Victorian Elections: Liberals under siege from extremist religious groups

Nov 23, 2022
A Row of Voting Booths Ready for Election Day in Australia.

The Victorian election is a mess. This is the product of the destruction of our conservative forces by international right wing radicalism; for people in that sphere discrediting democracy is the desirable first step in dismantling the status quo. For the rest of us, it is a threat.

The Liberal Party in Victoria is caught in a trap. It pitches itself as the moderate old party of its forebears. Unfortunately, too many of the moderates who ran it or voted for it are disenchanted both by shambolic efforts in the state, and by its damaged federal reflection.

Around the state, branches are under siege by extremist religious groups, mostly Pentecostal but also Mormon. The state’s governing body is also gradually filling with these members.

Opposition leader Matthew Guy pushed Eastern Victoria candidate City Builder Renee Heath out of the Liberal fold last week, but there are others in this election with similar views from which he cannot separate the party. Too many seats would be lost in this campaign’s desperate effort to defeat the favourite.

Earlier this month a document was finally covered in The Age that is purported to have been designed by Liberal Candidate for the 2019 election Peter Killin. It sets out a “roadmap” for the religious right to “infiltrate” the Liberal Party at all levels. Killin was forced to resign at that time over ghastly homophobic commentary but now sits on the state assembly assisting in the running of the party.

In 2020, Marcus Bastiaan resigned from the Victorian Liberal Party after “having created a powerful network of religious “social conservatives” in branches across the state.”

Investigations into the branches suggests that Pentecostals have coopted Gippsland, South Gippsland and Morwell branches. There is concern about the Dunkley Branch on the Mornington Peninsula also being colonised. In January this year, moderate Liberals asked the party to “dump” a preselected candidate for Ringwood because her “recruitment of Mormon members and religious right views maker her unelectable.” In 2018, The Age reported on “conservative” Mormons winning seats as party officers at the state conference.

Bernie Finn was removed from the party when his praise for American total abortion bans proved the final straw for Guy’s team. The Western Metropolitan Branch has, however, been coopted by a religious majority and the replacement preselected is Moira Deeming. Aside from being Finn’s acolyte and, for a long time, his sidekick at the March for Babies extreme anti-choice body, Deeming has a long record of reactionary positions on LGBTQI rights.

One of the latest scandals has been the comments recorded from Timothy Dragan, aged only 26, compromising his candidacy for the Narre Warren North seat. He ranted about how colonising Australians “won this land fair and square,” arguing that respect for Indigenous Australians is unwarranted, and the nuclear waste should be dumped on Alice Springs. He also spouted anti-abortion views and climate denial. Matthew Guy chided Dragan for “disrespectful” and “silly” comments, but accepted his apology.

The state Liberals struggled during the pandemic’s worst to get traction despite constantly railing against “the world’s longest lockdowns.” Working together with News Corps’ Herald Sun, the constant attacks on the Premier and the state added to the pain Victorians experienced, helping drive “freedom” ralliers into violent attacks on the police. Victorian opposition politicians appeared at the rallies near a full-sized gallows and other violent threats on the government.

Two weeks ago, the Liberals released an ad which placed themselves in the thick of those anti-science, anti-health policy riots, demanding the “cookers” remember when “we” hit the streets to fight against Dan Andrews and vaccine mandates.

As Josh Burns MP has collated, the Liberal Party has agreed to give preferences to a number of figures who have made ugly threats. The list includes Rebekah Spelman who called for the Premier to be hanged, as well as co-orchestrating the rally featuring the gallows. Another is independent upper house member, Catherine Cumming, now standing for the “Angry Victorians Party,” who called for the Premier to be turned into a “red mist.” This term alludes to military jargon describing the impact of sniper hits. She was standing next to violent anti-lockdown protest organiser Harrison McLean, who has written that “Hitler had some good points”,  when she made the speech at the “worldwide” rally for freedom.

One of the first acts of the next government should be the redesign of the upper house voting mechanism in Victoria. The state is alone in granting the voters a single choice above the line, allowing the parties to negotiate preference deals that are automatically allocated. Voters have to nominate a minimum of merely 5 selections below the line, but few choose to do so. This mechanism has enabled the scandal over Glenn Druery’s lucrative career as a “preference whisperer” where he assists parties to gain enough lower preferences to win a seat despite gaining few first preference votes.

Another key reform ought to be removing the “exceptional circumstances” block on IBAC’s ability to hold public hearings. The slow path through the process of giving natural justice to people facing adverse findings is holding up the release of corruption findings. More public hearings will allow greater public confidence in the ability of the anti-corruption body to hold politicians and public servants to account. Accusations being levelled at both main parties of corruption are undermining faith in the process.

Another systematic flaw is the behaviour of the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC). It has executed some petty blocks on independent candidates, known as Teals, in a way that appears punitive and has been perceived as partisan by those candidates. VCAT overturned the Commission’s ban on their how to vote cards.

It is crucial that the VEC’s behaviour remain absolutely meticulously nonpartisan. The combination of its bans with the slow IBAC appeal process and preference-whisperer scandals has led to calls from the “freedom” conspiracy sector for the election to be postponed as unworkable. A Dan Andrews victory is being preemptively described as evidence of a corrupt electoral process in those corners of the internet.

Democracy depends on transparency, reliable information, nonpartisan systems and trust. The failure of the corporate media to adhere to that tradition is a critical attack on the ability of voters to select their next government in a responsible fashion. The Victorian Liberal Party’s attempts to suppress discussion of their gradual takeover by the religious right is deeply problematic. Victorians need to know that a “Liberal” vote is becoming increasingly neither liberal nor conservative.

America’s flawed electoral processes have compounded the crisis of trust. It is critical that we don’t follow them into that chaos. Dan Andrews is correct: we don’t want that Americanisation of politics here.

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