In the midst of the serious challenges facing Victoria, the priority for political power brokers ahead of the National Party’s recent state conference was to attack my church in Gippsland.
The Herald Sun featured a double-page spread on May 21 that made alarmist claims that City Builders Church in Sale was attempting to take over the party through branch-stacking. The claim is laughable. Out of a congregation of 120, 12 people are members of the party.
Published alongside this was another article featuring a former member accusing our church of links to gay conversion therapy. This clumsy mash-up of two unrelated issues in a double-page spread of a metropolitan newspaper raises obvious questions about motive and timing. Things became clearer when Victorian Nationals Leader Peter Walsh took to ABC Gippsland and falsely claimed our church was behind a motion to condemn the state government’s gay conversion therapy ban, and said The Nationals supported the legislation to outlaw it.
The only problem is, the Nationals didn’t support the current laws. Their MPs backed an array of amendments presented to the Upper House in February to wind back heavy-handed elements of the Bill that would criminalise conversations with parents, medical professionals and religious leaders. Our church is in complete agreement with this position. In fact, during a meeting in February I was encouraged by a Nationals MP to activate any networks I had across the state and lobby upper house crossbenchers to vote for these changes to the legislation.
This political hit piece was published the day before The Nationals’ state conference where one of our church members, Lee Marchant, was running for senior vice president. Mr Marchant has served as junior vice president of the party and on various committees since joining The Nationals 10 years ago. Neither the state director, party leader, MPs or any member of the executive had spoken to Mr Marchant or raised any concern prior to the Herald Sun article.
This strategic media coverage has exposed the willingness of factional power-brokers, disgruntled former church members and journalists to collude in order to manipulate the outcome of what should have been an unhindered democratic process.
Insecure political leadership stifling party membership is precisely why The Nationals are an organisation in decline. The party suffered its worst election performance in history in 2018. Too many decisions on policy and candidates were made by power-brokers instead of membership. As a result, a safe upper house seat in Northern Victoria was lost, Mildura went to an Independent and the party recorded its worst-ever result in Western Victoria. A review into the dismal outcome was conducted by party statesman John Tanner, but the findings have been withheld from the membership.
Now with only seven state MPs left, The Nationals are well under the 11-Member threshold needed to retain party status. Comfortable MPs fly under the radar of media and public scrutiny, staying silent on crucial cultural issues that matter to their membership base and weak on ideologies like climate change that are resulting in regional job losses, soaring energy prices and widespread uncertainty. Frustrated country voters are increasingly turning to independents and the Farmers, Fishers and Shooters party to represent them.
Many Christians feel the same way. Church members have expressed their concern to me about the impact various legislative changes are having on them, their ability to parent and their freedom to live out their beliefs. This is the result of failed political leadership producing poor legislation that disregards basic human rights such as freedom of religion, expression, speech and conscience. There doesn’t seem to be an Opposition courageous enough to represent these people or tackle these issues in the Victorian Parliament.
As a result, there is a groundswell of conservative people across the state becoming politically involved because they do not feel adequately represented by any political party. This is legitimate political participation motivated by a desire to restore politics to be about problem solving and policy making in the interest of the people; not the self-preservation of the elite.
For political power-brokers to use unfounded accusations in the media to seek to discourage members of a church or faith group from party membership or political participation is shameless religious discrimination. They succeeded in keeping Mr Marchant out of the vice presidency this time, but he may have coincidentally awakened a sleeping giant in Victoria.