Today, the organisation Family First convenes a national gathering at the Life mega-church in Mangere. This gathering will include a number of speakers from around New Zealand, and abroad. These include; Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Lindsay Mitchell, who will attack social welfare, Ian Grant, head of Parents Inc, a Christian organisation that seeks to shape parenting in New Zealand, and Albert Makabary, a doctor who will ‘declare war’ on ‘our binge drinking culture’.
This selection of people is mostly un-notable, and to be expected in such a context. However, headlining the organisation’s poster are pictures of the Prime Minister John Key, and Leader of the Opposition, Phil Goff, both smiling gently for the camera. They are captioned as follows:
Bob McCroskie will interview these men separately, and find out their views on a number of family policies, as well as their personal principles and values which drive their desire to lead the country
...where do they stand personally on the difficult issues of abortion, child abuse, euthanasia, marriage, the role of parents, media standards, the role of welfare, parental choice, and many others?
It is obvious that neither of these men would be attending if they did not think there was something to be gained in their presence; either an opportunity to explain themselves to a hostile audience and dull criticism, or the opportunity to bolster support.
In the last several decades New Zealand has been considered a relatively secular nation. While politicians with strong faith and personal conviction have been elected, the role of churches in determining political positions has been relatively week, despite exhortations from the editors of the Christian broadsheet Challenge Weekly for their readers to lobby both openly and in private.
All of which has particular relevance in 2011 New Zealand. Opposition to a society that does not seek to impose religiously derived values on its citizens remains strong among a small section who fervently desire a different country. Despite, or because of, a series of governments which have abolished and reformed laws based on these moral conceptions,
In Australia, this camp has had success. After the election of the Howard Government, morally conservative currents were taken for granted as de-facto within policy making. While major shifts that had become culturally embedded would not be rolled back (there was no question of making homosexuality illegal, for example), there was to be little or no social progress, and further reform was intended to be stymied. By the mid-2000s however, this position had become complicated. Society had continued to move, and assimilate gay, feminist, and other values (or “agendas”) and political pressure for reform had built.
In this context, the Australian Christian Lobby sought to buttress itself with political leaders, and make the cost of change greater than its benefits. During the 2007 election both John Howard and Kevin Rudd made a simultaneous visit to the Sydney mega-church Hillsong, where they explained their positions on a number of issues that were of concern to conservative Christians. The event was telecast live to over 100,000, and the results disseminated widely. It was considered the first such event of its type in Australian history and a major coup for the ACL. In their presentations both candidates presented a vision of support for the “traditional’ family, no further liberalisation of laws surrounding abortion, prevention of gay marriage, further funding for religious schools, and support for religious organisations who provide social services. Thus, although Labor won the 2007 election with a landslide, its leadership saw no impetus for change, despite an active membership who believed fervently in issues like marriage equality.
In 2010 prominent marches occurred in Australian cities, fighting for true equality. I had the privilege to participate in a number of these. The emotion was palpable, the sense that right would not be denied, and the knowledge that the Australian public was on our side, was immense. Labor Party activists were in full presence, as were Greens and others. Yet it was acknowledged that there would be no change unless the current leadership took a break from their position – they were still in a dance with a conservative minority, for a small segment of votes. Labor felt like pro-equality voters were ‘safe’, or captured, with nowhere to go. This, in part, was responsible for a great swing to the Greens in the 2010 election, and the balance of power in the Senate is now held by this “anti-family” party.
Last month, safe sex advertisements featuring two men hugging affectionately while discreetly holding a condom were removed from Brisbane bus-shelters. It was revealed that a director of the ACL,Wendy Francis, was responsible for organising the form letters which had caused the advertisements to be removed in the first place. Condemnation of the removal was swift, and the backlash against her interference came from across the spectrum.
On ANZAC Day the head of the ACL Jim Wallace posted the tweet: "Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for — wasn't gay marriage and Islamic!"
In either case, the Australian Christian Lobby was revealed to not only be on the side of intolerance and hate, but deeply out of step with the values of the Australian community. Their influence has waned, and their ability to shape politics continues to slide. It is only a matter of time before they are ignored entirely. Yet the threat they pose is real, because they purport to represent almost everybody through their claim to “families”. Politicians are by their nature conservative, and do not wish to alienate potential voters. If they misunderstand the role of organisations like the ACL, they will give them more power than they deserve.
In New Zealand, Family First seeks to return the country to an imagined wholesome past. While a small segment of the population still considers this a worthwhile aim, most people have realised that civil unions did not see the end of marriage or civilisation. Like homosexual law reform two decades before, a small and noisy group were stymied and the rest of us got on with our lives. There is majority support for marriage equality, most people consider the current abortion situation untenable (in which a woman must declare a fetus a threat to her health before she can be granted either a surgical or medication abortion).
In this context, the presence of the head of the ACL at such an event, and the active attendance of both Key and Goff is extremely disturbing. While Family First is not considered a strong organisation, at least not one which can command the public agenda or shape the norms of the country, it does have an audience, people who will switch their votes in line with their moral convictions. They do not compose a great number, perhaps a few percentage at the most, and are unlikely to affect the outcome of most elections. However, if the percentage margin between a National coalition and a Labour coalition is small, or turnout is particularly low in the next election, their decisions might prove decisive. This is likely to play into the thoughts of both men while attending. The ACL will also be providing advice to Family First on how best to maximise their role and exact concessions against abortion reform, and other such issues.
So, we must ask: What are Goff and Key willing to trade to gain the votes of this audience? And in Goff’s case, is he willing to sell out his large activist base in Rainbow Labour and Labour Women to garner possible votes? In the case of either leader, after explaining themselves to Family First and the Australian Christian Lobby, they will have to explain themselves to us.