The Australian Christian Lobby

When it comes to same sex couples and marriage, a Charter of Rights, or child surrogacy, how effectively does the Australian Christian Lobby represent the mainstream churches? When the ACL lobbies with government, how does its perceived constituency find a genuine voice in its policy-making?

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Railton Hill on the ACL
Dean Logan on the ACL
Jim Wallace on the ACL

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.

Throughout the last decade there's been a lot of talk about the growing influence of religion on Australian politics, especially the influence of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians.

Some of that talk has been exaggerated, but it's certainly true that if conservative Christian opinion has enjoyed a greater profile, especially with the Howard government, then a lot of the credit must go to former SAS commander, Jim Wallace and his Australian Christian Lobby.

This week, ACL is rejoicing at its success in railroading the attempt by the government of the ACT to introduce same-sex unions. Before the last election, ACL supported the removal of most of the legislation that discriminated against gay people, with the exception of gay marriage and gay adoption. The Sydney Anglicans took a similar position and it really is important to pause here and consider just how far even fairly conservative Christian opinion has shifted on this issue in the space of a decade.

In recent weeks, the Australian Christian Lobby has been quietly active on another issue, surrogacy. Moves are afoot to introduce a uniform national approach to surrogacy, and a number of State parliaments are conducting inquiries on the issue. To each of these inquiries ACL has sent a written submission opposing surrogacy.

Well our guest today is a former Victorian State Director of the Australian Christian Lobby. Railton Hill resigned over the surrogacy issue last year. He supports surrogacy, in face he's a member of the board of ACCESS, Australia's national infertility support network. He's also an adviser to ADCA, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, as well as being a senior lecturer in marketing, at Swinburne University, and he put up a strong fight to get his views on surrogacy accepted.

He says the Australian Christian Lobby is a closed shop, accountable to no-one, not really representative of mainline Christian views at all, that there is really no opportunity for its supporters to contribute to policy formation, and that in fact ACL is a far narrower and more fundamentalist organisation than it pretends to be.

Railton Hill, welcome to the program. You resigned from your post last year. Why?

Railton Hill: I was disillusioned with ACL, having put in a tremendous amount of voluntary effort to that honorary position as State Director here in Victoria. I had joined, looking for a general, moderate, broad-church Christian opportunity to influence government policy. And I became convinced that we were certainly not really moderate, not towards the middle, that in fact there was a definite fundamentalist element which was influencing most of what was going on a lot of the time.

Stephen Crittenden: Railton, give me a picture of your own religious background, and the kinds of issues that you were interested in that you were hoping the Australian Christian Lobby would be able to promote.

Railton Hill: Sure. Look I'm a Salvo. I'm one of those I guess you could probably say relatively conservative, certainly theologically conservative, evangelical Protestants. My concerns certainly embrace some of the issues which ACL has done a great job lobbying on. For example, the preservation and protection of traditional marriage, I worked hard on that, I support what's been done there.

Stephen Crittenden: So you're an opponent of gay marriage?

Railton Hill: Oh, absolutely, I do not support anything which does mimic traditional marriage, on biblical grounds, that's a clear biblical position that I would take which most Christians, in a very broad sweep of Christians across Australia and the world, would support. But you mentioned other issues I tried to get up. OK, well I wanted to have a real debate about industrial relations. I remember when Steve Fielding, the Family First chap, put up some very moderate criticisms and proposals for things like guaranteeing a Sunday, a weekend for workers and so forth; I just couldn't get any buy-in with that, there was a blockage there. I tried very hard to get up the alcohol culture abuse issues which have now exploded in our faces some 12 months later. Everybody's talking about and suddenly ACL has a media release and a response, but only after the event. And this happened time and again; I became very frustrated with it, I was also very frustrated, Stephen, with the fact that you know there are no members of ACL, there are only supporters, and there is no mechanism for the grassroots, even at State Director level really, but certainly for ordinary so-called supporters, to influence policy.

