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Religious parties may hold sway in Victoria upper house elections

22 November 2014 84 views No Comment

VICTORIANS go to the polls next Saturday to elect a new government and the bookies have Labor as odds on favourites to win. However an even shorter-priced bet is that neither the Coalition nor Labor will have control of the Victorian upper house. This may well reside with a small party and possibly a religious one.

Saturday could be one of the most crucial upper house state elections that Australia has seen for many years. This is because it comes at a time when a clutch of progressive social issues are beginning to break through into mainstream society. They include legalisation of recreational and medicinal marijuana, voluntary euthanasia, marriage equality, stem cell research and issues based loosely around the regulation of religion. Neither of the major parties in Victoria’s lower house will do much to promote these issues. Instead they are likely to allow the debate to be driven by private member’s bills and/or the media. Indeed over the next few years, the carriage of most of these issues will depend on which of the minor parties does best in Victoria’s upper house — the Legislative Council.

Importantly, an upper house win for religious parties in Victoria might mean that abortion could be back on the political agenda. Victoria is the home of our only abortion “assassination — with the death of a clinic security guard in 2001. But Victoria also has the most liberal abortion laws in the country. Every month, pro and anti-abortion supporters face off outside East Melbourne’s fertility clinic, singing prayers and protest songs across the road at each other. It’s a simmering issue just waiting to burst out through a re-aligned Victorian upper house.

There are four religious parties contesting the Victorian election and all of them are passionately anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia. They are Family First, Australian Christians, the DLP, and Rise Up Australia — the latter being notorious for making a causal link between Victoria’s deadly bushfires in 2009 and the state’s abortion laws! Despite the fact that in the upper house Clive Palmer has done a deal with the Greens, it is fascinating to see that PUP preferences in the Victorian election are also supporting right-wing “pro-life Christian parties. Indeed one might wonder if the latter could even herald an alliance between Palmer and Family First’s Bob Day in the Senate, as the mining magnate struggles to hold his disintegrating party together.

PUP has directed its second preferences to Family First in the Victorian upper house electoral regions of Northern and Southern Metro and to the Australian Christians Party in South Eastern Metro, virtually assuring Family First of a seat if they get a good primary vote. This would leave Family First in the box seat to drive conservative social change in Victoria. In all electoral regions Palmer has put the Voluntary Euthanasia Party about as far back as he could and often even behind religious fanatics like Rise Up Australia. Not many people see the PUP as a “religious party but then not many people have heard Clive Palmer talk about his own fervent religious beliefs and how they affect his political agenda.

In the upper house, Labor has done a preference deal with their old arch-enemy, the DLP, to try and lock the Greens out of the Western Victoria region. This deal could easily hand the DLP the third religious party seat in the upper house and thus give the balance of power to a religious party bloc. The Greens, who are becoming well known for their extremely aggressive and highly personal social media campaigns, will retaliate strongly against Labor. However the real contest over whether Victorians want to have a NSW-style upper house (where the Rev Fred Nile and his Christian Democrats hold the balance of power) will be played out in Victoria’s Northern Metropolitan region.

Here a titanic struggle between the progressive and the conservative forces in Australia will crystallise in a head to head tussle between Family First’s Brendan Fenn and the Sex Party’s Fiona Patten. One of these two is most likely to win the fifth seat in this region. Curiously, a vote for PUP here would be as good as a vote for Family First, while on the other hand a vote for pop singer Gotye’s new party, The Basics Rock’n’Roll Party, would be a vote for the Sex Party. It’s a tantalizing contest. Due to the way the Senate-style voting system works, a vote for Labor, Liberal or the Greens will have virtually no bearing on who will win this last upper house seat. The fact is that preferences from the smaller parties — either toward the Sex Party or to Family First — will determine the outcome of Northern Metro and quite possibly the balance of power in Victoria’s upper house.

The Sex Party and Family First represent the two ends of the electable voting spectrum in present-day Australia — a secular, libertarian approach to life compared with a religious, authoritarian one. This debate is of considerable interest to average Australians — most of whom stand somewhere between the positions of these two parties. It is fascinating to realise that Seven Network’s nationally televised ‘Sunrise’ morality debate in 2010, between Ms Patten and Family First’s Queensland director, Wendy Francis, still attracts many viewers online and, in some courses in media studies, is seen as a benchmark debate about Australian morality.

Section 116 of our Constitution outlines the freedoms for and from religion, that apply in Australia. Despite this, we have no formal separation of church and state, and the Australian states are exempt from Section 116. Theoretically the states could set up their own state religions! Although this is remarkably unlikely, the recent election of religious parties to state upper houses where they can influence and shape government policy, is of considerable concern to secular people.

Although 61 per cent of the population said they “had a religion at the last Census in 2011, only 7 per cent said they were actively involved in religion. By definition, religious parties are composed of people who are actively involved in religion. Having them in control of state upper houses and legislative agendas is not good for the other 93 per cent of Australians.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir, ‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, November 22-23, 2014

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