Those interested by this essay will also appreciate my TV interview with Jana Wendt on the same subject where I expand on these issues (given about nine months after the events depicted here). Full details are elsewhere on this same website at THIS LINK.
This essay was written by me prior to the Australian Federal election in October 2004. I subsequently removed it, not because the facts were wrong or because I had changed my opinion, but as a courtesy to people whom I respected, and who had claimed that I had prematurely expressed opinions without fairly giving them a chance to put their side of the story to me. I assumed my gesture would be a precursor to a proper debate on the matter. I was wrong. I have re-posted my original article as of July 4 2005 directly as a consequence of their deliberate refusal to even as much as broach the subject. If my heartfelt invitation had been accepted, this and further comment on this website would not be here.
Voltaire said "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."
For the benefit of the wider audience: I am a member of 16 years standing in the Assemblies of God Church. The people in question are all men and women whom I love, look up to, or grew up with. I ascribe to them the teachings that are responsible for the strength of my marriage, the depth of my personal faith in Jesus, and my conviction that we are called to make a difference in the world around us.
So why would I write what (an unfortunate few) will characterise as an attack on my Church?
Well, the answer is that it isn't an attack on my Church at all. Family First is a self-confessed secular political party who claim no spiritual authority over anyone. The principles that would rightly restrain me from launching an unconscionable attack on my leaders as Pastors do not apply when they are seeking advantage in the marketplace of political ideas. I happen to support a different political party. The miracle of Australian democracy is that I can do so and, hopefully, remain friends with those with whom I differ in opinion. If Family First are indeed the secular political party that they claim, then their policies (which I support), and their methods (which I don't) are fair game.
So, allow me to make this distinction, and ask you to do the same. I love my Pastors and I love my Church. I just think that they don't make very good politicians, and nor should they try, if it results (as it has) in a denial of Jesus Christ and draws the mockery of non-Christians.
Differences of opinion in the Church (and not just our Church) are far more likely to be seen as "undermining the vision" or "not fully committed to partnering" or being "unteachable". Such people then get short shrift and sometimes the welcome mat is withdrawn. The problem, of course is that this may be true! I'm absolutely committed to my Church. Hawkesbury Church is my home and, believe me, I've had to defend it in my home more than you have in yours, mate. People can and frequently have said unkind things about the Church with the sole intent of bellyaching. So how do we bring a legitimate grievance to our leadership without being branded persona non grata?
Well, the first and most important thing is for us to each watch our own attitudes. Trust me, I've been royally p**** at a dozen different things over the years but, each and every time, I center myself and apply the desideratum "A bad attitude means that the possibility I'm feeling what I am because God wants me to change it is probably zero." There are plenty of times where I've stopped myself from doing things (like writing letters to bonehead Creationists. There, I've exposed my secret vice), because a moment of reflection causes me to realise that my motives were wrong. They were personal, and not based on a conviction that my actions were a) helpful and b) directed by the Spirit.
The Second thing is to get your facts straight. I was happy enough to see Family First as "Mostly Harmless" in the Douglas Adams sense, until Pastor Ian Woods mentioned the flurry of media attention the party had received over the last week in the papers. I read the article(s) he pointed out in last Saturday's Herald, and did some digging of my own. My view has changed.
My Dander is now Officially Up. Those who know me well will testify my Dander is not to be trifled with. (I might add that this would sound more dignified if I hadn't looked up the dictionary and found that "dander" is basically bird dandruff. This shows that the people that coin these phrases ought to be more careful)
I am writing as a concerned citizen and as a concerned Christian, in equal measure. Don't take an argument I'm making about a self-confessed secular political party with views on strange subjects that simply won't work and turn it into an attack on my commitment to Jesus or to our Church. Nor should you accuse me of secretly supporting the Greens. I'm not that stupid.
a) In Queensland:
Ronald Reagan wasn't a President well known for his command of detail. "The Great Communicator" was, however a master of winning a crowd over. In 1980, running for the Presidency for the first time, he attended a huge charismatic Christian gathering. Here was a constituency that would be valuable if he could win it over. National Church leaders were careful to explain their dilemma to the aspirant before he took the stage. "You understand," they explained, "we aren't political. We can't be seen to endorse one political party over another. It just isn't proper." These leaders had previously given tacit endorsement to Jimmy Carter in 1976, only to be disappointed by his Presidency. Reagan mused. "Fine." he said and approached the podium. "I know you can't endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you." The quote launched the Christian Conservative movement as a political force in the U.S.