Stephen Crittenden: You're basically saying that Jim Wallace is really the be-all and end-all of the organisation. He makes policy. How much is your disillusionment caused by a loss of confidence in him?

Railton Hill: Look I would really rather not comment on Jim personally, Stephen, I would simply say that I did find it a very autocratic organisation to work with, it is completely top-down, there is a very small group, very small group, who really decide policy and I don't see how you can claim to represent Christian people of goodwill throughout the country, when there is no mechanism and no interest in having a mechanism for policy input.

Stephen Crittenden: Doesn't ACL have a board?

Railton Hill: Look there is a board, and the board is appointed by, as I understand it, that very small group that actually own the corporate structure for ACL, what is actually the legal ACL entity. I stand to be corrected on any of this Stephen, if I'm wrong, OK? But that's my understanding. Jim of course as the Chief Executive or whatever the title is, of the organisation nationally, reports to the board, but unless it's changed in the last 12 months, he's of course a member of the board. And if he's a member of, one of the folk who own the company, he also of course appoints the board. But that I'm not party to.

Stephen Crittenden: The Australian Christian Lobby, Railton, is often described as representing Australian Christians and indeed the Australian Christian churches; is that true?

Railton Hill: My understanding, and I stand to be corrected, but I think it's a private company, and really answers only to itself. In terms of its constituency, look I would have to say that I don't think this would be a surprise to anybody, that its particular supporter base would be largely within the very new highly evangelical Pentecostal-type churches, the mainstream churches have been very cautious, you know, and look, there are two ACLs, there's the ACL around election time, which is moderate, restrained, even-handed and so forth, and most Christians of lots of persuasions virtually all apart from the Uniting Church, are happy to front up at a forum and to ask some questions and to show interest and be under the banner of We're the Christian constituency. Between elections, it's a very, very different ACL and there's a very narrow range of issues focused primarily around biotechnology, anti-abortion, anything that they see as being vaguely related to that, such as surrogacy, which really forms the major lion's share of what's done.

Stephen Crittenden: You're saying the ACL is not what it claims to be.

Railton Hill: Look essentially that was my experience and that's why I resigned.

Stephen Crittenden: I think you also believe, don't you, that the ACL is essentially a front for the Right to Life, which of course would be seen by many of the mainstream Protestant churches as a pretty extremist group.

Railton Hill: Look I think it is fair to say it's a Trojan Horse -to bring an extreme pro-life anti-biotechnology route of any description - position into Protestantism.

Stephen Crittenden: And to what extent are Right to Life people active in the organisation?

Railton Hill: I would feel that it's probably deeply penetrated, Stephen, I think in terms of membership or supporters (we don't have members of course) I would suspect that it's pretty deeply penetrated, but I would suspect it's informal, but that general movement which I understand has fragmented to some extent of late, I believe is very strongly represented and probably deeply penetrates ACL.

Stephen Crittenden: Railton, hasn't there been a real attempt by ACL to broaden its agenda, to be seen to be broadening its agenda in recent times? We saw the questionnaire prior to last year's Federal election , canvassing issues like poverty and industrial relations and the environment.

Railton Hill: Well I guess I initiated that process in one indirect way when we had the Victorian election. I worked very hard to get the questionnaire broadened out; introducing some questions on homelessness and things like that. And I'm delighted to see that this has happened, to an extent. But as I say, these are not core issues for ACL. Certainly there are releases coming out on these things, there is a deliberate strategy, you know, I mean we're in politics here, it's silly to pretend, of being seen to have a broad interest in a wide range of issues.

Stephen Crittenden: But you're saying that interest isn't real.

Railton Hill: Well I don't believe ACL exists to represent Christians on those issues, you know. I think they have certain core issues, they are the ones that they put the time, the energy, the very extensive staff and resourcing into, on a daily and weekly basis.

Stephen Crittenden: Railton, you talk about the surrogacy issue as a case in point, the kind of concerns you have about the organisation overall. How much is this really sour grapes on your part over a difference of opinion on a particular policy area?

