The issue that could lose ScoMo Christian support

Conservatives and social justice types agree

Martyn Iles, the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), says that the Government has got to solve the humanitarian crisis on Manus and Nauru, and do it fast.

“It’s got be solved,” he told Eternity. “And I’m not even going to say the Government needs to bring them to Australia, I’m just saying the Government needs to solve it. They need to find them a home and give them freedom and hope. It’s not right. It’s too long.”

Manus and Nauru is now a single issue uniting most Christians in criticism of the Government, with the ACL joining organisations like Micah Australia, World Vision, Common Grace and Love Makes a Way, along with the leaders of most of Australia’s mainstream church denominations, all calling for an end to humanitarian crisis of offshore detention. The ACL hasn’t always been vocal on this issue, though.

“The reason is because at the time with the border control stuff, ACL’s position was ‘Look, definitely control the borders… however, make sure that the refugee intake is extremely generous, because we should be very generous and we should be bringing refugees to Australia. But the best thing is for it to be done through proper channels, to stop the people smuggling and to stop the deaths at sea’. So that was the position of ACL,” Iles explains.

Times have changed.

“One of the fruits of that [policy] over the longer term has been the emerging Manus and Nauru thing. And that’s where we are now. And we’re saying ‘Well hang on, we might have said strong borders and generous refugees is all pretty good stuff, but…we’re not on board with the terrible situation these people are now in.”

That doesn’t mean we should expect to see ACL’s Iles being arrested for protest prayers in politicians’ offices like a Love Makes a Way activist and he says he’s not planning to “just go out hard and say ‘Free them off Nauru and Manus!’” because “usually that rubs politicians up the wrong way and they sort of get upset with you and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Instead, Iles understands why Government leaders would get upset when faced with “a lot of protest, but not a lot of workable answers”.

“It’s particularly tough. Like, it’s hard. The first thing the Home Affairs minister will say for example is ‘Look if 900 people from Nauru all come to Australia in one fell swoop, you’ll have boats out on the ocean coming within 24 hours.

“There may be a lot of truth in that, but you’ve got to work through all of those issues and come up with something that is practical. I’m confident that there is something practical, if only because even if the solution was not perfect, it’s better than the current situation.

“I think there’s an imperfect solution that’s out there that just needs to be done on moral grounds. And there’ll be a risk, for sure, but it’s just got to be done. It’s getting ridiculous and you can’t have people stuck with no hope, when they’re genuine refugees, as most of them are, and they’re in that kind of difficulty.”

So what is the ACL actually doing?

“We’re talking to everyone. I’m talking to the Home Affairs Minister, the Immigration Minister. Talking to people who have been to Nauru. Trying to see whether maybe we can go there and have a look ourselves? … Just to make sure that we fully understand the situation, and then speak in a really enlightened and educated way, to say ‘Well here’s a policy solution that will work. You could actually get these people to go to this country or you could bring them to Australia’.”

The advantage we have is probably we were in favour of strong borders

Despite his approach being quite different to the tone other Christians who have been campaigning on this issue for years, he does not critique those who have taken a more aggressive approach. Instead he seems acutely aware that the ACL is late to the party.

“The advantage we have is probably we were in favour of strong borders and generous refugee intake – much more generous even than they’ve got now – so, I guess we didn’t exhaust a lot of emotional energy at the time. But now that we see the border policy’s been implemented but there’s this side-effect that’s not been addressed. I think everybody probably hoped it wouldn’t get to this stage.”

As soon as Scott Morrison won the ballot, the ACL sent out a media release congratulating him on his role, saying they’re looking forward to continuing the discussions about religious freedom they began with Turnbull, and also stating that that it was a good opportunity for the government to follow its legacy on border protection with a solution to the humanitarian crisis on Nauru and Manus.

“I deliberately made sure that was not only sent to all the press as we would usually do, but it was also sent to all the politicians. So every federal politician got it in their inbox.” Iles says.

“We’ve got a lot of things on our plate but when I’ve gone in to see politicians about different issues, including religious freedom, I’m just constantly raising this [Manus and Nauru] at the moment, just to get it on everyone’s radar, and I’m hopeful – very hopeful it will lead somewhere.”

From Iles’ perspective, it would be smart politics for Morrison to find a humane solution for those people who he describes as “languishing on Manus and Nauru, with no hope”.

“Scott Morrison can shake some of the bad PR that he’s got, particularly in the Christian world. I mean, I know him to be a very sincere Christian. And he could probably shake some of that by literally just dealing with the problem now. To turn around and say… ‘We’ve secured the borders, we’ve stopped the boats, we’ve got a generous refugee intake and now we’re solving this humanitarian crisis. Look, we’ve got a clean slate. Everything’s great.’”

Iles is realistic about the task ahead.

“Unfortunately these things can take time, which is, you know, a frustration, but you need to take people on the journey. In fact, we probably need to take our own supporters on the journey, to be perfectly honest. But you’ve also got to bring politicians on the journey, and try and be a constructive and reasonable voice to them so that they don’t write you off to quickly and so that they hear you out and hopefully become advocates once they see the situation.”

I sort of had to say to them, ‘We’re not just Coalition voters. We’re Christians’.

So far, he’s been encouraged by the response. “I’ve actually spoken to lots of people in the Government, in the coalition, and what’s encouraged me is that there’s very broad support amongst Government members, for solving this, which surprised me, actually. And encouraged me.

And a number of them have said ‘Look we’d love to work with you to try to come up with a solution.’ So things are moving on and I’ve been encouraged to see that there are allies.”

Not everyone has responded positively, Iles says, and some have been “very strong” in their message to “leave this area alone”. But he believes enough politicians have responded positively “to start a conversation and to get movement. I know that we can’t be too slow about it… but there are people who are willing to try and make change within the government.”

He says he is ready for the backlash from politicians who assume they will have the ACL’s support, as recently happened when the ACL upset the Nationals in NSW by running a campaign against them.

“I sort of had to say to them, ‘We’re not just Coalition voters. We’re Christians and when you do the wrong thing, we’ll call it out, just as we’ll call it out from anyone else. You can’t expect us to just to be ‘party animals’.”

Iles’ voice joins a rising chorus of Christian leaders who’ve previously been hesitant to engage in the politics of Manus and Nauru, but who’ve recently spoken up on their personal social media channels, including some Hillsong pastors and worship leaders.

Few conservative voices have been more clear than Iles’.

“Five years of detention! That’s not right. You can’t have them holed up in detention centres, with no hope at all, for more than five years. That’s wrong.”