Christian Democrats - regrets, they have a few

It was a case of one too many Christian conservatives spoiling the broth. Paul Green of the Christian Democrats (CDP) blames the party most similar to the CDP – the Australian Conservatives – for losing his seat in the upper house at the NSW state election in March.

Green fell 5000 votes short of gaining one of four positions for minor parties – losing out to One Nation, which gained two seats, and the Animal Justice Party, which gained one on preferences.

The poor election result, disaffection by young members, an embarrassing breach of the electoral law and an ageing membership mean the party is under pressure.

Analysing what went wrong at a post-election forum for CDP members on Saturday, Green said the Australian Conservatives running was “nearly a fatal flaw for us as a party.”

Cory Bernardi has since announced the closure of the Australian Conservatives, although leaders of the NSW party, including Sophie York – once the face of the “no” campaign in the same-sex marriage postal vote and their lead state candidate in NSW – has discussed re-forming the state branch.

Green said when the Australian Conservatives candidate Greg Walsh was knocked out of the race, only 11,779 of his 27,000 votes – less than half – were transferred to other candidates “and it’s even arguable whether we got any of those votes.” This means that some 11,000 votes by conservatives were exhausted before they could save Green.

“I’m sure it was never their intent to knock us out.” – Paul Green

“What they actually did was they not only knocked themselves out of the race but they knocked CDP out of the race and so we need to be mindful when we’re working with other conservative parties the goal of what we’re trying to achieve,” he told a group of about 100 CDP members meeting in western Sydney struggling to find a way forward for the party.

“Unfortunately, on that side of things, it wasn’t very favourable for us that they did that because I’m sure it was never their intent to knock us out.”

Green said he was personally disappointed the Keep Sydney Open party gave its preferences to the Animal Justice Party because he had chaired an inquiry that came up with 60 recommendations to help the Sydney night economy thrive.

“Forty probably would have been enough to get those 5000 votes.” – Paul Green

“Sometimes it seems unjust. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do except say that’s the game. But they have little to no influence to drive the scaffolding for the work we actually did. Had we been elected we would have continued, and Sydney would be better off.”

Other factors that cost the CDP in the election were a reconfiguration of the party’s head office and the party’s constitution, which distracted attention from campaigning.

But Green said he took full responsibility for the impact of not fielding enough candidates in the state election. Instead of running candidates in each of the 93 electorates, as the party founder Fred Nile advocated, they ran only 20, which cost them in terms of doing preference deals.

“Forty probably would have been enough to get those 5000 votes. We maybe need to get back to what Fred has always said we need a candidate in every electorate. I take full responsibility because part of my strategy was, we didn’t need that, we can use that money to do television. We did television last October – we had three different sorts of ads, but they did not transfer to votes.”

The issue of the rebellion by young members was alluded to by Green, who made pointed remarks about the fact that there has been no transition of leadership from Rev Nile, who has been in the NSW upper house since 1981, except for a short break in 2004 when he unsuccessfully contested a Senate seat. Judging from remarks at the meeting, this was an issue that clearly worries many party members.

“I think the transition had an impact on election and by not having the transition – if we’d stuck to the plan of transition that we had all those years ago we would have been in a better place and it did not help as we’ve had people’s attention diverted from the cause.”

He was referring to a mutiny at the party’s June 1 state council meeting in which two young members attempted to stage a coup and oust the whole board.

The chairman, Ross Clifford, adjourned the meeting after it became rowdy, but some members stayed on and passed a motion to sack the board.

It is understood that the no-confidence motion was taken on notice, which means that the board will have to face a no-confidence vote at its next State Council meeting in August.

On Saturday, the party agent Philip Gerber said the board backed the chairman in using his extraordinary power to close the meeting because of disruption and disorder.

“That decision has not been challenged in the courts,” he said.

“The board consider themselves to be the still validly elected board in control of the CDP.” – Philip Gerber

“Secondly, assuming for a moment that he didn’t validly exercise that discretion, and the meeting did validly continue, the reported dismissal of the board without notice would be unlikely to be upheld by the courts, whether under the constitution that we operate under or the Associations Incorporations Act ‘Model Rules’, because you do have to give people notice if you’re going to move a motion to dismiss them and give them an opportunity to respond.

“So that issue of due notice and fairness, funnily enough, a good biblical principle, but also a legal principle, means the board took the view, and I think rightly, that to spring a dismissal motion on without notice would not be supported by the courts and, in fact, it hasn’t been challenged in the courts with the result that the board consider themselves to still  be the validly elected board in control of the CDP.”

Gerber also reported to the meeting that the party had been issued with a compliance order – effectively, a good behaviour bond – by the Electoral Commission for a serious breach of electoral laws in 2015 which came to light in 2017 but was not brought to the notice of the board until 2018.

“By that time the situation was fairly dire because the regulator had been waiting for 12 months for a response,” he said.

“The breach was a high-level breach because it was the transfer of funds from the administrative fund – which is money provided by the state government to administer the party and that can be used only for admin, not electioneering. The money was for a short period of time moved from that to the election fund and that was a breach.

“The upshot of it all was that the regulator … can take the party to court straightaway if there’s a breach of that agreement and also charge the party and party agent with non-compliance if there’s a breach.”

The CDP’s state manager, Craig Hall, warned the party that it needed to change if it was to survive.

He said a review of the party’s deficiencies showed there needed to be greater engagement with members and broader media exposure.

He said the party’s constitution was being changed at the behest of the regulator from top-down control to democratic membership engagement.

“I think the election outcome has seen that the world has changed – in the last five years we’ve gone from a society based upon newspapers to everything being social media and iPhones – five years ago a same-sex marriage vote was inconceivable – and if we stay in that pre-that-period mindset, we won’t engage the electorate. So that’s an uncomfortable transition, but as a party we need to do that. Cory Bernardi’s party has closed down, although I understand their NSW Division will re-register and contest our voter base. Family First closed down a couple of years ago – that was the other pure Christian party – we don’t want to join that group [of deregistered parties].

“What we need as a party is stability … We don’t want to become a party that has factions.”

“They are not trying to take over the party. They are trying to modernise it and to change it faster than we are able to.” – Craig Hall

He also sounded a pessimistic note in light of Fred Nile’s re-election, and the prospect that whoever replaces him as CDP candidate in four years’ time might not be elected.

“If we do get someone elected in 2023 – and my vision is we aim for two being elected; otherwise, it’s another four years beyond that before you get the chance to get two people in the upper house. So our essential position is we have eight years where our best outcome is one person and that is an issue because it affects our revenues and our capacity to do things.”

He also mentioned the elephant in the room – the ageing nature of the party’s membership, whose average age is 68.

“How do we as a very old party, with a culture that’s been around for a long time, adjust to the new world which is rapidly changing? We’ve seen other parties haven’t done that … Those are the things we need to consider as a party now and in the next few years.

“When I came to CDP we had just six branches which were considering their future, but I could see an enormous potential, and by modernising processes brought the branches to over 40 in just two years. We outpolled both Australian Conservatives and Clive Palmer’s party, and thus our brand held firm against those two new competitors.”

Hall told Eternity after the meeting that he and Philip Gerber had held a conciliatory meeting with Samraat Joshua Grewal and Joel Jammal, the two young mutineers at the June 1 meeting.

“They are not trying to take over the party. They are trying to modernise it and to change it faster than we are able to. Their intention is good; it is just their methodology that is not helpful.”

He added: “I see immense potential in the CDP brand, which is nationally recognised and one of the most significant in the history of NSW politics – and God is not finished with the CDP yet!”