Religious extremism marginalizing the once broad based N.S.W Liberal Party


Adele Horin
Sep 10, 2005

IN THE days when the NSW Liberal Party was a run-of-the-mill conservative party, John Ryan got flak for being too Christian. The opposition spokesman for disability services, commerce and western Sydney once told Parliament that "Jesus is my friend". And last year he told Radio National's Religion Report that "being a Christian is an important part of who I am as a politician". But he added that some of his Liberal colleagues criticised him for being religious.

That was then. Now Ryan, a highly regarded, hard-working and effective member of the Liberal front bench, is in danger of losing his preselection. In the eyes of the new powerbrokers, he is not their sort of Christian.

The treatment of Ryan, it turns out, was a factor in spurring the Liberal MLC Patricia Forsythe's remarkable candour on the ABC's Stateline last week when she exposed the grip of "zealots" and "extremists" on the Liberal Party.

At a time of hysteria about Islamic extremism in Australia, it is of great concern that the NSW Liberal Party has been hijacked by Christian extremists.

Let's be clear about this term, extremists. Social conservatism, encompassing opposition to abortion, to equality for homosexuals, to stem cell research, and to the King Cross heroin injecting room trial, reflects legitimate views held in sections of the community and in sections of the Labor Party. The Liberals' social conservatives have a right to these views - providing the electorate understands this is what drives them. Holding such views openly and passionately does not of itself make them zealots.

It is when these issues - usually matters of conscience within the party - become the touchstone of being a good Liberal that red lights should flash. It is when a moral agenda, rather than efficient, compassionate government, is the overriding obsession of politicians that alarm bells should ring. It is when people who don't fit into a prescribed box are seen as having no place in the Liberal Party that terms such as zealot and extremist are appropriate.

If even moderate Christians such as Ryan are to have no future in the Liberal Party, then that is an alarming development.

At the federal level, John Howard marginalised the economic wets, and enforced rigid unity on issues such as detention centres. But despite the efforts of Tony Abbott and his evangelical colleagues, Howard has not demanded fidelity to a conservative morals agenda. Reading the electorate well, he has allowed a diversity of views on abortion and stem cell research to co-exist within the party.

But the story is different in NSW. The MLC David Clarke, leader of a powerful group of Liberal arch-conservatives, is associated with Opus Dei, a controversial evangelical movement of the Catholic Church - "a co-operator of Opus Dei". He has a crucifix on his parliamentary office desk, and a picture of the Virgin and Child on the wall, along with a photo of St Josemaria de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, and a commendation from the Croatian community.

In his maiden speech Clarke vowed to advocate Christian-based truths and values with "missionary zeal". Later he urged anti-abortionists to get themselves on the party's preselection panels.

The Liberal Party has been a broad church, drawing the line at admitting avowed racists. But it has seen its primary business as running the country - or state - not as imposing a moral agenda. For all the inroads of the religious right into politics, they have not triumphed as have their US counterparts in inflicting their program on everything from sex education to foreign aid.

But now NSW Liberals who don't ascribe to the program are being forced out of the party. Those whose main concerns are taxes, the state economy, trains, hospitals, the usual business of government, are being sidelined, no matter how competent.

Alex Hawke, the right-wing national president of the Young Liberals who is on Clarke's staff, has said, "If people want to legalise drug injecting rooms, lower the age of consent, go with all these trendy things, this is not the party that believes in those things. We're not that broad." They could, Hawke said, "choose the Greens, Labor or Democrats".

Ryan said last year he did not believe the Liberal Party should be a vehicle for "propagating the gospel". Nor did he think that "simply because you're a Christian, therefore you have to have a conservative view about society".

ED: The liberal party needs more decent people like John Ryan not right wing nutcases like David Clarke.

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