Once again the NSW Religious Right faction of the Liberal Party are kicking political goals for Morris Iemma.
The faction, led by a small bunch linked to the Catholic lay order Opus Dei, is putting factional interests before Peter Debnam’s push to become the first non-Labor conservative premier since Bob Carr was elected in 1995.
The antics of the faction are becoming more sinister, with its apparatchiks even sidelining not-so-religious conservatives.
Sources from within the faction have informed me that factional heavy Nicholas Campbell has had a severe falling-out with self-proclaimed Opus Dei supporter and NSW Upper House member David Clarke.
Campbell, a seasoned campaigner with substantial experience in campus and mainstream election campaigns, is a former staffer to Howard loyalist Senator Bill Heffernan.
Mr Clarke has, over the years, had a love-hate relationship with Mr Heffernan. Clarke’s influence within the NSW Party organisation has almost eclipsed that of Heffernan. The new NSW Young Liberal President (who is automatically granted a place on the NSW State Executive) has close links to Opus Dei. The current Federal Young Liberal President, Alex Hawke, works in Mr Clarke’s office.
Clarke and Heffernan have been vying to gain some control of the non-aligned yet largely conservative middle ground votes in the NSW Liberal Party State Council, which consists of delegates from branches and state electorate conferences. State Council delegates vote to elect members of the State Executive, and also are eligible to be drawn out of a hat in preselection ballots.
The broader conservative wing of the NSW Party has tended to be a mixture of religious and more secular conservative elements, together with disgruntled and ambitious former members of the small “l” liberal faction often referred to as “The Group”.
The near-takeover of the Right faction by the Christian Right has forced some unusual alliances to take place. Group sources have informed me of secret meetings taking place between non-religious Right Howard-loyalists (including possibly Campbell and Heffernan) and organisers for The Group.
The not-so-religious-Right are concerned that Clarke forces have been trying to stack branches with members of Christian groups and denominations with often conflicting agendas. Particular concern has been expressed over Clarke’s attempts to ingratiate some Iraqi denominations whose views on Iraqi national sovereignty represent a departure from Australia’s foreign policy.
Clarke’s involvement in local Iraqi affairs has been noticed by members of other Iraqi denominations (and therefore presumably by the Iraqi embassy).
Since the bombing of the Shia Muslim shrine on February 22 2006, over 20,000 Iraqis have died in sectarian clashes.
With Australian troops stationed in Iraq, and with extremists on all sides of the sectarian divide seeking scapegoats, it is highly irresponsible for any State MP to ingratiate him or herself with one side whilst pursuing a sectarian agenda in Parliament. Such activity could even pose a risk to Australian troops stationed in Iraq.
Clarke has already managed to stir up feelings from within the Palestinian community as well as with certain Lebanese groups with his praise of the Phalange leadership during at least one speech in the NSW Parliament. Playing Middle East sectarian wedge politics may assist in branch recruitment drives. However, in the long run, such recruitment may come at a long-term political cost.
No doubt Australians of all denominations and nationalities should be welcomed by all major parties. At the same time, the Liberal Party cannot allow itself to be used as a political caravanserai for sectarian crackpots.
Peter Debnam has placed his credibility on the line by accusing the NSW Government of rewarding Lebanese Muslim groups for branch stacking services by going soft on crime. Yet now his own efforts at becoming premier are being undermined by sectarian branch stacking which may put the security of our nation, let alone the state of NSW, at risk.
Debnam would be well advised to rein in the Religious Right now before it is too late.
(The author was a member of the Liberal Party in NSW for a decade until allowing his membership to lapse in 2002. He was a member of State Council and edited 2 conservative youth publications. He was also an endorsed Liberal candidate for Local Government and for a NSW Federal Seat, achieving a 2-party preferred swing of 5.1% in the latter.)
© Irfan Yusuf 2006