Railton Hill: Look there's no doubt that it was this issue which crystallised my understanding of the way ACL really has no policy formation process that involves ordinary people or even a broad section of the church, no question this was the issue where that crystallised and where I realised just how deeply felt and deeply running is a strain of religious fundamentalism, which is clearly influencing, well - on surrogacy - coming primarily from anti-IVF.

Stephen Crittenden: And you say that surrogacy has been taken up as an issue almost under the radar, by the Australian Christian Lobby, but that surrogacy has never really been an issue of deep concern for mainstream Christians. In fact, it's not really a Protestant issue at all.

Railton Hill: Look I'd agree with that. I think you've nailed it very well. These are not core issues for Protestants, particularly ordinary, middle-of-the-road evangelical Protestants. Certainly Roman Catholicism has a range of theological and other basically extra-biblical concerns, they come from church traditions, about interference in the marriage, any sort of process involving IVF is seen as both interfering within the marriage, and as a real sanctity of life issue. I'd be with Alan Nicholls, an Anglican theologian who points out there is no reference in the Bible which points out where life begins. So we had this debate 20 years ago with regard to IVF, and really I see this whole thing as just a sort of aftermath, a sort of an echo much, much later, of that argument. But look, there are other arguments. For example, it was put to me this notion that God opens the womb, you know, God's in charge of that area of our lives, it's playing God to intervene and to get involved in trying to assist people with genuine medical infertility to have a child. Now if you followed that logic, Stephen, we'd all end up not treating diabetes, or a broken leg or cancer, we'd end up back in caves living in the dark. I mean this is fundamentalism. These sorts of arguments, particularly the IVF one, the sanctity of life was raised again and again, and I guess this Roman Catholic idea of interfering in the marriage, we're somehow intervening in the marriage, people who were strong as saying it was adultery. You know the reality is of course unlike in the Old Testament where there was quite a bit of surrogacy, and it wasn't -

Stephen Crittenden: There's that very famous example of surrogacy in the New Testament I thought, Railton.

Railton Hill: Well one some people see Jesus -

Stephen Crittenden: Joseph and Mary.

Railton Hill: Some people do see it that way, and that's an interesting one. I was reading on the internet this wide range of Christian views that there are, and that's one of them.

Stephen Crittenden: You've mentioned the Catholic church a couple of times Railton; to what extent is Jim Wallace really trying here to build and maintain alliances with the Catholic bishops on an issue like surrogacy.

Railton Hill: It was continually put to me in discussion that we had to stay on side with the Roman Catholic bishops, and that this was for political reasons in terms of potential trade-offs on other issues.

Stephen Crittenden: OK, final question: since the election of the Rudd Labor government, is the Australian Christian Lobby perhaps battling to maintain its relevance? For example, does it have the same entrée with Labor that it obviously had with the Howard government?

Railton Hill: Well once Mr Howard had bought so heavily into treating ACL as an authentic peak body within Christianity in Australia, the other players of course had no choice but to do that, and that pattern's been established and I suspect that that will probably continue. Now I'm not unhappy about that, but I want ACL to stop shooting themselves in the foot by taking extremist positions, dressing them up as having some sort of social science basis, and as I say, two ACLs, one for election time, and one for between elections.

Stephen Crittenden: Railton Hill, the former Director of the Victorian State branch of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Railton Hill's critique of the Australian Christian Lobby is backed up by our next guest.

Dean Logan is Jim Wallace's former Chief of Staff, and he left the organistaion four years ago.

Dean Logan: Look I think Railton is absolutely spot-on and I think this is not just an ACL issue, I think it really is a Christian lobby issue across the country. And in terms of governance, you know, I've said this time and time again in the public arena, and privately to politicians and other lobbyists, that we just don't know who's actually sitting behind these spokespeople for Christian-based lobby groups. They tell us that they have boards, and that's fantastic, but what role do these boards play? Who are these board members? Do they just sign off on the financials at the end of the year, to account for ASIC regulations? I think the church and I think the congregation deserve to know who these boards are and who these so-called shadowy figures are, and I think it's important because we need to look at the issue of governance so that the broader community can assess Christian-based lobby groups and say, Well, yes they are credible, because they have a functional board, they're not just as some people say, a "one-man Rock-show". So in terms of governance I think Railton is absolutely spot-on.

