Separation of Church party from eastern state


This is one of the many churches located in Ringwood. Source: Olivia Hart

The Australian Christians party recently shut down its Victorian branch and headed across the Nullarbor in an exodus of not exactly biblical proportions.

Another flock of Victoria’s faithful, Family First – which once formed part of the Senate’s balance of power – has folded. Many members of these two political parties that support and promote what they regard as Christian values have since joined the Australian Conservatives.

But Australian Conservatives state director Alister Cameron does not see his party as a pilgrimage site for religious exiles, saying: “Christians don’t need their own political party. They need their own freedoms protected. That is all anyone deserves.”

He lists them as “freedom of speech, from discrimination, of assembly and freedom of religion which is about the separation of church and state”.

A study by the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) – a five-yearly research project – quizzed churchgoers on their voting patterns at the three federal elections held in the past decade. More than 3000 churches took part.

The results showed that no party attracted majority support, least of all those that styled themselves as defenders of Christian values. Between them, Family First, Australian Christians and the Christian Democratic Party totalled only 7 per cent of all votes cast.

The Liberal-Nationals Coalition was favoured by 41 per cent, while Labor received 24 per cent of first preferences.

At the 2016 federal election, the seat of Deakin – which includes eastern suburbs such as Ringwood, Nunawading and Mitcham – showed a growth in support for the Australian Christians.

Karen Dobby, a schoolteacher, who stood for the party at that poll, achieved an increase of 2.3 percentage points compared with the previous election three years earlier.

Liberal candidate Michael Sukkar, elected as the local member in 2016, stressed the personal importance of religion in his maiden speech to Parliament, declaring: “My Catholic faith has been a great source of personal strength. It also lays the foundations for my desire to pursue justice.”

With the Australian Christians opposing abortion, samesex marriage and the Safe Schools model, some Christians today do not feel this represents their own values.

In recent years Ringwood Uniting Church has found that its values didn’t align with those of the Australian Christians party, describing it as “too conservative”.

In 2014, when Karen Dobby caused controversy by blogging that “society promotes homosexuality to young people by making it sound ‘normal’ rather than discouraging it”, the party posted an article supporting her.

Instead of political involvement, many churches prefer to engage with the community in other ways.

The NCLS survey catalogued community service activities in local churches and found that only 24 per cent of local churches involved themselves in political or social justice activities.

The most popular of these were the provision of emergency relief and material aid, as well as hospital visits.

The local Salvation Army store in Ringwood. Source: Olivia Hart

Voting patterns are unpredictable among congregations that stand by the separation of Church and state, which Cameron said was about protecting each of them “from coercive by the other”.

Rather than promoting political parties “voting is considered an individual matter”, said a representative of Ringwood’s Christian Science Church.

Political parties face difficulty when they attempt to reach out to churches. According to Cameron, “priests are the gatekeepers of a Church and make it their responsibility to take care of their members by being impartial.

Despite 52 per cent of Australians identifying as Christians in the 2016 census, church attendance has long been in decline, according to the NCLS.

Only one in five Australians describing themselves as ‘frequent attenders’, with just 13 per cent reporting that they can be found in church at least once a week.