It's a shame that the operators behind the Family First party haven't shown as much wisdom in handling the obvious connections between their party and the Church. This matter would have merely been picky if it weren't for the fact that both the party and the Church are coming in for escalating, withering criticism (like The Chaser Decides on the ABC last night with their mock news headline "Family First party denies Jesus Christ three time before cock crows"). It made me feel embarrassed.
The Family First website has issued several press releases in the last week or two to clarify the issues. The first one made this claim:
RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION: The (Family First) party is not a church party or an Assembly of God party, nor is it funded by AOG churches."
The second one that was released yesterday was even more emphatic:
"Recent media reports have labelled Family First Party a "Christian party" and, in some cases, an offshoot of mainstream Christian church, Assemblies of God. Lead Queensland Senate candidate, John Lewis, said that the labelling of the party bordered on slander."
Read that twice. The Family First party are so angry about being associated with the Assemblies of God that, in the view of Queensland Senate candidate John Lewis, it amounts to slander.
Now read this July release from the desk of Wayne Alcorn, president of the Queensland Assemblies of God:
By now you would be aware that Pastor John Lewis will be standing for the Senate at the next Federal election... As ministers of the Gospel, we must have a genuine sense of responsibility as we watch our social fabric deteriorate. We all need to handle political issues wisely, and though we have no right to tell our people how to vote, I urge you to:
1. Call your people to pray leading up to this next election.
2. Be aware of what each candidate stands for. Where necessary, meet with them prior to the election.
3. Encourage your people to vote for men and women who will stand for righteous values &endash; not just play some party line."
Proof that the Queensland Churches "got the message" about who they should support is indicated by a story that appeared in an article in the Sunshine Coast Daily on 26 Sept:
"Parishioner upset at mix of politics and religion: 'Get politics out of my church'.
That was the call by a disgruntled Nambour parishioner yesterday after a campaigner for a political party interrupted a Pentecostal church service to appeal for financial donations and volunteers.
The parishioner, who declined to be named, said he was angered when a volunteer for the fledgling Family First party was allowed to make a 15 minute political advertisement mid way through a recent Nambour Assembly of God service."
Family First denies that it is not funded by AOG members, and yet complaints of soliciting campaign funding and support through Churches are reported in the papers.
A Family First candidate responds angrily to the mere suggestion that they are associated with the Assemblies of God, accusing those who do so of slander. Meanwhile, the State President offers fulsome praise of exactly the same man (and obviously with his approval), thinly disguised by the non-disclaimer that "of course, we don't tell anyone how to vote." Hypocrisy!
b) In New South Wales:
In New South Wales, the Family First party has come in for a deal of media scrutiny about the same connections between itself and the Church. A SMH report on the 25th of Sept (website link, or PDF) contains this quote:
'Joan Woods, from the Family First party and wife of the president of the Assemblies of God church in NSW, is adamant: there's "absolutely no connection" between the two organisations. Church and state are absolutely separate, says the party's lead NSW Senate candidate. There is no funding link between the two, indeed no formal link at all. "Not in any file, in any legally written document, in [the party] constitution," she says, a little indignantly.'