Stephen Crittenden: What about the issue of policy formation and policy debate within the ACL. There's certainly I think a widespread public perception that the ACL represents the views of certainly a block of the Christian churches.

Dean Logan: There's no doubt that the ACL have done a fantastic job. I think they've been going for something like 15 or 20 years when you look back at the history. But I do agree with Railton that for instance, any political party, they do have policy groups, they have caucuses, they have a policy foundation which enables grassroots members and supporters to shape, influence and debate the issues that are actually brought to the public arena. If that happens in a more substantive, and I think in a more credible sense, with all Christian-based lobby groups, then I think they will be better placed to argue that they actually represent the Christian constituency.

Stephen Crittenden: So with ACL at present, what are churches or individuals who give financial support to ACL, what are they getting in return for their money at a policy formation level at this stage?

Dean Logan: You know I can only talk with regard to my experience some years ago with the ACL, but I think they're getting very little. I think in some respects a number of supporters in terms of businesses, businessmen, businesswomen who are providing substantial amounts of money, probably in most instances I think, wouldn't have the time to sit down and discuss policy issues, but I do think that the church, church leaders, pastors, ministers, reverends, these sorts of people, certainly have the time, and I think to my understanding, the structures are just not in place. They don't have, like I say, the caucuses, the policy committees looking at social policy, immigration policy, taxation policy. As a result, what we have is policy formation in a vacuum, in a bubble, and I'm not sure that a lot of that policy that enters the public domain really is representative of the Christian constituents.

Stephen Crittenden: What about Railton Hill's suggestion that the real agenda, the core agenda if you like, is on about a much narrower range of issues than ACL claims?

Dean Logan: I think again, Railton's right, and I've highlighted this to Jim Wallace personally, and I've spoken to him about this issue. He would argue that many of these more important issues with regard to say same sex, adoption, marriage for same sex couples, surrogacy, stem cell research, take precedence, and so therefore they wouldn't have time to focus on some of the more broader social policy issues for instance. But I would disagree, I think they've had long enough, and it's not just the ACL, it is other groups as well, they've had long enough I think, to get away from the moral, so-called moral issues and I think to their detriment they've focused on those because they're pigeonholed very easily. I maintain as a policy analyst, that a lot of the policy that comes out of these groups is based on this moral panic.

Stephen Crittenden: You've previously said in fact that Jim Wallace, a former counter-terrorism expert, actually works on the basis of moral panic, that he's an expert in the politics of fear.

Dean Logan: I think that's exactly right, and a lot of so-called political operatives, whether they be lobbyists like myself, or whether they'd be politicians, are very clever at manipulating scenarios, gaining a five-minute grab at a doorstopper by focusing on issues which really hit a raw nerve in the community. My personal view, my strong view, having spoken to a number of politicians at both the Federal and State level, other lobbyists, other Christians, church ministers, is that the church deserves better, and I think it's time that we broaden the Christian scope in terms of policy, in terms of the articulation of that policy, and I think while we need to focus on the so-called scary problems or the problems, the immediate problems which I agree need to be addressed, we certainly need to broaden the policy outlook.

Stephen Crittenden: Railton Hill says that he left the organisation really over a specific policy issue on surrogacy, where he had a major disagreement with the position as it emerged in ACL. Why did you leave?

Dean Logan: Oh look, my time was up I think Stephen. Personally I was tired of the narrow focus, as I say, I worked very well with Jim, we worked together for some time and my time was up, Stephen, and I was tired of not tackling some of these broader social issues.

Stephen Crittenden: Let me just ask you a last question, as someone who hasn't been part of the organisation for four years: was it a mistake on the part of Jim Wallace to become so closely related in the public's mind to the Howard government?

