Australia Onward Christian soldiers: the ACL is back with a vengeance and MPs are hearing its prayers

15:51  16 june  2021
15:51  16 june  2021 Source:   crikey.com.au

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The Australian Christian Lobby is back, holding a series of meetings with politicians, spending on Facebook ads, and going on a hiring blitz in a plan to get favourable religious discrimination laws passed and make its presence felt ahead of the next election.

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ACL boss Martyn Iles was in Canberra yesterday for talks with Coalition MPs about the Religious Discrimination Bill, a one-time priority of the Morrison government which had stalled before the pandemic drove attention elsewhere.

But political lobbying and closed-door meetings are just the tip of the organisation’s strategy. Iles’ heightened presence on traditional and social media demonstrates a real commitment to become an electoral force, mobilising religious voters and dragging the Coalition to the right.

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Quiet year is over

The ACL came to prominence during the marriage equality plebiscite as a key voice of the Christian right and a staunch opponent of marriage equality. Since then it has intervened in various culture war stoushes, most notably when it raised millions to pay Israel Folau’s legal fees after Rugby Australia sacked the football star over homophobic Facebook posts.

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Now, after a quiet year when the pandemic forced the ACL’s traditional agenda — culture wars over religious freedom and LGBTIQ people — into the background, it wants to make a return. Iles, who appeared on ABC’s Q&A recently, wants Christians in Australia to become “more visible” like the LGBTIQ movement.

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In a Facebook post last weekend, Iles — who took over from Lyle Shelton as managing director in 2018 — further outlined his goal for the ACL’s future. He boasted: “[Christianity] sees more politicians and leaders than any other faith group.”

But he went on to say that key to the ACL’s success was mobilisation. In the past year, it had 73 local coordinators in 73 electorates. Iles wants 10,000 volunteers mobilised in all 151 electorates. It’s clear he’s got his eyes on the next poll.

Meanwhile it’s asking for donations, hoping to get an additional $1 million by June 30 to make itself “cancel proof” and to top up the $6 million it brought in during the 2019-20 financial year. It has spent more than $63,000 in the past few months on Facebook ads, largely centred on issues like “cancel culture” and pushing for religious discrimination laws. And, crucially, it’s hiring for very election-facing positions, including a national politics director and a national field team leader.

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And while it’s easy to dismiss the ACL as a loser from the marriage equality debate, out of touch with mainstream Australia, its targeting of religious voters could work. At the last election it targeted four marginal seats with a campaign around abortion, gender issues and safe schools. The Coalition won all four, and Labor’s failure among diverse, religious voters saw it lose ground in multicultural Sydney and Melbourne suburbs.

It’s is likely that Iles knows a revved-up Christian right could be a force for the Liberals in key marginals — he’s recently delivered speeches in north Queensland, an area that contains its share of battleground seats.

What the ACL wants

The ACL, though, wants more than reelection for our Pentecostal prime minister. It’s still fighting hard for Folau, for example, taking out ads trying to force his return to the NRL. ARL commission chair Peter V’landys said it was wasting its breath and should focus on poverty reduction instead.

But religious discrimination laws are its big target, as they have been since 2019. The future of the Coalition’s bill will be a litmus test of the lobby’s influence. The first draft, hurried through by former attorney-general Christian Porter after the Folau case, lost support from everyone — LGBTIQ groups, business organisations, crossbench MPs and the ACL, who said it didn’t go far enough in protecting the right for employers to fire employees who didn’t align with religious values.

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The pandemic got in the way of Porter’s second draft, which again contained significant, disproportionate protection for religious belief. But now there’s pressure from religious groups to get the bill back. Porter’s replacement, Michaelia Cash, has conducted conversations about the bill, and met with Freedom for Faith, a similar group that just held a “religious freedom weekend” where it urged churchgoers to contact MPs and pray for the laws to come into place.

At yesterday’s Coalition joint partyroom meeting, George Christensen, a darling of the Christian right, reminded MPs about the ACL’s impending visit to make representations to interested parties. As the group continues to flex its political muscles, there will be many more to come.

Are you worried about the influence the Australian Christian Lobby has on our politicians? Send your thoughts to letters@crikey.com.au, and don’t forget to include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.

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