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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 52

Senator HUTCHINS (1:20 PM) —I would like to commence my contribution this afternoon by thanking the Governor-General for his speech. I agree with the Governor-General that the government should use its mandate wisely. However, I am concerned that the government is more concerned about its mandate than the accountability that comes with governing our nation. I would also like to thank the people of New South Wales for returning me, John Faulkner and Michael Forshaw to the Senate. We were fortunate to be returned as three out of the six from that state. The only other state where the Labor Party had three out of six was South Australia. This afternoon I think it is appropriate that I comment on the rise of a new political party and also comment on some of the tactics that the Liberal Party used in last federal election in the seat of Greenway.

The Australian public need to hear the public policy implications that will now occur following the election of a Family First senator and what that election means for the relationship between religion and the state—as we will find when that new senator attends here. I am not sure what sorts of public policy debates we will be treated to but I hope we do not get treated to creationism from time to time. It is not something that I know a lot about; maybe there are others in here that do.

We should not be surprised that the Prime Minister has spent so much of his time meeting with Pentecostal groups. He has already opened the multimillion dollar Hillsong Convention Centre in Sydney and the Treasurer addressed thousands of Hillsong conference people in the election year. I might add that the Treasurer's brother, the Reverend Tim Costello, remarked in relation to Hillsong:

The quickest way to degrade the gospel is to link it with money and the pursuit of money. It is the total opposite of what Jesus preached. These people have learnt nothing from the mistakes made by the American televangelists.

Peter Costello has been doing the rounds of a number of Pentecostal circles lately. One of the most memorable was his speech to the Christian group Catch the Fire Ministries. It was this same Christian group, Catch the Fire Ministries, that found themselves in trouble for vilification when their Victorian leader and Family First candidate for the Victorian Senate, Danny Nalliah, urged his followers to `pull down Satan's strongholds' such as mosques, Freemason, Buddhist and Hindu temples, brothels, bottle shops and gambling places.

When Kevin Rudd announced that we should be referring to Family First as the Assemblies of God party he was not far off the mark. In 1977 Pastor Andrew Evans, founder of Family First, took control of the Assemblies of God in Australia. At that time the Assemblies of God was a struggling denomination. Evans spent the next 20 years turning the church into one of the fastest growing denominations in the country. By the time Evans resigned in 1997, membership had exploded by 13 times the original number. Evans handed the denomination over to Brian Houston, chief pastor of Hillsong, who continued to grow the denomination, particularly in Sydney's hills district. Andrew Evans left the national operation of the Assemblies of God in 1997 only to resurface in 2001 at the launch of his new venture, the formation of the Family First political party. Evans was elected into the South Australian upper house only to extend the party across the nation to contest the 2004 federal election.

Family First deny that they are a front for the Assemblies of God; however, the details speak for themselves. Pastor Andrew Evans, founder of Family First, has served for 30 years as the pastor of the Klemzig and Paradise Assemblies of God congregations. He was the Assemblies of God national leader for 20 years and at one time was the Assemblies of God world secretary. The current leader of Family First, Andrea Mason, is a member of the Paradise Assemblies of God congregation. Family First's candidate for the Queensland Senate is also the Assemblies of God national vice-president. He has been a pastor for 30 years and is also the founder and chairman of the student college at Everton Park run by the Assemblies of God. Peter Harris is currently serving as the federal party chairman of Family First and is also a highly active member of the Paradise Assemblies of God congregation. He is also a partner in Business Generation Ministry International with Jeff Penny, who is Family First's Queensland co-ordinator. BGMI is a Family First based business that aims to tap itself into the multibillion dollar Christian business world. Of the Family First national executive, almost half of the members attend the same Assemblies of God church. Any claims that Family First make about not representing the Assemblies of God are, in my view, not correct.

The current national leader of the Assemblies of God, Pastor Brian Houston, has refused to be upstaged by his predecessor in terms of political involvement. There is a clear split in the approach by the Assemblies of God to enter politics. Andrew Evans favours the establishment of a separate Assemblies of God political party whilst Brian Houston prefers to work within the Liberal Party. Both were successful in the recent federal election as both houses of parliament are being represented by their denomination.

