Dogma down under

Here's a fun fact: Australia is holding a national election Saturday. There isn't much hand wringing in the nation's press about low voter turnout because skipping that trip to the polls is against the law, and punishable by a fine. The fire this time is over the relatively new Family First Party, a socially conservative, economically flexible political party that advocates stronger controls on pornography, drugs, gambling, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods -- and a general rethink of how the Australian government regards people. According to the FFP's website:

Family First believes that families are the foundation stone of society. We will work towards the ideal that all Australian families have the opportunity to participate fully in society. We will therefore promote both the rights and responsibilities of families, as well as the rights and responsibilities of government towards families.

And here's how the party defines families (I've highlighted what Michelangelo Signorile would call the heterosexist language):

"Family" for Family First means the relationships that bind grandparents, parents and their children, mums and dads and siblings and form the basis of a living community. A broader experience of extended family relationships enriches family life. Family grows out of heterosexual relationships between men and women...

This upstart party is likely to gain a few seats in the election and has made a few "preference deals" -- a concept that my American brain still can't comprehend around after trying very hard (Australian readers are invited to take to the comment boxes to enlighten this poor yank) -- with several parties, including the one that's likely to come out on top this weekend: John Howard's Liberals.

So Family First is poised to gain some influence in the next Australian government, and many in the Australian press are throwing a fit about it. Columnist Miranda Divine writes in the Sydney Morning Herald that "The media has alternated between ignoring the party and attempting to uncover sinister links with the Assemblies of God church, which brought us such malevolent figures as Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian," and she's not kidding about the sinister links business. Here are some highlights.

1) In a story in The Age, in which Prime Minister Howard was defending the preference deal, the second graph begins "In a deal negotiated by Mr Howard, the socially conservative Family First, which has close links to the Assemblies of God church " and the piece ends with charges by Green Party leader Bob Brown that Family First "is a conspiratorial set up." He said that the FFP should come clean "about the extreme right religious connections behind it."

2) A story for an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program included this nugget in the intro of a story on the pre-election preference wrangling: "Family First, which is still denying it's a church-based party..."

3) The independent news website Crikey has launched the Family First files, which probes the links between Family First candidates and the sinister sounding AOG (Assemblies of God). Lots of speculation here about how the FFP either is or isn't being funded directly by the coffers of the Assemblies of God.

Family First, for its part, has responded by painting itself as a mainstream voice which is simply concerned with the fate of the family. It trumpets the fact that candidates and are from many religious communities and plays up some areas of overlap between it and folks on the left (i.e., against the import of genetically modified foods) to declare itself beyond the usual left-right divides. Columnist Divine argues that "far from being an extreme right-wing party, Family First's policy platform reflects the views of a good proportion of the electorate," which would explain the attempts of rival political parties to taint the messenger. But what's the media's excuse?

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