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The political culture of Australia, unlike the United States, frowns on explicit religiosity. shutterstock

Australian Christian Lobby: the rise and fall of the religious right

We see their spokespeople quoted in the papers and their ads on TV, but beyond that we know very little about how Australia’s lobby groups get what they want. This series shines a light on the strategies, political alignment and policy platforms of eight lobby groups this election campaign.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) was formed in 1995 and rose to great heights after the 2004 federal election when John Howard was re-elected with an increased majority and Family First won a Senate seat.

But from 2013, the ACL’s political influence has notably declined, as Labor began to adopt progressive positions in the culture wars about sexuality and gender. Not only is the ACL losing relevance, it has had to appeal to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to pay attention to the group in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

The Conversation

Rise of the Christian right

Many observers likened Howard’s 2004 triumph to George Bush’s re-election the same year and concluded that in both countries, conservatives had attracted traditional left voters by campaigning on “values” such as opposition to same-sex marriage.

Religious conservatives had always been well represented in the Coalition. But after 2004, Labor also sought their endorsement, for the same reasons as the US Democrats hastily inserted “God” into their platform at this time.

To Labor politicians, the ACL presented itself as the voice of an imagined religious and “aspirational” constituency. This made the ACL an effective “lobby”: an organisation capable of exercising influence on both sides of politics.

After 2004, Labor internalised the belief that Howard’s success was due to his “values”.

Then-PM John Howard talks to Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby. Alan Porritt/AAP

Even after Howard’s career ended, the ACL’s influence rose. Kevin Rudd emphasised his Christianity and the atheist Julia Gillard declared herself a social conservative. Labor opposed same-sex marriage and Rudd, as prime minister, refused to pursue a Bill of Rights despite strong support from the legal left.

Declining influence

A group that can only appeal to one side of politics is a client group, one trapped with nowhere to go and hence politically ineffective. Trade unions have regressed from a powerful lobby group to a client group of the Labor Party, and in the last few years the ACL has trod a similar path on the other side.

Labor’s shift on sexuality and gender has been remarkably rapid. Support for same-sex marriage is now Labor orthodoxy and state party leaders, such as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, have aggressively defended the Safe Schools program. This initiative supports schools “to create safer and more inclusive environments for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students, staff and families”.

In part, this shift reflects sincere conviction – but it is also an attempt by Labor to shore up its left flank against the Greens.

The Safe Schools program aims to create a safer environment for same-sex-attracted students. Mal Fairclough/AAP

Opponents of marriage equality in Labor ranks now look as irrelevant as traditional socialists in the 1990s. Despite some voters still opposing same-sex marriage, this is now routinely judged by media observers to be “controversial”.

Broader policy platforms

The Christian moral conservatism of the ACL is distant from the anti-Islam concerns of many on the populist right.

For many on the right, Christianity now functions less as a set of doctrinal principles than as a group identity. We’ve seen this in the US, where Donald Trump successfully appealed to many nominally evangelical voters.

Back home, under the leadership of Bob Day, Family First now champions property rights and low taxation as its first priority.

The ACL supports Indigenous constitutional recognition and increased foreign aid. These policy platforms demonstrate its political independence but are minority positions on the right. As such, the ACL finds itself isolated from many rank-and-file conservatives.

The ACL’s campaign against Safe Schools is an attempt to reboot the organisation, but this lacks the appeal of the anti-Islam cause on the populist right.

The political culture of Australia, unlike the United States, frowns on explicit religiousity. The ACL has, despite its name, largely eschewed old-style Australian Christian conservative arguments for the inherent immorality of homosexuality. It has even been silent on the Queensland government’s plan to equalise the age of consent for anal and vaginal intercourse.

The ACL has sought “secular” and “liberal” arguments against same-sex marriage: that it infringes the right of children to their biological parents.

Screenshot of the ACL’s ‘Let me have a say’ petition for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. ACL

But during the current election campaign, the ACL has even downplayed their explicit opposition to same-sex marriage to rally around the Coalition’s policy of a plebiscite on the issue.

The experience of the ACL demonstrates the difficulty of pursuing distinctively religious politics in Australia. A historical parallel would be the Protestant temperance campaigners of earlier generations, the so-called “wowsers”. They have kept alcohol out of Camberwell in Victoria, but in the long run provided only one voice in the chorus of conservative opinion.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Australian lobby groups series here.

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