Managing director, Australian Christian Lobby
Jim Wallace is on a mission from God to bring more religion into politics. And until recently, he and his disciples were doing a pretty good job.
With a budget of $2 million, 15,000 members and a cluster of politicians keen to keep them sweet, the Australian Christian Lobby is one of Christ’s loudest voices in Canberra. Or at least it was until Wallace went rogue last month comparing the health risks of the gay lifestyle with smoking.
Those comments prompted Prime Minister Julia Gillard to publicly admonish Wallace and cancel an engagement to speak at their national conference (she’s since been replaced by former attorney-general Robert McClelland).
Still, even that setback isn’t likely to stop the former special forces brigadier from attempting his pincer movement of purity on all levels of government. As well as gay marriage (an ACL speciality), the group holds court on everything from euthanasia to R-rated computer games to prostitution.
"We’re trying to bring Christian principles into government," Wallace tells The Power Index in a phone interview conducted just days before making the smoking claim in a debate on marriage equality.
"To present the reality of the Christians constituency as one which is identifiable, big, and which votes on its values."
Despite recent missteps, the ACL has been astoundingly effective at bending the ear of those with power. The group regularly sets up meetings with politicians, while barely a Sabbath passes where ACL operatives are not quoted by the press.
Wallace rates the media as a key tool in his crusade: "We realise to influence this debate; it's conducted in the media so we think it’s a necessarily professional skill for us to be able to respond in media times."
It’s not completely clear why the ACL commands such attention. Despite touching on the word "constituency" multiple times in our interview, Wallace does not have any congregation or parishioners to speak of. This has prompted criticism from some quarters that the ACL has a voice, but speaks for no one. Still, people such as Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen praise their work.
"Jim provides an opportunity for churches to express their view in a united way," says Jensen. "He doesn't force you to do it. But from time to time it is useful, instead of fifty people speaking, for people to unite and speak."
Wallace says the ACL doesn’t want to be a peak body for the Church. He also believes dissenting voices among Christians are exaggerated and that the ACL speaks for the majority.
"A lot of publicity is given to liberal views," he says. "[But] there are not many churches that are full on Sunday from those views."
Perhaps the ACL’s influence comes from the sense that going through Wallace is an easy way to get to Australia’s 13.2 million Christians. Former deputy prime minister John Anderson admitted as much in an endorsement video hosted on the ACL website:
"Politicians and decision makers want to know clearly and succinctly what the Christian view of an issue might be," he says. "The ACL provides that voice."
Party leaders on both sides seem to agree, particularly when it comes time to vote. Of the past four federal and state elections, only former Queensland premier Anna Bligh declined to speak to an event hosted by the group.
Wallace has also held recent appointments with Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard (before the recent kerfuffle). The biggest commitment to come out of that was a 2010 election promise coming from Gillard to maintain the current definition of marriage.
And there’s a good chance we could see both leaders speak to the group again before next year's federal poll (if the ACL can get back on the PMO’s good side). Wallace says this is because the Christian vote swings more than the traditional electorate.
The way he puts it: the ACL has sway across more marginal electorates than other competing lobby groups. That kind of reach is intoxicating for politicians.
"Every week in Australia there is somewhere in excess of a million people, who meet between 8.30 in the morning on Sunday through to six at night. Our concerns are only that the parties try to win its vote by presenting policies that contain more and more Christian values."
There’s other ways the ACL tries to make its point, such as this year’s anti-gay marriage rally held outside Parliament House. The protest was attended by Coalition frontbenchers Barnaby Joyce, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews.
Wallace also cites the ACL’s participation in Senate inquiries and parliamentary inquiries as important, as well as the work of his small staff. Some have even run for office: Queensland director Wendy Francis was Family First’s Senate candidate in 2010, while chief-of-staff Lyle Shelton ran for the Nationals in Queensland in 2006.
As far as Wallace goes, it doesn’t sound like he's contemplating putting his name on a ballot paper just yet. He says he wants to keep leading the ACL:
"I certainly want to bring Christ’s influence into the space, but I personally don’t want to be seen as a powerful person," he says. "As soon as you start doing that, as my wife would tell me, it would go to your head. And I think you’re onto the sort of power that corrupts."