a losing one. Very few voters want a bar of it. If the federal Liberals now lurch even further to the right in trying appease the ACL and others like them even more, the party may as well kiss goodbye to any chance of winning back those old blue heartland seats that have turned teal, red or green.

It’s groups like the ACL that pressured the Morrison government to march on in developing a Religious Discrimination Bill that overreached so far that it turned many of the government’s own MPs off it and found little appeal outside the shrinking conservative religious ranks.

Iles himself dealt the legislation a blow last year when he declared prematurely on Christian radio that, after negotiations with the then Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the ACL had been successful in having the ‘Folau clause’ re-inserted into the draft legislation

At such a sensitive time, his comments wedged Cash and Morrison between the demands of religious lobbyists and many of the government’s own MPs who had been warning over a number of months that parts of the previous draft bill, including the ‘Folau clause’, were unacceptable.

As Paul Monk wrote in Rationale recently, a range of issues to do with religion have been a source of division within the Liberal Party. And it left party members, he said, needing to ask themselves where they stood. 

Well, voters have now answered that question for many in the Liberal Party. While the religious lobbyists may welcome a more conservative party that’s interested in pushing their fringe agendas, this is the road to electoral wilderness, not redemption, for the once broad church of the Liberal Party.

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Image: ABC screengrab and Gerda on Unsplash.

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