Saturday, May 29, 2010

Christian vote could decide next election

A Federal election is almost certain to be held this year and once again Christian voters and parties will have a significant impact on the outcome. In this article, first published in Alive magazine, Peter Hallett explores the state of Christian politics in the nation and the key issues facing voters.

The Christian vote could be one of the big influences on the Federal election expected later this year, following on from the landmark impact of Christian voters in the 2007 Labor victory.

One of Australia’s most respected election analysts, former Queensland Senator John Black, claims that Kevin Rudd may not have won in 2007 without the “leverage” and “key seats” delivered to him by swinging Christian voters.

Columnist with The Australian, Christopher Pearson, said John Black’s findings that the Christian vote “played a more decisive role in determining the outcome than any other single factor” was evidence of a re-emergence of Christian influence in federal politics not seen since the Menzies era.

And with nearly 13 million Australians identifying themselves with Christianity in the 2006 Census and 19 per cent of people attending church at least monthly, many would say it is about time that Christian values influenced election outcomes.

As campaigning intensifies in the months ahead, Christians need to be aware of the increased targeting of them by the major parties and also the relative strengths of parties aligning themselves specifically with Christian values.

Battle for Christian vote intensifies

Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace AM, said that from 2001 to 2007 there was a gradual increase in the significance of the Christian vote and the recognition of that significance by political parties and media. This is only expected to increase this year.

Mr Wallace said that the battle for Christian support intensified in 2007 with the Labor Party, led by “prominent Christian” Kevin Rudd, challenging the conservative parties’ claim to more fully represent Christian concerns.

He said the willingness of both Mr Rudd and Mr Howard to participate in the ACL’s Make It Count election webcast was “further evidence they were convinced the Christian constituency was real”.

“And the fact that we were able to elicit a lot of commitments from the parties before the last election again was evidence they were convinced this constituency is real and potentially a government changer.”

Mr Wallace said the ascendancy to Coalition leadership of devout Catholic, Tony Abbot – “always a strong stalwart and champion of Christian values” - neutralised the leadership factor, forcing Christian voters to “look at the depth of their policies and the number of committed Christians in the party”.

To this end, ACL – a fiercely non-partisan group - will again conduct Make It Count, a nationwide webcast from both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to Christians in churches across the nation. In 2007, Mr Rudd and Mr Howard addressed a wide-range of denominational leaders and this was webcast to 100,000 voters sitting in churches around the nation.

This year Make It Count is to be held on June 21, with both leaders appearing, and Mr Wallace is hoping for 300,000 viewers.

Christian parties on the rise

Coinciding with the major political parties’ increased awareness of Christian voters has been the emergence in the past decade of Family First, alongside the Christian Democratic Party, as a strong contender for Christian support.

Family First Senator Stephen Fielding was elected in 2004 and will face the voters again in this year’s election. Senator Fielding believes he has a strong chance of being re-elected.

“Family First has grown into a party which has a positive impact on the Australian political scene. I think Australians like the idea of having someone in between the two major parties standing up for the little guy. We make decisions based on commonsense, unlike the Greens,” Senator Fielding said.

“Certainly our vote has increased over the two most recent [federal] elections in Victoria and with representatives in South Australia and New South Wales and previously in Western Australia we believe our vote can grow.”

According to Senator Fielding, the three big issues for Australians are health, education and the economy. “I think Family First has done a great job in Federal politics by holding the Rudd Government to account”.

While the origin of Family First is clearly Christian, being founded by former Assemblies of God pastor, Andrew Evans OAM, it is now positioning itself more broadly as a party representing family values and small business.

Senator Fielding described Family First as “a party based on good strong values, something that is a key part of who we are. There are certainly many groups in the community, including the Christian community to name just one, that share many of our values. At the end of the day though, we stand up for the forgotten people in the political landscape, families and small business”.

In comparison, the Christian Democratic Party stresses that it is the only party in Australia that is clearly Christian, based on its constitution.

