Tonight in old Parliament House in Canberra, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott will digitally prostrate themselves before the movers and shakers in the conservative Christian community, participating in an internet discussion around faith, policy and the political agenda of evangelical and fundamentalist church groups around Australia.

Organiser Jim Wallace, from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), claims that about 100,000 people logged onto the webcast last time for the pre-election discussion with Howard and Rudd, and that this time he hopes for 300,000 participants. Whether these numbers are real or imagined, the professed influence of the religious right is certainly open to question

In December last year, an analysis by Dr Rodney Smith, from the Department of Government and International Relations at Sydney University, found that the supposed electoral clout of the religious right was a myth, and that it had no influence on the 2007 federal election.

Dr Smith also makes the claim that “Labor under Kevin Rudd made no attempt to court the Christian right … during the 2007 election campaign” — but on this point I strongly disagree.

If my sources are reliable, then Rudd gave two specific yet covert commitments to Wallace in 2007 in the hope of attracting Christian voters: first, he promised to quash any attempts by the Stanhope government in the ACT to enact a civil union scheme for same-sex couples that included any element of ceremony, and second; he promised to censor the internet within three years.

Certainly, if true, this Faustian deal would go some way to explaining the bloody-minded and ham-fisted way in which Rudd Labor has pursued these two particular issues over this term of government in the face of strong public opinion. And it remains the case that the ACL is the only lobby group in the country that publicly supports the Rudd/Conroy plan to censor the internet.

On the first issue of civil unions, the religious right feel let down, if not betrayed by Rudd, because Stanhope did enact a civil union scheme for same-sex couples and it does contain a ceremony, albeit not as marriage-like as first intended by Stanhope. The scheme was amended a little following pressure from federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland, but as far as most right-wing Christians are concerned, it’s just gay marriage by another name.

When the Howard government, with Labor support, banned same-s-x marriages in 2004, the religious right could have been forgiven for thinking that that was the end of matter. But in the six years since then, more and more countries have enacted marriage equality, further isolating Australia, while public support among Australian voters for marriage equality has jumped from 39% to 60%.

Many Labor MPs know they are on the wrong side of history on this legal and social reform, conscious that it will come back to haunt them much like the White Australia Policy did. In light of this, you can expect some Dorothy Dix questions from the Christian audience tonight, keen to keep Rudd holding the line on this matter as his caucus wobbles.

While neither Rudd nor Abbott will back-flip on marriage equality, the ACL and its supporters are just as hostile to civil unions, and yet Rudd and Abbott claim to be in favour of them. Rudd ducks the issue by saying it’s a matter for the states, ignoring the fact that most states won’t budge on this and some are opposed. In this way, Rudd can create the appearance of supporting civil unions, while not lifting a finger to make it happen. Meanwhile, the Tasmanian and Victorian branches of the ALP, partly out of exasperation, have passed motions calling on Rudd to enact marriage equality itself.

Curiously, Abbott seems far more open minded and supportive of civil unions than Rudd, and has certainly said more about it.

Irrespective, the gay community is not supportive of civil unions as a substitute for marriage equality, and why should it be when public support for same-s-x marriage and civil unions shows virtually the same polling result?

If Rudd or Abbott believe this is a fringe issue that only matters in pink electorates such as Melbourne (Tanner) and Sydney (Plibersek), they are deluded. My observation of this movement is that it’s being driven as much by family and friends of gays and lesbians, as by gays and lesbians themselves. This issue is mainstream. Mums and dads want the government to stop discriminating against their kids, and this sentiment cuts across all electorates.

It will be interesting therefore to see if Rudd or Abbott move tonight to try and fast track civil unions, purely as a cynical move to diffuse the unstoppable momentum towards marriage equality. The civil union scheme adopted in the UK scuttled the push for marriage equality in Britain, while in the US and elsewhere state courts are increasingly ruling that civil unions are to gays what separate drinking fountains were to blacks.

On the second issue of internet censorship, tonight should see Abbott finally announce a firm position on the matter. To date, he has sat on the fence and refused to state a clear policy, simply muttering that Senator Conroy’s plan seems “technically flawed”, while ignoring any discussion about the morality or acceptability of secret government censorship.

Of course, the ACL don’t give a damn about the technical flaws of the plan, indeed, they refuse to believe there are any. Dorothy Dix questions tonight to Abbott will likely force him to clarify his position. If he’s smart, he can outfox Rudd by supporting the principal of the proposal, but arguing that the coalition will only vote for it if adult users can opt out of the filter, thus placing the system in the hands of parents and not in the hands of the state. This is classic liberalism that will be hard to knock for organisations that bang on about family values, and will force Rudd to fall in behind Abbott on another policy back down.

For those of us uncomfortable with our political leaders ingratiating themselves with some conservative religious groups seeking to launder their biblical views into secular law, there comes some welcome news: Australians are losing religion in large numbers. Politicians should take note.

Last week the Christian Research Association (CRA), reported on its study of 1718 Australians, in which it asked the same questions it asked in 1993.

The result is that only 47% of Australians believe in God, down from 61% in 1993. Only 16% of us are churchgoers (down from 23%), while those of us with no religion has jumped from 27% to 43%.

The report concludes that Australians have much more confidence in the courts and legal systems than in churches and religious organisations.

Given that Australians are becoming more secular and that there is no evidence to show that the religious right can influence electoral outcomes, it’s worth noting just how far Rudd and Abbott will go tonight to embrace the policy pressure from the ACL.

Perhaps they might both surprise us and actually use the opportunity to reinforce the separation between and state, to keep religion out of politics? Perhaps they will point out to the audience that marriage is a legal institution, not a religious one, and that it’s not the place of the church or the parliament to tell adults what they can and can’t look at online (child p-rn excepted).

But then, the recent CRA report found that only 34% of us believe in miracles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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