The state executive on Friday opted to reject the membership applications of more than 100 new members who joined the party in recent weeks, as well as writing to around 400 more demanding they submit statutory declarations affirming their commitment to the Liberal cause.
It followed a Right-faction recruitment drive – revealed by InDaily – targeting Evangelical church groups around SA, with conservative senator Alex Antic declaring the move was spurred by recent state parliament decisions, including the passage of SA’s new abortion laws.
It’s understood one member of the state executive, Young Liberal president Aric Pierce, has connections with some of the church groups in question, as a member of the Baptist church and, previously, as head prefect at Temple Christian College.
Pierce, an adviser to Finance Minister and leading Liberal moderate Simon Birmingham, was elected to the state executive in a divisive Young Liberal ballot last year, at which members of the Right broke from the centre-Right to back him for the presidency.
Pierce today declined to respond to a series of questions, including whether he voted in favour of the state executive decision to banish members recruited from Evangelical communities, and whether he personally supported the decision.
However, his boss Simon Birmingham today told ABC Radio Adelaide he had personally backed the motion, saying: “When confronted with a series of allegations that new members had told other party members and state MPs that they were going to campaign against endorsed candidates at the next election [and] that they didn’t support those MPs – in some cases they didn’t actually support the Liberal Party – then it seems the prudent thing to do for the party to run an audit process to try to ensure that those who are seeking to join are actually supporters of the Liberal Party and will support our candidates.”
“Now if all meet those thresholds then all are welcome regardless of their faith, background or otherwise,” he said.
But the move was rubbished by Birmingham’s federal colleague, Barker MP Tony Pasin, who told the station it was “nothing more than an attempt by a certain element of the Liberal Party to maintain control at any cost”.
Pasin described the crackdown as “religious discrimination bordering on religious vilification”.
“It’s incredibly sad,” he said.
“I never thought I’d be asked to defend religious freedom within the Liberal Party.”
Pasin, a lawyer, said his “reading of the jurisprudence” showed precedent “which would indicate this decision is something which might attract the attention of the courts, if the courts were petitioned to consider this matter”.
“I think this action has been taken so that effective control of the state council and executive is maintained,” he said.
The state council meets this weekend in McLaren Vale, with sources telling InDaily: “I’d be shocked if [the issue] didn’t come up at the meeting.”
It’s likely Right-aligned members will push to overturn the state executive’s decision, with the factions mobilising their members ahead of the showdown.
Asked about the issue over the weekend, Premier Steven Marshall said it was “a matter for the Liberal Party and the state executive”.
The Premier holds a default seat on the state executive, but often sends a proxy – who for Friday’s meeting was Treasurer Rob Lucas.
“The reality is they formed an opinion that they need to make some changes to arrangements to the membership of the party,” Marshall said.
“We welcome all members but we really like to make sure they support the party and our endorsed candidates, and I think that’s a pretty reasonable request – but it’s open to absolutely everyone.”
One of those whose membership has been knocked back is Southland Church pastor Rob Norman, whose sermon last month urging his Pasadena parishioners to join political parties helped bring the membership drive to prominence.
He told InDaily today he had received “a huge number of emails and messages from people all around the state who come from a wide range of denominations, and from people who are not church goers at all”.
“In general, people are frustrated and tired of not being listened to by their local MPs,” he said.
“Thousands of South Australians are fighting back against the consistent and unrelenting revision of legislature to cancel conservative values by getting involved and becoming part of the solution.”
In a statement, he said the movement “has been independent of and not beholden to any faction or powerbroking, although we recognise there is a natural affiliation to support those politicians (on both sides of parliament) who champion conservative values”.
“Participating in Australia’s political system, within the established structures and processes, is the right of every Australian regardless of race, gender, religion or ideology,” he said.
“We will continue to encourage people of faith and those of conservative values to actively contribute to a healthy democracy through the vibrant exchange of ideas and standing up for their genuinely held values.”
Dr Barry Manuel, an ordained Baptist minister who now pastors at Healinglife Church in Wayville, said: “We have held many meetings at our church involving ministers from a variety of Christian denominations and I have heard these leaders’ concern about the drift in the major parties away from traditional conservative values.”
“Consequently, I am seeing widespread support for a renewed expression of the place of conservative values in the political process,” he said.
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