Within Queensland’s Liberal National Party, they’re known as the Happy Clappers. They seem to wear the label with good humour. And why not? One of their number, former National Party MP Shane Knuth told a congregation in Atherton that, they’re a "very, very powerful lobby group" within the party.
Rumours about the rising power of the Christian Right within the LNP were given extra fuel today when Queensland PM Campbell Newman announced that he will amend the states’s new laws on civil partnerships to exclude same-sex couples. He did so in a demonstration of "good faith" to Christian churches.
This follows the brouhaha that occurred last month when Healthy Communities, an NGO whose government-funded work focuses on gay men’s health, was "advised" via the morning newspaper that its funding would soon be terminated. There was no warning, no review, no meetings with the Health Minister, no discussion.
Greens spokesman, Andrew Bartlett, didn’t pull any punches in his response: "[It] is obvious that this decision is driven by the religious fundamentalist ideology that now dominates the Liberal Party in Queensland, rather than one based on evidence about better health outcomes."
I was in the public gallery when the Queensland parliament passed Andrew Fraser’s civil unions bill last year. As the members of the LNP sat in silence, then premier Anna Bligh made the following comment:
"Be under no illusions, the reason that we have an entire Liberal — and I used that word very advisedly — and National Party voting against this bill tonight is that they are now in the grip of the rising influence of the religious right."
"The religious right has taken over the National Party. Bruce McIver and his cronies are running it."
Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? And she’d be right.
Healthy Communities has delivered HIV/AIDS prevention programmes for Queensland Health for 28 years. The organisation is highly respected in the field and applauded for adhering to best practice in HIV/AIDS prevention.
Before the state election, when the LNP was opposing civil unions tooth and nail, Healthy Communities was running a "Speak out for Equality" campaign. What Healthy Communities saw as advocating for a better, healthier social environment for their clients, the LNP saw as inappropriate politicisation and a "loss of focus" on the main game of preventing HIV/AIDS.
In broad terms, the decision to de-fund Healthy Communities has had the desired effect. Representatives of several NGOs have told me they’re terrified of saying anything negative about the LNP or its policies, in case they face a similar fate.
So is Queensland becoming a theocratic dictatorship with Campbell Newman merely a puppet premier? Is the real power of the LNP invested in its "passionately religious" president, Bruce McIver, conservative Catholic cash-cow Clive Palmer and the "very, very powerful" Happy Clappers?
According to Brisbane journalist Des Houghton, Bruce McIver’s appointment as National Party state president split the party along Christian lines. McIver is your standard right-wing, conservative Christian; opposed to "civil unions, gay equality, stem cell research, carbon tax, ‘socialism’, ethics classes in schools and multiculturalism" — all the usual suspects.
Former National Party leader, Dr Jeff Seeney, now Deputy Premier, learned the cost of defying McIver. Shortly after the two locked horns over a bill on stem-cell research in late 2007, Seeney was deposed from the leadership and replaced by Lawrence Springborg. The phone call directing Seeney to step down came from Fiona Simpson.
Asked whether his fall from grace was due to the rise of a US-style religious right within the party, Seeney replied, "I’d rather not comment. But I will say the day is rapidly approaching when that will be a major issue within the National Party".
When Queensland’s Liberal and National Parties merged in 2008 (largely at McIver’s instigation), McIver became president of the newly formed coalition. Paul Barry reported that some disaffected Liberals believe McIver hijacked their movement and that the merger was, in fact, a take-over.
"[McIver] had no intention of being part of the Liberal Party of Australia," Barry was told. "He wanted a new party, his party."
According to Barry, one ‘prominent Liberal’ complained that McIver was "running the LNP like a religion and he sees himself as the pontiff".
If McIver is the pontiff, conservative Catholic mining-magnate, Clive Palmer — who has ploughed almost as many millions into the LNP as he has tithed to the Catholic Church — must surely be God. Palmer and McIver are close mates, with McIver confirming this year that he’s still on Palmer’s payroll. That’s two very powerful, conservative Christians wielding substantial influence over a party which now holds a massive majority in the Queensland parliament.
And then, along comes Campbell Newman. Apparently, not particularly religious and on the record as supporting same-sex marriage, Newman had one attribute that none of the Happy Clappers could offer the LNP — he could win them government.
Newman insisted during the election period that overturning Labor’s civil unions legislation was "not a priority" but Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie bulldozed the proposal through cabinet within the government’s critical "first hundred days".
Newman is not going to repeal civil unions legislation. What his amendments will do is remove elements of the Act which "emulate marriage". The Premier conceded he had consulted Christian lobbyists about the amendment, but no representatives of the gay community. He admitted the decision was made to appease Christian groups who found civil ceremonies for same-sex couples offensive and unacceptable.
McIver and the LNP’s Christian faction will have another opportunity to flex their muscles next month at the LNP convention when it will settle its policy on same-sex surrogacy.
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