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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Chasing Australia's Christian vote

By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

Election banners
Campaigning under way
With Australia's 9 October general election too close to call, attention is turning to a small number of marginal seats, where many upwardly-mobile and often religious voters live.

In the sprawling suburbs of Sydney, one of the most influential members of the Howard government recently addressed the fastest-growing church in Australia.

The conservative Hillsong evangelical church is extremely wealthy, and its star burns increasingly brightly.

In front of an audience of 16,000 people, Treasurer Peter Costello - who is tipped by many to be a future prime minister - said Australia's Christian traditions should not be neglected.

"We need a return to faith and the values which have made our country strong," he told the enthusiastic gathering.

Some observers believe Mr Costello's appearance was public confirmation of the power of this "new spiritualism".

But Bruce Baird, a federal government MP, told Australian television that Mr Costello's address was simply smart politics.

"The new charismatic Pentecostal churches are huge in number... and so it's significant that you attend from time to time... take an interest in their interests and certainly have a dialogue with the leaders," he said.

Bill Crews, a reverend at the Uniting Church, told BBC News Online that with the election still too close to call, many politicians were scrambling for all the support they could muster.

"I think they've just discovered a vote called the ┐Christian vote'," he said.

Addressing religious conventions and praising God is now a part of the campaign trail.

"You expect that," said Reverend Crews. "It goes along with kissing babies, going to church, doing all the right things and then going out and slaying the enemy. Everybody knows what the game is."

Traditional values

Australia is a majority Christian country, and according to the latest census the largest groups are Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

The Christian vote in Australia is fragmented and occupies a broad spectrum.

Fred Nile
Fred Nile says he went into politics to stand up for traditional values
The breadth of opinion is illustrated by the issue of gay marriage, which has been particularly divisive.

The prospect of same-sex unions has prompted Fred Nile from the conservative Christian Democratic party to contest a seat in Australia's Upper House of Parliament.

"I see a need to be in the Senate to stand up for family, for marriage, for our traditional Aussie values," Reverend Nile told the BBC.

He said there were dark forces at work, "which could take us down the direction of a non-Christian Australia, and move us right away from our Christian heritage".

Reverend Nile said senior members of the government had recently been making "explicit Christian comments" to increase their vote.

Both Prime Minister John Howard and Mr Costello - the son of a Baptist preacher - are practising Christians.

Asylum issue

But the government has run into trouble with members of the mainstream churches over its refugee policy.

There's this awful tendency among some Christians to think there's only one way [ to vote], and that is just rubbish
Reverend Crews
Paul Grimmond, a chaplain at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told the BBC that the uncompromising attitude towards asylum seekers could influence what happens at the ballot box.

"It's caused considerable sorrow for a number of Christian people... who would think that we had a responsibility to care and to seek justice in that situation, that perhaps we haven't done," he said.

Reverend Crews believes that religion is above politics, and said that when Christians in Australia vote, this should be their guiding principle.

"I've had letters from people saying 'If you're a Christian you should vote this way,' and I think 'But I'm not a Christian like you are'," he said.

"What about all those Christians who aren't like you?"

"There's this awful tendency among some Christians to think there's only one way [to vote], and that is just rubbish," he said.

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