Dean Logan: A very good question, and we could debate this ad nauseam I think. I don't think so. I think Jim's a very clever man, he's an honourable man. He worked with the government that was in power at the time. My, I guess as an outsider, and as a lobbyist, I'm not saying I'm critical, but I certainly work on both sides of parliament, and I think in some respects perhaps the Christian lobby throughout Australia didn't work hard enough, soon enough, and develop close enough relationships with the ALP. So I think to some extent, recent comments by the Attorney-General in the ACT sort of pigeonholing the ACL as a spokesperson, or they were too close to the Howard government, is in some respects true, but at the same time they were the government in power, they were very much aligned to the Christian movement; very sympathetic.

Stephen Crittenden: What kind of access does ACL have to the Rudd government?

Dean Logan: Look, I mean I'm not in the ACL, so I couldn't answer that question definitively, but I think the relationship would be very good, it would be very professional, but nowhere near as substantive as the relationship would have been, I'm absolutely sure, with the Howard government. But given Jim's dedication to the Christian movement I have no doubt that that will build over time.

Stephen Crittenden: Great to talk to you.

Dean Logan: Thanks very much, Stephen.

Stephen Crittenden: Dean Logan, a former Chief of Staff to the Chief Executive of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace.

So what does Jim Wallace himself have to say about all of this? Jim, welcome to the program. Can we start with the first major issue that's been raised by Railton Hill, which is that the ACL is really a closed shop, that it doesn't have any members, it's only got supporters, and there's not really any opportunity for policy input from the grassroots.

Jim Wallace: Yes well certainly we have supporters, not members, and the reason for that is just a functional one. I think a lot of organisations of our types have, and that is that we haven't got a company structure or financial base that allows us to conduct AGMs, bringing everyone in from right around the country. Remember we are a national organisation. So we have supporters and, you know, our reason for that is purely a financial one. In terms of being a closed shop though, we're certainly not that. We have a normal structure, a normal system of governance and accountability. For instance, we have a board, and that board is one that's independent. I'm not the Chairman of the Board, I'm the Managing Director of CEO, and so I don't see how people can claim that we're a closed shop.

Stephen Crittenden: Jim, who appoints the board?

Jim Wallace: Well the board invites members onto the board, or people to participate in the board.

Stephen Crittenden: So it's self-appointing?

Jim Wallace: That's right, yes.

Stephen Crittenden: Right.

Jim Wallace: We do have a group of sort of founding members who approve it, but I mean their role in it is really just a constitutional role, it's not an active role.

Stephen Crittenden: And how many people are we talking about there?

Jim Wallace: We're talking there about four people at the moment.

Stephen Crittenden: Right. Is it basically a private company?

Jim Wallace: Yes, it's a company limited by guarantee.

Stephen Crittenden: The bottom line question is, is ACL just Jim Wallace and is the policy essentially policy that's made by you?

Jim Wallace: No it's certainly not. And if I take the example which of course was the reason that Railton Hill resigned, and that was the issue of surrogacy, Railton held views on surrogacy and indeed on abortion which were not mainline Christian views, nonetheless we tolerated his views, and in fact we were framing our policy on surrogacy, we held a hook-up of all our State offices, and each debated the merits of a draft policy which had been framed here in the national office. Railton was very much in the minority, but nonetheless I said Well we'll have a second hook-up and we did that, and again it was discussed in great detail. And finally, and it was very much a majority decision, we decided on our position on surrogacy which was to oppose it, and I then took that to the board, because Railton had such a strong dissenting position. I took that to the board and I also took Railton's dissenting position. So I don't think you can be much more democratic.

Stephen Crittenden: What about consulting with the grassroots, with the churches that you claim to represent? I mean how do you go about consulting on a specific policy issue?