The veteran of Christian politics in Australia, the Rev Fred Nile MLC, said “we are the only political party with a statement of faith. Our policies are to be based on the word of God and in writing the constitution, I made it that every CDP candidate has to vote according to their conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Rev Nile came within a few votes of snaring a NSW senate seat when he stood in 2004 before returning to state politics and although he has ruled out standing this year, he believes CDP will field quality candidates across the nation.

“We can’t announce the names just yet but we will have some very prominent candidates and particularly we are concentrating on church leaders – people who are prominent in their particular denomination. That has been a change in our strategy rather than just having lay people, which we have done in the past.”

Rev Nile expected the CDP’s best chance would be in NSW and Western Australia and over the years he had formed very strong ties with other minor parties, such as “DLP, Shooters Party, Family First and so on” and was confident of arranging preference exchanges that would boost CDP’s chances.

He believes that parties representing Christian values are poised to perform strongly because the electorate is concerned about Australia’s direction and registering a degree of disillusionment with the major parties.

“There’s a greater concern about where Australia is going, certainly on the moral issues, but also with things like climate change, the ETS – whether that had gone overboard – so there is more concern in the electorate, that’s my feeling, about the state of the nation, where Australia is going.”

Rev Nile listed Godly values, family life, justice and decency as policy priorities for the CDP and said that other issues of importance to Christian voters included protection of children from drugs; internet pornography; changes to the marriage law; same sex surrogacy and adoption; and giving priority to Christian refugees.

Why vote for a Christian party?

With both major parties bidding for the Christian vote and being led by self-confessed Christians, there are still strong reasons for considering giving your first vote to a party representing Christian values.

ACL’s Jim Wallace said a vote for a Christian party candidate, even if they don’t win, was never wasted.

“People have to remember that because of our preferential system, you can place a first vote for a Christian party and then, whether your preference is allocated as the party would have them or you allocate them yourselves, your vote is never wasted,” Mr Wallace said.

“So I think those parties, and support for those parties, is very, very important. It’s very important when they are in the Upper House because we have seen the CDP has at times held the balance of power and exercised a lot of good in NSW and we have seen with Family First they have exercised a lot of good in the SA parliament where they hold, at least on certain issues, the balance of power.”

Rev Fred Nile said his party would make this issue a major campaign message as he knew from research that many Christian voters did not understand the value of voting for a Christian party first.

“Many voters don’t seem to realise that if they vote for the Christian party first and then go to their favourite major party; if we don’t get enough votes, their vote will then flow to their major party preference.

“What this does is send a message to the major parties, ‘We are concerned about these Christian issues. We would like you to adopt these policies, or be more Christian’. So it’s a very powerful message and I know the major parties spend a lot of time, on election night, studying the preference flow,” Rev Nile said.

“So it’s really getting more value for your vote. If you vote directly for Labor or Liberal they can say, and rightly so, that you are fully supporting all their policies, when probably that Christian isn’t. Voting for us gives them a kick in the pants – because they ask why would the voter do that, and it forces them to do a bit of analysing of the vote and the issues.”

Church has opportunity to stand up

With the possibility Australians will be voting in a federal election as early as August, ACL’s Jim Wallace is urging Christian leaders to make the most of the opportunity.

“I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Christians are becoming disappointed in some denominational leadership, in that some leaders have decided that it is too hard out there, and they take too many hits, to be out there on hard issues,” Mr Wallace said.

“I heard one prominent Christian leader say that we shouldn’t be out there giving the perspective that causes people to think the church lacks compassion. I agree with that, because the church is all about compassion, but we shouldn’t avoid the fight that has to be had on both moral and social justice issues for fear of people’s perceptions of the church - perceptions of Christ were so bad they crucified him!

“And so we’ve got to realise as the church, that while we have to represent Christ in a responsible way, we have to stand up for what Christ represents. And it includes the political sphere as well. I think the next election will be a real opportunity to do that.” PH

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