If this isthe case, then this email from Michael Murphy, deputy President of the NSW Executive may be a little hard to explain. Fully in the public domain, this letter was circulated to every Pastor of an AOG Church in NSW. Extract:
"Dear Pastor, As you are probably aware, God is doing a unique thing right now …I need to inform you of our latest such opportunity that Joan Woods, our own President's wife, has just accepted. Joan has been asked to represent the Family First Party as their Federal Senate Candidate for NSW. Whenever one of our own takes such a stand, I think we have a responsibility on a number of fronts.
1. Pray 2. Support - wherever possible."
You will recall that Ian Woods made an emphatic statement from the pulpit that the "Assemblies of God is not a political movement. We are a movement, but not a political one. We do not support any particular party." If such an email had come directly from the State President of the AOG, such an email would have been wholly improper. Is it any less improper if it is sent by his deputy?
"Pastor Brian Houston, the national president of the Assemblies of God church, said several people from the church supported Family First. 'But as far as I am aware there is no instruction on how Assemblies of God is to vote,' Pastor Houston said."
Please! I can picture Pastor Brian with furrowed brow, scuffing the ground with the toe of his shoe. "Family First, Family First... hmmm. I don't know. I feel I should know that from somewhere, but... nup, nuthin to do with us! "
Meanwhile, will Joan Woods or other Family First candidates attend services at one or more of the Hillsong campuses this Sunday to be "presented" to the congregation, only one week from polling day? Watch this space, based on one rumour passed on. One wonders how many other political parties will receive such a boost from Brian Houston?
All Federal Elections in Australia are governed by the Commonwealth Electoral act of 1912. Several sections deal with situations where improper influence or a lack of full independence on the part of a candidate can result in a conflict of interest. The Australian Electoral Commission has a primer on such matters at its website. Section 326 of the Act, says (in part):
A person shall not, with the intention of influencing or affecting… any candidature of another person; or any support of… a candidate… or a political party by another person… give or confer…, any property or benefit of any kind to that other person or to a third person.
Penalty: $5,000 or imprisonment for 2 years, or both.
It is also true that It is also true that of the 23 candidates that are standing in lower house seats in NSW, fully 10 are from the Hawkesbury Church. Five are paid staff at Hawkesbury Church. These are:
- Jon Dorhauer standing in Greenway (Riverstone),
- Carolyn Dorhauer standing in Robertson (Gosford),
- Cat Cannone standing in Watson (Hurstville),
- Michael Woods, standing in Hunter (Cessnok),
- Melanie Woods standing in Calare (Bathurst)
A small but noteworthy point is that several fail to disclose their association with Hawkesbury Church in their candidate information forms lodged with the AEC. The others are members of the Church who have never expressed political aspirations before.
Unfortunately, perusing this list of candidates also reveals another embarrassing fact. Here we have over ten political aspirants engaging in the political process. Absolutely none of them come from the electorates they are seeking to represent. I would wager that none of them could give a list of the six most pressing issues that dwell on the minds of people living in those electorates, nor would any be willing to move themselves and their families to those electorates in the event they won the seat.
The reason this is embarrassing is because Family First had previously made a virtue of the fact that the "overwhelming majority of its candidates are local". For example, look at two press releases from the Family First website:
"Monday, 6th September 2004 - Senate Battle is really between Greens and Family First "
"...Standing over 100 House of Rep. candidates - The vast majority of candidates are local "
and again in a second press release a week later:
"Tuesday, 14th September 2004 - Family First Now Fourth Major Party "
"The Family First Party on debut in the Federal Election will have 126 candidates across the nation, with the majority living in the electorate they are standing for. "
Hawkesbury Church and the NSW Senate Lead Candidate are offering up 10 candidates (plus a handful who are affiliated with Hawkesbury Church). What's their track record on local representation? Zero.
I could forgive those good people in Bathurst, or Hurstville, or Cessnok from being a little bit cynical about the representation they are being offered, let alone in Greenway where the Liberal candidate (Louise Marcus) is an AOG employee (via an external welfare agency), and yet the Family First candidate, AOG Pastor John Dorhauer is being gagged from pushing anything except the party line "No, we don't have anything to do with the AOG." Louise Marcus is tipped to win the seat from Labor by a wafer thin margin, largely through Family First preferences.