Jim Wallace: Well first of all we don't represent the churches of course, we represent our supporters. But nonetheless of course the world sees us I suppose as having a representative role for the churches, so very conscious of that, what I do is that where there is a contentious policy decision to be made, I will consult a group of representative theologians, representing a whole lot of denominations, asking them to give their theological input. Now I emphasise here that I don't ask them to give me the position of their denomination, but rather to give me their view coming from their denominational position.

Stephen Crittenden: You told me that you were in the process of setting up a national policy board; how will that work?

Jim Wallace: Well it won't work any differently from the process that I've outlined there, except that that first process will be of our employed staff in each of the various States, our State directors, and then there'll be an additional level which will be a State Advisory Council, and where there's disagreement on a particular policy, or if we need to refine a particular policy, then we'll have a phone hook-up, first the State directors and then secondly, with the Chairs of those State Advisory Councils who will form the National Policy Council.

Stephen Crittenden: Let me move on to a couple of the other allegations that have been put. One is that ACL is in fact on about a very much narrower range of issues than it pretends to be, that in effect, there are two ACLs, there's the ACL at election time that presents its interests in a broad range of social justice and poverty and environment issues, but then there's the real ACL, between elections, that's essentially interested in a very narrow range of issues to do with sexuality, abortion, marriage, family.

Jim Wallace: Well I just reject that out of hand today, because the ACL has managed to attain its credibility for the fact that we maintain a belief that churches should be about both righteousness and justice, that we believe that every time governance is mentioned in the Old Testament pretty much, it's God expects Christian input and Christian governance to be just and righteous. So we reflect that in the issues we take on, and I remembered that you covered yourself, the climate change submissions that were made by the various churches, they were in fact various religions at one stage there, and we were part of that. We've recently received strong endorsements form people like the CEO of Wesley Mission, CEO of Micah Challenge from Tim Costello, which we've used in fundraising events, because they endorsed the fact that we are looking more broadly than just those narrow sexual issues.

Stephen Crittenden: It's been put to us that you've in fact got a deliberate strategy of putting out press releases so as to be seen to have a broader range of interests.

Jim Wallace: Well I reject that absolutely. I mean it's simply not true. You know, we keep a balance because we believe, as I said, that Christians and Christian governance should be both righteous and just, and so certainly we seek to achieve a balance, but it's not through any sort of sense of deception. I mean I've been last year for instance in the Immigration Minister's office in the old Parliament, with immigration lawyers, arguing a case for persecuted people groups overseas and their access to migration to Australia. We've supported the Millennium development goals, I think there's just no foundation to that if you look in fact at what we're on about.

Stephen Crittenden: What about the allegation that ACL's a front for the Right to Life?

Jim Wallace: Well I think it was absolutely laughable because many of the Right to Life groups would not even agree with our position.

Stephen Crittenden: Let me just end on the surrogacy issue, the specific issue of surrogacy, which is really what brought this to a head. The allegation is that surrogacy is in fact not really an evangelical Christian issue at all, that you're really running the issue under the radar, putting out formal submissions opposing surrogacy, to the various inquiries that are running in the various State Parliaments, partly for political reasons, to curry favour with conservative elements of the Catholic church, where you're seeking to build alliances.

Jim Wallace: Oh well again, that's absolute rubbish, and I can imagine Railton Hill putting that because he didn't agree with our position on surrogacy. But we wouldn't have submitted this to the torture we did internally, with Railton very much in the noisy minority on positions, if we didn't feel strongly about it. We feel strongly about surrogacy because it is about the creation of dysfunctional families, particularly about, and I might say this doesn't result in all cases, but particularly there's a strong danger there of children growing up, what's called with a genetical sort of dysfunction, you know, where they're not sure who they are and who their Mum and Dad are. So our concern with that is it's not really part of the natural family. Now, to say that we would only be worried about Protestant issues, I mean is to suggest as well I s'pose we wouldn't be worried about abortion, but clearly we are. You know, I don't think there is a Catholic/Protestant divide on these issues of which Christians have to have concern. We're concerned about abortion because it's about the sanctity of life.

Stephen Crittenden: Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Well that's all this week. Goodbye from Stephen Crittenden.