Is the Liberal Party indulging in an almighty wedge campaign about religion in the Sydney suburbs? Will it be political manna from heaven? Political editor Christian Kerr reports.

In the last couple of weeks, the media in Sydney and Canberra have suddenly discovered God.

No, the heathen members of the fourth estate haven’t suddenly fallen to their knees in prayer. They are, however, shouting “Halleluiah!” as they have a new story to write about – the impact of religion on the federal election. They may, however, have missed the real story – a tale of some very nasty political devilry.

It all began back in April in a Sydney Morning Herald article where Mike Seccombe, Aban Contractor and Mark Metherell raised the growing Christian influence in the New South Wales Liberal Party.

The hook for the article was the preselection of Louise Markus, a prominent member of Hillsong, described as “Australia’s largest church”, as the Liberal candidate for Greenway in Sydney’s north west. Being cynical journalists, cracks about “happy-clappers” couldn’t be avoided – but the hacks were clearly impressed that the church is able to attract more than 15,000 people each Sunday. That got a good run, along with its Friday youth meetings drawing 2,000, its children’s meetings attracting 1,600, the women-only gatherings with a congregation of over a thousand, its books, its CDs… Then something odd happened.

Greenway is a 3.1 per cent Labor seat. The sitting Member, Frank Mossfield, is retiring at the next election. You’d think in these circumstance that the Libs would want all the media attention their gal could get, but state director Scott Morrison refused to let the SMH talk to her. He said she would do “local media first”.

No candidate, no story – so the SMH went on to discuss the general growth of Church influence in the NSW Liberal Party, the claims of Opus Dei interference in the Randwick branches and the well known links between Tony Abbott and Ross Cameron and God-botherers.

Still, the seeds of a story were sown – and Greenway and Hillsong popped up again on Monday 5 July when the
Treasurer, Peter Costello, attended the opening night of their annual conference at the Sydney Superdome. The rapturous reception the Treasurer received twigged interest in the media, and in The Australian on July 7 Megan Saunders followed up on the event’s political impact.

The piece was headed “Lib recruit puts fear of God into Labor” and read in part:

“The source of the Labor woes is Louise Markus, a 45 year-old social worker who has been a member of the Liberal Party for less than a year.

“The softly spoken mother-of-two manages the Hillsong Emergency Centre, a not for profit organisation attached to the Pentecostal church of the same name – helping victims of domestic violence, broken families, the chronically unemployed, drug users and alcoholics…

“The Liberals’ hopes have been boosted by two factors – 11,000 new voters have moved into the electorate since the 2001 federal election, and the ALP is running a new candidate to replace sitting member Frank Mossfield, who is retiring.”

Lateline got onto the story two days later. Reporter Stephen McDonnell disinterred former Labor pollster Rod Cameron, who spoke of the rising Christian vote in many outer suburban seats. Liberal MP Bruce Baird spoke of the importance of the new Churches, while the Treasurer’s brother, the Reverend Tim, was a bit more worried about the Pentecostals.

Tim Costello was a bit concerned about some of Hillsong’s links with American televangelists and their prosperity gospel, but had been comforted by the response of senior pastor Brian Houston when these concerns had been raised. Tim saw no problem in his brother attending a church that to the eyes of your average Australian (token) Christian looked distinctly, well, flamboyant.

The 7:30 Report was the next cab off the rank, with Michael Brissenden allowed out of Canberra for a rare field report. He had a new angle.

Here’s how Maxine McKew introduced the story, “This week, a rocking religious worship album became the biggest selling CD in the country … leaping over big-label pop releases on the mainstream chart, surely something of a first. It’s the latest outing from the Sydney-based evangelical church Hillsong, which also ships millions of CDs overseas. The church is fast becoming an emerging religious powerhouse in Australia, with thousands of recruits and some influential figures taking more than a passing interest. It’s no great political secret that governments these days are largely won or lost in the handful of marginal seats on the outer edges of our capital cities. Winning the hearts and minds of these so-called aspirational voters is the door to government. And it seems politicians are starting to realise that God may hold some of the keys. Political editor Michael Brissenden reports from Sydney’s north-west, the rocking heartland of Australia’s booming evangelical Christian movement.”