Although I support the efforts of Christians to aspire to elected office (and have myself done so on several occasions), the paramount concern is that candidates do so within the boundaries of the law. Beyond the legal requirements, I would also say that candidates who profess a Christian faith ought to also stand in an ethical manner, and not rely on subterfuge and denial in an attempt to gain a wider constituency. All candidates who stand for elected office in any sphere are charged with a solemn responsibility to be legitimate and sincere in seeking to represent the citizens of that electorate. Standing candidates for other purposes is misleading and, in the words of Aquinas, "Leads the truth of our faith to become a matter of ridicule among the infidels." Well put.
In reality, standing these lower house candidates is really to aid the Family First campaign in the Senate. Joan Woods has been candid about this, stating to SMH journalist Mike Seccombe (Website link, PDF):
'Mrs Woods concedes that almost all the Family First candidates are AOG adherents. She concedes many of them have only been in politics for a few weeks and many don't even live in the seats they are standing for. "We're just a young party," she says. "I have to use what I've got in my hand in terms of my network, and those that relate to me. See, what I needed to do was field as many candidates as I could in the lower house..."
The reason is, while the lower house candidates have little chance of election, the party needed their 'bulk' to become a player in the preference-swapping game, and increase Mrs Woods' chances of winning the Senate seat.'
Of Course. Nor should we blame Joan Woods for the strategy, because it was the way Family First conducted their campaign in South Australia and got Andrew Evans elected. The Family First press release "15th September - The Polls vs Family First" explains the party's success in the South Australian parliament, despite not
"fielding a full complement of lower house candidates to support the upper house candidates." but then going on to state "At this election we will have a full complement of candidates in Tas, Qld, SA and Vic, as well as a large number of seats in NSW and WA."
This is further proof that the lower house candidates are there to support a Senate campaign. I'm not denying that this practice isn't common. Many minor parties do it, and at all levels of government. I'm merely suggesting that the practice is fairly cynical one and insults the citizens of those electorates where they stand- especially if the candidates have no affinity or connection with those communities.
Family First went with their cap in hand to the other parties recently to say "Hey, we got over 4% of the vote in our only electoral showing to date (in S.A) and you should sign here (website link, PDF) to a) support our policies and b) give us a good preference deal." Indeed, Family First claim "some candidates have been asked to sign a three-year voting agreement on certain Family First policy platforms before preferences are included in any deal." Here's the irony: With so many candidates having little or no connection to their electorates, that figure of "over 100 lower house candidates" is actually a whole lot less impressive that it first looks. Most of those candidates will be likely to get maybe a few dozen votes. Not exactly an earth-shaking influence. The other parties may well have been duped by the overstatement of Family First's influence. Should Christians seek political advantage in this way?
This leads me back to the Electoral Act. Legal precedent regarding section 326 interestingly includes feelings of "created feelings of gratitude or obligation" in their definition of "benefit". So, in that context, let's ask these questions:
1) Have any candidacies been influenced in contravention to the spirit of section 326?
Consider: Strong and proven encouragement of the State AOG executives for others to assist in the promotion of Family First candidates. The fact that ten members (and five employees) of one Church who have never expressed political aspirations before are now standing in various seats for which they have neither residency nor affinity.
2) Would any of these candidates have otherwise stood for election in their chosen seats, except for the fact that they were doing so at the behest of their employer, and because of the substantial links and expectation that all AOG employees/members will "do their duty"?
3) Did all candidates pay for their candidacy fees from their own pockets?
I would suggest that the answer to these questions do not rely on whether they "chose" to stand in line with their democratic right to participate in the parliamentary process. I am sure that all will claim that their candidacies were voluntary and lawful. As indeed they were! My question is: Are such actions ethical?
- Nathan Zamprogno