The newly-elected Opposition Leader has also declared himself “open” to formalised factions in the fractured Liberal Party, which he conceded would need structural reform as well as policy overhaul – the latter under a new shadow ministry which he today unveiled.
Speaking on InDaily’s Notes On Adelaide podcast – in an episode to be aired tomorrow – Speirs reflected on an incendiary speech he made last year in which he encouraged parishioners at Adelaide Southland Church to “continue to be engaged” in the political process.
“Pay very close attention to what’s happening in your parliament and what your local members of parliament are doing… this idea of the separation of church and state – forget it,” he said at the time.
It coincided with the church’s pastor Rob Norman encouraging the congregation to sign up to political parties to prevent the passage of legislation such as the recently-passed abortion and voluntary euthanasia Bills, and came in the midst of a Right-faction-led “Believe in Blue” recruitment drive targeting largely Pentecostal communities to join the Liberal fold.
“I wasn’t part of that recruitment drive,” Speirs told InDaily this week.
“It was an initiative of a group within the party – they probably thought they were doing the right thing, and it was a means to an end… but look, I think we can move beyond that.
“I do not want to see any political party in this state run by a particular religious organisation or a particular faith – I think that would be unhealthy, unproductive and it’s not what South Australians are after.”
Asked if that meant he wanted the Believe In Blue campaign to stop, he said: “I don’t think there’s any need for it to continue.”
“I want to see us have membership drives into the future, I want to grow our party’s membership – but going into churches, preaching – for want of an better word – a particular political ideology is not what I’m after, because I actually think no single political party should be the domain of the Christian vote, or the Islamic vote, or the Sikh vote, or the Hindu vote… I would like to see people of faith feel comfortable occupying positions and membership of any political party in this state.”
However one of the architects of the recruitment campaign, SA senator Alex Antic, told InDaily in response he would “continue to encourage those who share our values to join our party, regardless of their walk of life”.
“The legacy of a period of left-wing dominance in this state has been one of electoral annihilation,” Antic said, after the moderate-faction-dominated Marshall Government last month lost power after just one term.
“The Liberal Party is a centre-right conservative party which has been damaged through this period.
“In order to appeal to middle Australian voters we need to be the party of true ‘liberal’ values and I intend to continue to encourage those who share our values to join our party regardless of their walk of life.”
Speirs said of his speech to Southland – during which he also railed against the state’s Legislative Council as a “laissez faire, Left-leaning place” – that he had “a habit of being very honest about things”.
“If I’d known there was a camera on me I might have made more nuanced remarks in terms of providing context to that,” he said of the speech, which was livestreamed on the church’s Facebook page.
“I think people of all faiths – and I would suggest a majority of people in SA have a foundational faith-based influence – should be comfortable getting into politics, getting into political membership [and] getting into elected positions… I think that should be celebrated as part of a multicultural diverse society.”
Speirs said he was a person of faith, describing himself as someone “shaped by what I’d describe as a fairly traditional Christian upbringing” who attends church “on a semi-regular basis”.
“I was really determined that I would never allow my faith to be piously preached from the benches of our parliament,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate, I don’t think that’s, again, what South Australians want… but of course when matters of conscience appear before parliament different things are going to motivate people, and foundational faith-based principles are going to be part of that for individuals – and that has influenced some of those conscience votes for me.”
Speirs won the backing of influential Liberal conservatives after he led the charge for amendments to the termination of pregnancy Bill, but he says now it is “interesting” that the episode pigeon-holed him as an arch-Right-winger.
“There was really only one issue I really focused in on – I struggled with the concept of a pathway to late-term abortion without appropriate protections for the unborn child, and so I took a bit of a leadership role on that item,” he said.
“I led the charge on that one [because] I strongly believe the average person in my electorate would be comfortable with the practices of abortion in society – and I am – but less comfortable with late-term abortion unless there were really strong protections around it.
“I became an advocate, no doubt about that [but] I think I did get pigeon-holed a bit there [but] in 95-plus per cent, probably higher, of the votes coming through parliament, my faith would not have influenced me one way or another.”
He said he “would describe myself as a political centrist… and really balanced by my very progressive environmental views”.
Speirs has retained the Environment portfolio he held in Government in his shadow ministry unveiled today.
The new leader suggested he was open to party reform, including formalising the factions that have riven recent Liberal administrations.
“It has been a challenge for the party and there’s no point sweeping it under the rug,” he said.
“We talk a lot about factions within the Liberal Party, but there are far more pronounced factions – and probably ideologically opposing factions – within the state Labor Party [though] they do seem to manage those differences pretty well… and again it’s probably because they’re quite good at the politics of it all.
“In terms of formalising the factions, it’s something I’d certainly be open to – but I want to have that discussion with the party’s membership, the executive team within the party and among colleagues.
“I don’t have a locked-down agenda of what I want to achieve… I think a lot of members would like to never hear us talk about factions again and simply get on with presenting an alternative vision for the state.”
A Liberal source told InDaily today that while religious recruits were still joining the Liberal Party, “I don’t think it’s as coordinated” as last year’s concerted push.
“There’s definitely people still coming through, but it’s not a significant push like it was before.”
They said the state election failure of religious Right parties including Family First and Bob Day’s Australian Family Party, showed some of their proponents that “perhaps the best way to influence politics is to be within a mainstream party”.
“So people are still coming through but it’s not like it was,” they said.
The insider said that “broadly speaking, the Right is definitely in a the upward trajectory as far as growth goes” after the Believe In Blue campaign.
“It’s fixing a historic imbalance in the party – it’s certainly not the flash in the pan some moderates thought and hoped it would be,” they said, arguing that the moderate group “maintained their power from a minority position, if you look at the broad grassroots”.
That, they said, was because of power through “entrenched positions” such as the Premier and his office “divvying out [ministries] to their people”.
“They’ve sort of lost that advantage now, so [the party] is taking more of a natural form.”
That’s despite the moderates retaining an overwhelming party-room majority – aided by the loss of key Right seats, including Schubert, with the retirement of Stephan Knoll; Waite and Davenport, which were lost; and Mount Gambier, Narungga and Kavel, whose incumbents are now on the cross-bench.
“The numbers will take a while to filter through [but] the organisation has turned a corner a bit,” the source said.
“But it’s a long road to developing the sorts of relationships with one another we need to thrive.”
They said what the Evangelical recruitment drive has done “is re-form in everyone’s mind – actually both sides of the Liberal church – that if you want to affect your natural political party, you need to to sign up and be involved”.
“It’s reminded everyone that democracy is there to be participated in, and if you don’t participate that’s when you forfeit our right to be concerned about the results -and if you want to change that, you get involved,” they said.
“It’s not a drive per se now – it’s reformed in people’s mind the nature of involvement in a political party.”
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