In this year's federal election, the Hillsong church threw its support behind their own candidate in the marginal Sydney seat of Greenway. The Prime Minister was so impressed by what he saw at Hillsong that the Liberal Party was quick to overthrow a rank and file preselection and invite Hillsong member Louise Markus, who was not even a member of the Liberal Party, to represent them. From that moment on, estimations have been made that the Liberal Party spent over a million dollars on the campaign. However, it was only three years earlier that the local candidate had to beg the New South Wales Liberal Party to provide him with $40,000 to contest the 2001 federal election.

The Liberal Party campaign in Greenway not only had the funds; it had the supporters, as volunteers flooded the area, who were not afraid to deny that the Hillsong church had sent them. The Hillsong congregation were also encouraged to support and to pray for the Family First Senate candidates for New South Wales. In the Greenway campaign we witnessed the most disturbing aspect of this new trend in Australian politics. Eddie Husic, a hardworking local Labor candidate was targeted during the election because of his Bosnian Muslim heritage. Residents awoke the day before the polling to find their letterboxes crammed with a flyer with a fake ALP logo emblazoned with a photo of Ed and the slogan `Ed Husic is a devout Muslim, Ed is working hard to get a better deal for Islam'. I have a copy of that document here.

The pamphlet was professionally designed and printed at great cost by a party desperate to win votes on the eve of the election. As we all know, the Greenway campaign had one of the tightest of margins in the country and the direct beneficiary of this pamphlet was the new Liberal MP for Greenway, Mrs Louise Markus. This sort of campaigning should have no future in our country. I hope that in the next three years Louise Markus will work hard to heal the un-Australian sectarianism that has occurred in Greenway.

So what are the beliefs driving the Family First Party? Hillsong, part of the Assemblies of God base, clearly state on their introductory website, `Jesus Christ came from Heaven and earth to bring life more abundant.' That was from John 10:10. Jeremiah 29:11 says:

... God gives expression to His heart towards humanity—

and further—

For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

The asset-rich Hillsong denomination draws upon the popular American Pentecostal trend of tithing to fill the church coffers. The Assemblies of God in Australia also encourage this practice. The Internet is full of sites outlining people's complaints about Assemblies of God pastors pursuing individuals for money. There are also many young people on the Internet who defend Hillsong and the Assemblies of God on the grounds that `prosperity preaching', once applied to life, provides financial rewards.

Also evident in Australia are accounts of pastors putting pressure on individuals to increase their tithes to more than 40 per cent of their incomes. Some evangelical pastors have also been known to link salvation and the afterlife with their ability to increase tithes. Tithes are the most abused Christian financial practice in this country. It is for this reason that the mainstream Christian denominations such as the Catholics and Anglicans refuse to be involved in this practice. Pentecostal churches, such as Hillsong and the Assemblies of God, have been known to force tithing upon their congregations if they wish to be actively involved in practising their faith. This is an abuse upon individuals that the mainstream Christian churches see as an outdated Old Testament practice that has no relevance in the following of Jesus Christ. Most Christians do not see their entrance to heaven as a financial investment or a one-off transaction, and any faith that proposes salvation as such is ignoring the very foundations of Christianity.

I draw attention to some mainstream religious leaders who have expressed concern about Pentecostal practices. Cardinal Pell of the Catholic Church has recently said that there is nothing in the gospel to say that if you followed Christ you would be more prosperous and successful. He said:

We know from Christ's teachings that riches are no great advantage in moving towards heaven.

Anglican Archbishop Ivan Lee has also expressed concern that the extreme emotion of Hillsong services could be manipulative, saying `the worship is in danger of being experience centred rather than Bible teaching centred'. With the election of a Family First senator, the church and state are no longer separate entities. I try to practise my religion as best I can; however, I would be disturbed if my church, the Catholic Church, was exclusively represented by a political party. The strength of our democracy is that it is inclusive and not sectarian.

Family First need to come clean to the nation and reveal their agenda and policies rather than hide behind the smokescreen of their pro family rhetoric. Given the Prime Minister's cultivation of the Pentecostal vote, it is time that the Prime Minister was accountable for his dealings with Family First so that he can help reinforce the continued separation of religion and the state. The Prime Minister has invested too much in the Pentecostal churches to avoid scepticism. I look forward to asking our Prime Minister in three years time if the price was right.