Moderate Liberal Party members in Victoria will move this week for what they hope is a decisive blow against the party’s infiltration by an ultra-conservative religious network. Andrew Gardiner reports.
An investigation by Nine Media and ABC journalists into the practices of the City Builders Church revealed cult-like practices, as well as vehement opposition to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. However, it is the church leader Brian Heath’s influence on the Liberal Party which has members concerned. Some party insiders fear that, when matters come to a head at a planned committee meeting in Melbourne later this week, the Liberals might baulk at expelling the man at the centre of the row, and shy away from other moves to remove what they call a Pentecostal “cancer” on the party.
One insider told MWM that:
Powerful men seem happy to let these crazy (fundamentalists) into this party, but average people won’t vote for that.
The Thursday meeting – which comes as one religious MP foreshadowed Federal Court action against Victoria’s moderate Liberal leader, John Pesutto, will see arguably the first serious attempt to reverse the steady rise of far-right Christianity within conservative parties across much of Australia.
This movement – the most public manifestation of which was Scott Morrison’s ascendancy as Federal leader and Prime Minister – faces major pushback after members petitioned the Victorian Liberal Party to expel Brian Heath, senior pastor at Gippsland-based City Builders Church and a party powerbroker seen by many as the religious right’s “ringleader,” for what insiders called an “act of betrayal” against the party.
Freedom Party connections
Heath’s “betrayal” was to attend (along with his Liberal MP daughter, Renee) the campaign launch of a far-right Freedom Party candidate opposing the Liberals at last Saturday’s Warrandyte state by-election. The event, hosted by anti-lockdown activist and Freedom Party founder Morgan Jonas, saw Heath promoting the spread of “Judeo-Christian values” which would pretty well end legal abortion and trans rights across Australia (a departure from Liberal Party policy).
Other speakers attacked the moderate state Liberal leader John Pesutto in front of an audience including far-right senator Ralph Babet, former federal MP and prominent anti-vaxxer Craig Kelly and what was described as a “rogue’s gallery of conspiracy and fringe types.”
Members and supporters from the party’s moderate wing believe this mis-step offers perhaps their best opportunity to rid themselves of Heath Brian, but doubts persist that they’ll have the numbers.
Standing in the way of expulsion is the Liberals’ state constitution, which requires a two-thirds administrative committee majority to boot him out of the party. “It’s what saved Moira Deeming from expulsion by the party proper, and it shapes as a similar hurdle with the Heaths,” one moderate said.
Nonetheless, moderates are pushing ahead with moves to expel Brian Heath, and take possible disciplinary action against Renee Heath. Heath Senior is regarded as the “snake’s head” of the infiltration, with moves to “sever” him deemed vital to the party’s future.
Slaying the hydra
But what if the fundamentalist “snake” turns out to be a multi-headed hydra? “If Brian’s the only one expelled, he’s likely to deploy proxies (in his stead) and cry ‘persecution’ to rally the troops; it’s a tried and true strategy,” one long-time observer told MWM.
The Pentecostal presence would persist in Heath’s absence, especially in Victoria’s east, where City Builders is headquartered and where its members hold some sway over party branches and the nearby Morwell State Election Council. Meanwhile, on the parliamentary side, a significant slice of the party room is either affiliated with far-right churches or influenced by them.
Prominent among this cohort, insiders say, are Renee Heath, Ann-Marie Hermans, Moira Deeming (who was expelled from the party room but not from the party following her ongoing court action against Pesutto) and another Pentecostal, Nicole Werner, who was elected in the Warrandyte by-election on Saturday.
Then there are the “conservative crusaders,” as one moderate calls them, often without strong religious affiliations, who nonetheless benefit from shared values and a convergence of interests with the Heath group. Brad Battin – who came within a solitary vote of the state leadership last year – joins at least seven others in this camp.
In a party reduced to just 30 seats in both chambers after last year’s state election, this grand total of at least 11 MPs represents close to 40 percent of the party room. Not satisfied with that, far right evangelicals continue their infiltration of Liberal branches in suburban Melbourne, in line with a “long game” strategy, endorsed by an international network of right wing churches, to turn Pentecostals into “agents of change” inside parties on the right.
National infiltration strategy
In Australia, a “roadmap,” outlining how to install “Godly” candidates at state and Federal level, is linked to a current member of the party’s Victorian state assembly, Peter Killin, who resigned as a Federal candidate in 2019 after it was revealed he wanted to block gay people from public office and party positions.
Barring an act of uncommon courage, there’s a significant chance the Liberal Party, at state and Federal level, will wind up in the thrall of religious zealots and ‘fellow travellers’ on the far right, who can sway policy, swing the outcome of a leadership challenge and have a huge impact on pre-selections. Perhaps the latter explains why party powerbroker Greg Mirabella – an aspiring Federal Senator – hosed down speculation
Deeming would be expelled from the wider party in May and is said to be planning a similar course regarding the Heaths.
“We are going down the tubes if our senior people keep appeasing the likes of Heath and Deeming,” one party insider told MWM.
Nobody is going to vote for a party which coddles religious extremists.
What do religious right wingers like Brian Heath want for Australia? In stark contrast to the traditional separation of Church and State, they crave nothing short of “Dominion,” an Old Testament reference they interpret as a mandate to take over most aspects of modern life “as God’s stewards of the earth.”
Their influence in Liberal circles has already been felt, former Liberal leader Matthew Guy promising, before last year’s state election, to roll back laws preventing discrimination against staff based on sexuality and hiring based on faith. In a motion to be considered by Victorian Liberals at their state conference next month, religious right wingers have also called for a ban on trans or intersex people from party membership.
Despite public denials, their next priority could be the resurrection of radical and invasive gay conversion therapy practices, currently criminalised in several states, which experts say are both ineffective and traumatising. A Nine Media investigation last year uncovered proof of alarming conduct within City Builders and other affiliated churches, such as the alleged use of “deliverance” gay conversion prayers on parishioners, “as well as a violent exorcism on a 12-year-old boy because he was wearing a t-shirt with a skull on it.”
Links to the American evangelical movement
The doctrinal discipline exhibited by City Builders and other churches in the International Strategic Alliance of Apostolic Churches (ISAAC), which mimics much of the American evangelical movement. Both groups seek societies in their own “Godly” image, and the latter – with a massive head start – is accused of helping transform US Republicans from the “party of freedom” into a cult of personality more interested in culture war campaigns often at odds with actual individual liberty.
The Christian conservative infiltration of centre-right parties goes well beyond Victoria. We had a Pentecostal Prime Minister (and two other Cabinet members) as recently as May last year. And Gold Coast Mayor and lifelong Liberal Tom Tate’s spiritual advisor insists the property investor-come-politician wants to transform his city so it “looks like the Kingdom of God.”
Barring developments which go beyond the expulsion of individual members like Heath in Victoria, Pentecostals seem well-placed at the very least to exert significant, long-term influence over one of Australia’s major parties. Determined, organised and amplified by right-wing media figures whose world view fits comfortably with theirs, they may yet take the whole place over.
Editors note: MWM contacted Victorian Liberal Leader John Pesutto, Party President Greg Mirabella and Berwick MP Brad Battin for this story. Brattin declined to be interviewed, saying, “I will respectfully decline this interview. It is a party matter and it will not assist me commenting on this publicly.” We have not received a response by the publication deadline from any of the others.
An Adelaide-based graduate in Media Studies, with a Masters in Social Policy, I was an editor who covered current affairs, local government and sports for various publications before deciding on a change-of-vocation in 2002.