|Shaw- Victoria's fundamentalist Independent MP and a major Coalition centre-right headache. Could his actions also trigger a federal Liberal caucus room revolt in Canberra, and result in the fall of Tony Abbott?] What does "religious separatism" mean, and why is this self-defeating form of ideological purity threatening to destroy Victorian Liberal/National Coalition Premier Dennis Napthine's state government? Could it happen here?
Across the western world, Christian Right organisations take one of two alternative political strategies. In the United States, they have positioned themselves over the last thirty years as a loyal electoral constituency for the US Republican Party, which has not been without harm for the Republicans themselves. Belligerency, incompetence, corruption and militancy have compromised Republican appeal and outreach to non-Southern US states and have cost them votes in liberal states such as California and New England. Moreover, they seem to have lost generational support amongst younger voter cohorts and African-Americans, as well as single women. Blindly emulating this tactic has led to serious hazards for the Australian Liberal Party, whose current hold on federal government is proving increasingly shaky as it panders to religious, social and cultural conservatives.
The other strategic choice is the one followed in New Zealand, which is a recipe for marginality. It argues that given that trying to become a core centre-right constituency has failed, or resulted in compromise, within the United States and Australia, conservative Christians should not align themselves with "non-Christians" and should thus form separate organisations, pressure groups and political parties. Of course, the Christian Right did try this with United Future for over seven years, but then noisily exited the party over Peter Dunne's own liberal conscience over repeal of parental corporal punishment legislation. While it is true that Family First has obvious sympathies with New Zealand First as well, given its social conservatism against marriage equality (and other LGBT issues generally), as well as the issue of binding citizens referenda, it should also be noted that Bob McCoskrie was a keynote speaker at the September 2013 Conservative Party conference and routinely rates Colin Craig highly in his "voters guides", despite the fact that Craig is not yet an MP (nor may ever be).
Why has the New Zealand Christian Right adopted such a self-defeating strategy? Some of it has to do with their religious subculture itself. It tends toward separation from those who do not share a particular psychological or existential "born again" experience, who do not join specific churches that regard it as a 'litmus test' for membership, and who do not follow specific social conservative political positions related to conservative gender role models, marriage, parenting, heterosexual exclusivity, rejection of "non-Christian" social networks and other world faiths or alternative spiritualities. Thus, "religious separatism" is a fair description of their cultural, social and political lives.
In political terms, religious separatism began after 1987, when the Christian Right helped to lose the New Zealand General Election in 1987 for the National Party, having taken over vulnerable and atrophied constituency organisations. National was unimpressed at the low quality of fundamentalist candidates and decided to exert central office control and exercise candidate quality assessment beforehand. The party also decided to promote its more capable centre-right social liberal MPs and adopt a bipartisan social liberal stance. Thus, it was the Bolger administration that passed the Human Rights Act in 1993, adding lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientations and HIV status to New Zealand antidiscrimination legislation, as well as several other grounds. Incensed, the fundamentalist Christian Heritage Party embraced MMP at a time when centre-right politicians were denouncing electoral reform in this context. It wanted to become a potential coalition partner for the National Party. However, in 1995, a less separatist fundamentalist party, the Christian Democrats, formed. In 1996, the duo formed a "Christian Coalition" trojan horse to contest the general election that year. After disclosure that it was an alliance of convenience, the Christian Coalition failed to enter Parliament in 1996 and fell apart in 1997. Subsequently, the Christian Democrats metamorphosed into Future New Zealand and went into a merger with Peter Dunne's United Party in 2000, until the aformentioned events of 2007 took place.
Christian Right religious separatism reasserted itself, Future New Zealand re-emerged and mutated into the Kiwi Party, which was then assimilated into the Conservative Party in 2011. Now, Colin Craig may try to deny that the Conservatives are a religious separatist party, but he is a fundamentalist Baptist, even if he doesn't attend church. According to Facebook, most of his Auckland local body electoral candidates were fundamentalist Protestant Christians, with an individual conservative Catholic, Mormon and Soka Gakkai Buddhist (Christine Rankin). Moreover, Electoral Commission records show that Conservative Party candidates mostly used fundamentalist Auckland publisher Crown Publishing and Radio Rhema for advertising purposes in 2011. Added to which, there is the question of why Colin Craig saw it necessary to invent his own political vehicle rather than encourage his followers to enter either ACT or New Zealand First. Moreover, he has also stated that he is willing to undertake crossbench status rather than align himself with either the centre-left or centre-right.
