The last battle: What's going on in The Christian Democrats

The Christian Democrats (CDP), led by the long serving NSW parliamentarian Fred Nile, is overwhelmed by internecine conflicts. And, as hundreds of thousands of Christians have voted for it over the decades, Eternity is providing a guide to the factions within the party.

While the Christian right in Australia is littered with groups that once were close to Nile and have split from him – the campaign group called Family Voice is a good example – the fighting within the party has been particularly fierce in the last eighteen months. Skirmishes even include a current court case, and the changing of locks.

There are currently three CDP factions – which seems rather a luxury for a small party.

There are currently three CDP factions – which seems rather a luxury for a small party.

Firstly, the ‘Old Board’. This group includes some of the party’s best known names: former president Ross Clifford, who heads Sydney’s Morling College; Paul Green, a former party MP; and allies such as former party chaplain Paul Capsis. Up until October 2019 members of this group were key to the running of the party and steered it though some turmoil – such as when a group of young rebels attempted a takeover. Clifford, Green and Josh Green (one of the party’s best candidates, and Former Party Agent Philip Gerber were forced out of the party by Nile as reported by Eternity. There have been wild scenes and, at one Annual General Meeting, Paul Green was kept out of the meeting by a security guard.

Second, the ‘Newcastle Faction’. Led by Charles Knox – the party treasurer – and Milton Caine, this group forms one half of the board. They are taking on the other half of a caretaker board in a court case about the use of party funds. This groups united with the third group in getting rid of the old board, but then the two groups turned on each other. The Newcastle Faction has accused Nile of stacking branches and manipulating the results of votes.

Third, the ‘Triumvirate’, consisting of Fred Nile, his wife Silvana Nero Nile, and Annie Wright, a close friend of Silvana Nile and the current party manager. It would be fair to say that the Newcastle Faction and the Triumvirate are divided on the issue of succession. The Triumvirate would see Silvana Nero Nile as a likely candidate to succeed Fred Nile in his parliamentary seat. The Newcastle Faction prefer another candidate.

In an email letter to CDP members Fred Nile insists that his group has won. “I am appalled and shocked at the [censored by Eternity for legal reasons] inferring that our AGM was invalid and that Supreme Court Orders of November 6, 2020 were not followed by ourselves and the Acting State Manager … We just won a Court Order on December 24, 2020 after Milton’s email of […] in your ‘Minutes of December 18, 2020’. Milton Caine lost his position of Senior CDP Deputy President to Silvana Nile who received 57 votes to his 26 votes.

“Furthermore, the Caretaker Board of November 6, 2020 (in which I was the President) does not continue to control the Party as it was dissolved when the Board was democratically elected with a majority of votes at the AGM November 28, 2020. Even if Milton Caine and Charles Knox continue to argue that the Board elected at the AGM (even if defective) is not the Board, upon legal advice it is the valid board and will continue to manage the affairs of the Party.”

Needless to say the Newcastle faction contests the details of that email.

Eternity has received the Court Orders from 24 December which paint a different picture. Fred Nile is ordered to be removed from the signatories from the Party bank accounts. Members from both groups are to have access to the party headquarters which moves to Willoughby, a northern suburb of Sydney. The bank accounts are frozen except for “ordinary wages or payment of personal expenses.”

As Eternity reads it the court order is a holding device, with further court directions expected in February. The order does not declare either side as winner. It does not settle the question of whether for example Milton Caine is still Senior CDP Deputy President, or Charles knox the Party treasurer.

CDP Short Minutes of Order 24Dec

There have been bitter fights over the last few Annual General Meetings of the CDP with allegations of branch stacking, invalid votes, quorums and whether meetings were properly held. Here Nile is saying his group has won, responding to an earlier email by Milton Caine of the Newcastle group. This email from Nile underscores the bitter fight between the Newcastle faction and the Nile “triumvirate”.

There are a number of ex–CDPers.  Nella Hall – a former lead Senate candidate for the CDP – is an assistant  to Mark Latham, the One Nation Party leader in NSW and a colleague of Nile’s in the Legislative Council. She makes it clear to Eternity that she was not asked to leave the CDP.

An unknown number of CDP, One Nation Party, former Family First Party members/ex-members hanker after one conservative party. Please note, this does not necessarily include the people in this story. They are frustrated that past rivalry meant that CDP and other “Christian” parties around Australia found it difficult to preference each other in the past when it may have led to the other gaining seats in the Senate.

It is striking that the Latham legislative agenda includes bills likely to appeal to a conservative Christian constituency. His Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 would make schools consult with parents before teaching anything  that conflicts with “core values” and allow them to withdraw students from those classes.

Another, the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, which is currently the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, would add to NSW Anti Discrimination law and protect the right of religious organisations to hire religious staff among other provisions.

This is traditional CDP territory, and creates a track record that may be appealing to conservative Christian voters at the next state election in March 2023 where Fred Nile might retire.

The implosion(s) inside the CDP may not  be a fatal wound – most of the people in this story are optimistic about a continuing CDP and both members of the ‘Old Board’ and other former party members could be rallied to the cause.

But it would certainly take an independent, arms-length inquiry into the governance and management of the party over the last 18 months to clear the deck, and see a party re-set.