Howard strengthens hold on power

Posted in Other | 11-Oct-04 | Author: David Fickling| Source: Guardian

Re-elected Australian Prime Minister John Howard speaks during a media conference in Sydney October 11, 2004.
Christian right celebrates gains as PM wins fourth term

The newly re-elected Australian prime minister, John Howard, could consolidate his hold on power with an outright majority in the senate, the first time for more than 20 years that the government has won control of both houses, it emerged yesterday.

The country's complex electoral system means that the final tally of senate seats will not be confirmed for several weeks, but there are indications that the ruling coalition will either win or fall one seat short of complete control.

The latter scenario would give unprecedented influence to a newly formed party of the Christian right, Family First.

Having comprehensively trounced his Labor rival, Mark Latham, in the elections on Saturday, Mr Howard's potential capture of the senate is likely to be the most important result of the election.

A bloc of independent senators and minor parties traditionally prevent federal governments from controlling Canberra's second house, and since 1980 no prime minister has enjoyed a majority in both chambers. With complete control of parliament and an increased mandate from voters, Mr Howard will have the numbers to implement a more radical programme than he has ever attempted, a position that Family First, which has links to Australia's biggest Pentecostal church, is bound to want to take advantage of.

There have been heart-on-sleeve Christians in Australian politics for many years, but the rise of a new strand of strident religious conservatism could change the face of political life in Canberra.

The government made a pre-election offering to the Christian right in August when it amended the marriage act to insist that a marriage could only take place between a man and a woman.

Mr Howard, who opened a 3,500-seat Pentecostal convention centre in 2002, has also promised to prepare "family impact" statements for all cabinet submissions as part of a pre-election voting deal with Family First.

There is no indication yet as to what these statements will entail, but gay rights and working mothers have been longstanding targets of Australia's Christian family values campaigners.

The Tasmanian Liberal MP Michael Ferguson cut his political teeth as director of the Tasmanian Family Institute, an organisation campaigning against the rights of same-sex couples to adopt.

In Brisbane Family First has been embroiled in scandal after one party activist allegedly suggested that lesbians should be burnt as witches.

Danny Nalliah, a Family First candidate on the party's Victorian senate ticket, has been accused of vilifying Muslims by the Islamic Council of Victoria, and put out a pre-election leaflet in which he urged followers to "pull down Satan's strongholds".

"Spot Satan's strongholds in the areas you are living (brothels, gambling places, bottleshops, mosque[sic], temples - Freemasons/Buddhist/Hindu etc, witchcraft," the leaflet read.

The only prominent defeat suffered by the Christian right in Saturday's poll was that of the Liberal MP Ross Cameron, who fell foul of the family values code after revelations about his extra-marital affairs.

Despite the emphasis on family values, the Christian right tends to be well to the left of the government on several of the more controversial issues which have convulsed Australian politics under Mr Howard. Family First's leader, Andrea Mason, is the only Aborigine to lead a major political party, and the party's immigration policy is to the left of both the government and opposition.