It has been suggested since that manyof those CDs were sold at the Hillsong conference, many even on the night our charismatic Treasurer spoke. But the story here was about politics, and we got lots more footage of Peter Costello leading the great Christian revival. Brissenden went on to raise the links between the Hillsong gospel and how well it is entwined with modern Liberal philosophy.

What was more significant, however, was that Brissenden managed to get Markus on camera. She didn’t seem very keen to talk and tried to downplay the link between the church and politics – but at least we finally got to see the candidate that had created so much attention.

About this stage, Crikey received an indignant email from a well-known political pedant whinging about all the media misreporting of Greenway. They picked up on the 11,000 new voters figures first, saying that enrolment has not grown by an exceptional amount since 2001, meaning most of those new electors are churn. The rapidly growing northern parts of the electorate might be full of Christians, our correspondent stated – but not as many as the claim of 11,000 new voters suggested.

So we started doing some research on the electorate. You can read all about it on the Electoral Commission’s site here or on Mumble Politics here, but these are the basics.

Greenway has been in existence since 1984, and both its MPs have been absolute non-entities. First there was Russ Gorman, one of the last MPs from the old “give’ em the odd whack to show them who’s boss” school of marriage. He was succeeded in 1996 by Frank Mossfield, who is so low profile that naming him gets triple word score at political Scrabble.

Greenway is a seat that has never had a sitting MP factor. The seat has been basically unchanged since 1984, and its margin has more or less mirrored the Labor statewide vote. The Labor state vote goes down by X per cent and so does the Labor vote in Greenway.

In 1996 and 2001, when Labor was whacked in Sydney, Greenway became marginal. It has performed slightly worse than the state average at a couple of recent elections. But past trends indicate that Labor would have to do even worse in Sydney in 2004 for the Liberal Party to have a serious chance of winning the seat.

The 6.4 per cent swing the Libs received last time is unlikely to be repeated, and Labor has a better candidate this time in Right-wing former Young Labor executive member Ed Husic.

He grew up in the area, is educated and personable. He’s had the thankless job of working as a flak for Integral Energy in recent years, which means he has to appear every time there is a blackout, but Labor hacks say he is a reasonable
candidate prepared to do a bit of hard work, that he’s different to the duds that have preceded him.

Greenway is an electorate that comes in two halves. In the south, it’s typical outer Sydney traditional working class – areas like Blacktown, Toongabbie, Marayong, Dean Park as well as the old housing commission estate at Seven Hills
and Lalor Park.

North of Vardys Road, the character of the electorate changes, with newer suburbs like Kings Langley that tend to vote Liberal and even more recent aspirationals areas like Glenwood, Acacia Gardens, Stanhope Gardens and parts of Quakers Hill. It’s this part of the electorate that’s growing, too.

Still, the northern end of the electorate is in the state seat of Riverstone. At last year’s state election the Liberal Party ran a candidate they believed would draw a lot of votes, Ray Williams, President of the Kellyville-Rouse Hill Progress Association. Williams had hammered the Carr government on the key local issue of upgrading Windsor Road, but his high profile appeared to do nothing for the Liberal vote.

At the council elections in March, Labor had no difficulty holding on to Blacktown Council. If Husic is competent, why should Markus be different? Perhaps the clippings file can give us a clue.

On Monday 12 July The Daily Telegraph reported that the Liberals plan to spend more than $500,000 on some key
NSW marginals. Reporter Tory Maguire wrote “Of the seats the Government doesn’t hold in NSW, Greenway is the one it will focus on…”

Saunders revisited Greenway again on last Thursday, too. “If Labor’s performance in the key Sydney seat of Greenway is any barometer of Mark Latham’s electoral fortunes, NSW is shaping up as a danger zone in the looming federal election.

“A rapidly changing demographic and a big spending Liberal campaign are threatening to derail the chances of ALP
candidate Ed Husic retaining the seat.

