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Moves afoot to counter God’s sway over the ballot box

20 April 2009 871 views No Comment

RELIGION may figure strongly at the next federal election. The electorate has had enough of self-opinionated bishops and crazy imams, and many citizens are fed up with the way the main parties bow and scrape to religious groups.

George Pell’s recent pronouncement, which supported the Pope’s claim that condoms do nothing to stop HIV transmission, puts him in the same league as flat-earthers and creationists. Educated middle-class voters are tired of this anti-intellectual stance from people who are supposed to inhabit the high moral ground. Pell even termed the AIDS epidemic in Africa a “spiritual crisis”. Perhaps it’s the best he can do to avoid the elephant in the church: child sex abuse.

While the fundamentalist pachyderm in the synagogue is hardly present here, late last year the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria released a report that claimed Muslim religious leaders were condoning rape within marriage, domestic violence, polygamy, welfare fraud and the exploitation of women. That’s the elephant in the mosque.

Yet the ALP and the Coalition still view these key religious groups as somehow above politics. This is because some powerbrokers believe the Sunday school stories about God sitting above the world, therefore his organisers on earth should be accorded the same status. This means religious leaders continue to receive political entree and favours of which other lobby groups only dream.

Australia’s religious groups are among the most hard-nosed lobbyists around. Former senator Brian Harradine was the Catholic bishop’s main man and one of the most ruthlessly efficient political operators in parliament. Although nowhere near as experienced, the Pentecostal Family First senator from Victoria, Steve Fielding, is trying hard to fit in the shoes of the former “fisherman”. Thanks to the present situation in the upper house, Fielding wields quite remarkable power for someone who gained a seat after receiving only 1.62 per cent of the vote.

That neither Labor nor the Coalition has effectively dealt with the power of religious groups has had much to do with the arrival on our political scene of three new parties. All have strong separation of church and state platforms and a take-no-prisoners approach in dealing with religious hypocrisy and cant. They view both main parties as factionally driven and morally compromised by their longstanding relationships with key religious groups. They also see the potential for these qualities to split the Greens, which have a strong feminist left faction, as well as an emerging Green Christian group. Until recently the latter was represented in Queensland parliament where the only sitting Greens member, Ronan Lee, had scored 97 per cent on a Festival of Light survey on social issues.

The first of the three alternative parties is the Liberal Democratic Party, which contested the most recent federal election without much recognition. Small government, civil liberties and personal liberty feature prominently in their platform. One of their organisers, Glenn Drury (now parliamentary liaison to the independents in NSW parliament), was the brain behind the tablecloth ballot paper in the 1999 NSW election. Drury’s clever instincts led him to set up a range of extra parties using the same membership base and a complex but brilliant preference scheme. Among minor parties such as the Four-Wheel Drive Party and the Horse Riders Party, he managed to get the Outdoor Recreation Party elected to the Legislative Council.

The second is the Australian Sex Party headed by well-known adult industry lobbyist Fiona Patten, who is widely perceived as being smart and sexy. In 1992 she missed out on a seat in the ACT parliament by a handful of votes. After a recent SBS Insight program where she took the Communications Minister to task over his internet filtering proposals, Stephen Conroy angrily demanded: “Why are you running candidates against us?” It was a telling response from Conroy, who sniffs the electoral landscape far better than he understands the internet.

The Australian Sex Party’s policy suite is strong on censorship issues and is soon to include a raft of small business policies. It also includes a call for a royal commission into child sex abuse in our churches and a standardised sex education curriculum for all schools, including religious ones. After Patten launched her new party at Melbourne Sexpo last November, within a couple of months she enrolled 2000 members. This prompted an urgent call from Jim Wallace at the Australian Christian Lobby for the main parties to preference the Sex Party last at the next federal election.

The third is the Secular Party, which is in the process of registering with the Australian Electoral Commission and which is calling for the phrase the “advancement of religion” to be removed from the definition of a charity under the tax act. While many activities religious groups perform are charitable and arguably of public benefit, it is difficult to understand how the advancement of religion is in itself. These days, religion – especially when fundamentalist – reasonably can be argued to be responsible for wars, terrorism, child sex abuse and virulent anti-intellectualism, none of which should be funded by the public purse.

The tax concessions also extend to the commercial enterprises of religions. This can be traced to the 1601 English Statute of Charitable Uses, which entered into common law the presumption that all religious activities are inherently charitable. According to the Secular Party, Australia is one of only three countries that grant tax concessions to the businesses of religious organisations.

The Australian Charitable Purpose Act defines a group or religious order that regularly undertakes prayerful intervention at the request of members of the public as being for public benefit and eligible for tax concessions. These bodies are not required to report a breakdown of their charitable businesses or their investment activities. This is an outrageous slap in the face to the nation’s many small businesses, which labour with GST, payroll taxes and other government slugs.

Come next election day, the pooled resources of these parties could form a potentially influential, new voting block in Australia.

If Family First can win a seat in the Senate with 1.62 per cent of the vote, these days anything is possible. If only for their own electoral advantage, Liberal and Labor strategists would be well advised to start talking to the new federal “freedom” parties.