This ideological purity has its hazards. It may mark out the Conservatives as a stealth religious social conservative separatist political party, but it also discourages other centre-right voters from voting for it as a satellite party...because it won't commit to being a satellite and has made repeated statements about its own ideological specificity and identity. Either the National Party kowtows to its religious social conservatism, or it will refuse to enter coalition with it. In practice, this cannot help but reduce its total voter share. Nor is a particular inducement for National to sacrifice a bolthole constituency seat to it. National has shown little inclination to do so, whether in Upper Harbour, East Coast Bays or Pakuranga thus far. Moreover, it may not even be monopolising the conservative Christian vote, given Winston Peters' capture of elderly social conservative but Keynesian interventionist voters formerly enamoured of Sir Robert Muldoon in the seventies and eighties- non-separatist religious social conservative voters may choose Peters over Colin Craig and his entourage. Others may vote for a social conservative National MP, or Su'a William Sio (Labour) in Mangere if they are a Pasifika voter.
One of the hazards of allowing a religious social conservative onboard can be witnessed in Victoria, Australia. Currently, the Napthine (Liberal/National Coalition) state government there is holding on by a thread in both the Legislative Council (upper house) and Legislative Assembly (lower house). Unfortunately for Napthine and his party, that single vote is not one of theirs. Geoff Shaw is the Independent MLA for Frankston, a Melbourne suburb. Elected in 2011, Shaw is a member of the fundamentalist Pentecostal Peninsula City Church. He is a fervent anti-abortionist, has anger management problems, is currently separated from his ex-wife after a domestic violence incident and another, involving a traffic officer and walked out on his former Liberal caucus colleagues after they ignored his attempts to roll back the clock over Victoria's comprehensive decriminalisation of abortion in 2009 under the ALP. As if that weren't enough, there are questions about possible misuse of personal parliamentary vehicles for business purposes. Trying to placate Shaw and militant Liberal anti-abortionists like MLC Bernie Finn, especially when they're interfering with Liberal candidate selection in the case of Liberal pro-choice MLCs and MLAs is proving a dicey prospect for Napthine. It may end badly, with the return of a Victorian ALP state government after only a single opposition term. Shaw is currently making threats over pulling confidence and supply against Napthine, sending him threatening text messages.
Moreover, losing such a populous Australian state may have dramatic consequences for the Abbott administration in Canberra, already unpopular over its retrenchment of social programmes within its federal 'black budget.' Melbourne's Age seems to believe that the question is now not if, but when Abbott's rival Malcolm Turnbull will launch a party room coup against him. Within the federal Liberal Party, the answer may come soon, particularly if Shaw's brinkspersonship triggers a snap Victorian snap election and the Napthine administration loses office as a result. In Canberra, dominos may start to fall.
It appears the Napthine administration has fundamental problems with Shaw's religious separatism. Could similar events happen here? One hopes that the New Zealand centre-right has enough sense not to emulate the sort of foolhardy pandering to extreme social conservatism that has led to political paralysis and crisis in Victoria at the hands of Geoff Shaw.
Recommended: Geoff Shaw: http://www.geoffshaw.com.au Wikipedia/Geoff Shaw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoff_Shaw_(politician) Henrietta Cook and Richard Willingham: "Geoff Shaw will support no confidence motion against Napthine governmment" The Age: 04.06.2014: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria-geoff-shaw-will-support-no-confidence-motion-against-napthine-government-20140603-39gsu.html Mark Hawthorne and Richard Willingham: "The call that did the deed" The Age: 05.06.2014: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/the call-that-did-the-deed-20140604-39jh6.html Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 11th June 2014