“The fact the ALP has never lost the seat in Labor’s western Sydney heartland, created 20 years ago, is of particular concern to party strategists.”

It shouldn’t be. But read on:

“Husic’s opponent is social worker Louise Markus, a member of Australia’s biggest Pentecostal church, the Hillsong Church.

“Husic, 34, is a non-practicing Muslim…”

Cue sound effects of screeching brakes and crashing cars.

Saunders’ article was essentially a rehash of her piece from a fortnight earlier- but with the Muslim bit added. Where did it come from? After all, it appeared during the weeks in which we were told time after time that there is no, repeat no, such thing as a Liberal Party dirt unit.

Labor deep throats admit to being concerned about the “Muslim thing”. True, it was absolutely fair for Saunders to raise Husic’s religion, given the attention paid to Markus and Hillsong. But where did the information come from? The Liberal Party?

Did the Liberals deliberately preselect Markus to make religion an issue? After all, once the subject was raised with her, Husic became fair game.

Greenway Liberal candidates in the past have been non-entities, with the notable exception of spivvy car dealer Tony Packard, later a state MP – and given that he was forced to resign in disgrace the Libs must wish he had been one.

Markus seems to do worthy work – but is that enough? Or is the Liberal Party trying to capitalise on all the stories
on Muslim terrorists, Muslim gang rapists and Muslim asylum seekers that have played so well in Greenway and seats like it across Sydney’s suburbia.

Sydney has a cultural divide between the moneyed North Shore and the Western Suburbs. The leafy hilly north is where those with money live, while the west is for those without. The two Sydney’s meet along Windsor and Old Windsor Roads. This is the northern boundary between Greenway and Mitchell and also the dividing line between Baulkham Hills Shire and Blacktown City Council.

Baulkham Hills Shire is a huge council, one of the states top ten in population. It is also noted for being so abstemious and God fearing that it has only one pub. It includes Castle Hill, where the Hillsong church is based. And it also takes in the controversial proposed site for a Muslim prayer hall at Annangrove.

This project was rejected by the Council after much heated public debate, but the decision was overturned by the Courts. The development site was recently daubed in pig’s blood and is now protected round the clock.

Who was it who once said all politics is local? We’d like to ask them if the neighbouring electorate counts.

State Liberal MP for the Hills Michael Richardson was once sacked as spokesman on Western Sydney after saying that the Hills district was where all the people from the western suburbs really wanted to live. It wasn’t particularly smart – but it did show the links between the two sides of the Windsor Road.

To the South is Blacktown City Council, with a population of more than a quarter of a million. It is the largest local government area in NSW and the fourth largest in Australia behind Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the ACT. It is solidly
working class, especially in the vast Mount Druitt housing commission estate. It’s the very opposite of Baulkham Hills – which is why Windsor Road is almost always used as an electoral boundary at both state and Federal level.

The northwest corridor of Sydney, however, is rapidly growing. If you are trying to buy land at Sydney prices, sometimes you might just have to settle for the Blacktown side of the road rather than the Baulkham Hills side. There is no doubt the northern end of Greenway is going upmarket, and quickly.

Still, that fact alone doesn’t indicate the sudden political turnaround the Liberal Party is anticipating.

Markus is a better candidate than past Liberal offerings, and she may have lots of willing workers who will help her campaign – but it is hard to believe that all those Hillsong Christians in Greenway don’t already vote Liberal. Indeed, there is an argument that too-muscular Christianity may turn off some swinging voters, and that this is one of the reasons why Markus has avoided media opportunities.

All this leaves us with one big question – why the continued interest in Greenway from the media. Are they blinded by spin from the Liberal Party?

Logically, Labor cannot do worse than in the wake of the anti-Muslim hysteria of 2001. Unless, of course, that was just a warm up to the anti-Muslim hysteria of 2004. Practising or not.

The Coalition needs every seat it can get at this election, and with what should be blue-ribbon electorates in New South Wales like Wentworth and Mark Vaile’s Lyne under threat, has it found a very nasty way of picking up Greenway?

Eight years of the Howard Government should teach us that anything’s possible.