Victorian Liberals embarrassed by extremists within: how does this keep happening?

By rights, Victorians marking their ballot papers in the 2022 election this week should be casting judgment on the unprecedented emergency powers enforced during the COVID-19 crisis, while also evaluating the health, education and economic policies put forward in Australia’s second-most-populous state.

Instead, anti-women and anti-First Nations sentiments expressed by hard-line Liberal candidates have dominated the headlines.

Days out from the November 26 poll, the Liberal Party led by Matthew Guy (for the second time) has been rocked by revelations that some of its endorsed candidates hold extreme racist, anti-gay and anti-abortion positions, and would cross the floor against climate targets.

Read more: Nine days from Victorian election, a new poll gives Labor a modest lead; US Republicans win House

The extreme views were either not revealed or never enquired about during the Liberal Party’s preselection and candidate vetting processes.

Personal convictions include opposition to: abortion, the constitutional enshrinement of the Voice to Parliament, and even kindergarten.

Most of these convictions, which are seriously out of step with community attitudes and official Liberal Party policy, appear to originate from the dogma of ultra-conservative Christian churches.

One candidate has been forced to apologise. Another is considering legal action after being told she will not be able to sit in the Liberals’ party room when elected.

Despite several scandals and what many believe were excessive restrictions during 2020 and 2021, including night-time curfews, the Andrews Labor government is believed to be in a stronger position following the revelations.

Often described as the most locked-down city in the (democratic) world, deep resentments linger in Melbourne and beyond about the psycho-social harm and ruinous economic effects of Australia’s longest-running and most comprehensive pandemic restrictions.

Yet the long underperforming Liberal opposition has struggled to harness that community and business disquiet into an electoral force. Instead, it has grabbed headlines for internal intrigue, and now extreme views, which had been kept under wraps.

The result is a Victorian Liberal Party that is further away from the middle-spectrum voters it desperately needs to win over if it is to form government. Hitherto undisclosed loyalties to hard-line fundamentalist Pentecostal groups have fuelled fears of an orchestrated strategy by extreme right-wing Christians to control the Liberal Party. From there, it could exercise unseen influence over the state.

The controversy suggests the Victorian Liberals have allowed themselves to be infiltrated by ultra-conservative Christians in exchange for the influx of new members, and the funds and organisational wherewithal they bring.

Heading into the pivotal final week of the campaign, Guy is now battling on several fronts.

He is embroiled in an awkward public disagreement with the Victorian Electoral Commission over potentially explosive questions relating to political donations. This is because the VEC took the unusual step of referring Guy and his former chief of staff to the anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC).

Electoral Commissioner Warwick Gately explained that “the VEC had exhausted its attempts to fully investigate what may constitute a breach of Victoria’s funding and disclosure laws under section 218B of the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic)”. He added the VEC was not satisfied with the level of co-operation it had received and therefore was “not in a position to allege wrongdoing based on the allegations it has sought to investigate”.

Within hours of that bombshell, new problems emerged concerning two ultra-conservative Liberal candidates. The first is Renee Heath, who heads the upper-house ticket for Eastern Victoria. The second is Timothy Dragan, the candidate for Narre Warren North.

Political parties being embarrassed by the beliefs, statements or backgrounds of candidates is not new. What is astonishing, though, is that they keep getting themselves into trouble with sloppy or non-existent vetting.

Pauline Hanson first entered the federal parliament in 1996 as an independent. But she had joined the electoral contest as the Liberal Party candidate for the lower house seat of Oxley. She only lost that endorsement when she made controversial comments suggesting Indigenous people received undue advantages.

Read more: Pauline Hanson built a political career on white victimhood and brought far-right rhetoric to the mainstream

Political parties have generally become more professional in their recruitment processes after a series of embarrassments on both sides in campaigns in recent years. However, this rigour tends to be short-circuited when selecting candidates for seats the party regards as unwinnable.

For these seats, it can be difficult to find anyone prepared to do the hard yards of letter-boxing and door-knocking. Due process may be left undone.

One of federal Labor’s leading lights, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, came to parliament at short notice when the Labor candidate for the safe seat of Hotham, Geoff Lake, had his endorsement withdrawn by Kevin Rudd in 2013. This followed reports Lake had verbally abused a wheelchair-bound local government representative.

Instances of candidates embarrassing their parties seem to occur in most election cycles. However, the Victorian example points to the problem of hard-line groups surreptitiously infiltrating the major parties for the express purpose of exercising undeclared influence in key policy areas.

Allegations of organised influence can be hard to verify. But in recent years, there have been claims of foreign and internationally controlled faith-based bodies deliberately training devotees to become candidates or to become active at the local branch level to sabotage socially moderate candidates.

It has been alleged members of the City Builders Church, to which Heath belongs, actively orchestrated a campaign of resistance against the federal member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, after the moderate Nationals MP advocated a “yes” vote in the marriage equality plebiscite.

Moderate Liberals complain Pentecostal Christian members have come to dominate the right wing of the NSW party.

Read more: View from The Hill: Without those 'lefties' the Liberals can't regain government

The recent scandals in Victoria may remind voters of the 2022 federal election, where the Pentecostal Scott Morrison hand-picked the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves – a trenchant opponent of transgender policies.

It backfired, not just in Warringah, but across the country, where it tied the then-prime minister and his government to social attitudes not shared by the broader community.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Mark Kenny, Australian National University.

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Mark Kenny does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.