Thursday, October 07, 2004

Christian Party a Force in Australian Elections

Christian party now a force in Australian election

CANBERRA - Beyond John Howard and Mark Latham, on the high ground above the Democrats and the Greens, a new crusade has been quietly mustering its troops for next Saturday's Australian election.

It is an impressive army: a political party lodged firmly in the creationism and social conservatism of the nation's evangelical and charismatic Christian faiths, tapping into values shared by Prime Minister Howard and many of his supporters.

The extent of its potential influence in Saturday's election has only just become apparent through a series of preference deals with every major party except the Greens, who it regards as corruptors of all that is decent and good.

Polls suggest that the Family First Party could gain one or more Senate seats in its own right. But of greater concern are the seats it is likely to help deliver.

Family First could negate the advantage the support of the Greens has given Labor in crucial seats, upset the Greens charge for the Senate and ensure the return of Howard's Coalition for another three years.

Family First values accord in many respects with those held by Howard - who personally negotiated the preference deal with the party - and in a number of areas cross into beliefs held by Labor, the Democrats and even the Greens. In the SA Parliament, Family First MP and party founder Andrew Evans has voted with Labor.

The party denies religious affiliations, despite the large presence of senior members involved in the Assemblies of God, and says its motivation is the wellbeing of the family as the foundation stone of society.

Its ability to play hardball has been demonstrated in a A$1 million television campaign - whose funding is a mystery - that hammers the Greens. The Greens have lodged a formal complaint with the Australian Electoral Commission.

However hard it tries to distance itself from religion, the linkages are clear.

Founder Evans was pastor of Adelaide's 4000-member Paradise Community Church, and was Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Australia. Party chairman Peter Harris, also a Paradise Church official, runs Business Generation Ministry International, which lobbies support and funding within corporate Australia and whose members include most of Australia's large evangelical churches. Most of the board members are Assemblies of God members.

All but one of the NSW candidates are members of the church.

This gives the party influence beyond its claimed 2000 members. As many as 750,000 Australians belong to evangelical and charismatic churches, including almost 200,000 Pentecostalists. Further sympathy can be expected from conservative members of mainstream faiths.

Family First supports Howard's industrial relations policies and backs the war in Iraq. It opposes sex education in schools, euthanasia and legal prostitution.

But the party also champions paid maternity leave and flexible workplaces, decries racial discrimination, supports moves to end Aboriginal disadvantage and encourage reconciliation, advocates environmental protection and wants to increase foreign aid.