SYDNEY // Australia's right-wing Christian Democratic Party is running a controversial anti-Muslim campaign in a high-profile federal by-election in Sydney. The minor party's manifesto for Saturday's poll urges voters to "stand your ground in defence of Christian values" and has demanded a 10-year ban on Muslim immigration into Australia.
In a move aimed at maximising publicity for its hardline stance towards Islam, the Christian Democratic Party (CDP) has nominated nine candidates to contest the seat in the electorate of Bradfield, a conservative stronghold that spans some of Sydney's most wealthy neighbourhoods. The Rev Fred Nile, the party's national president, has accused sections of the Muslim population of deliberately failing to assimilate and of harbouring ambitions to establish an Islamic state within Australia. He has also advocated the close surveillance of Muslims in the armed forces.
"Our Muslim population is very small," Mr Nile explained. "We can handle it at this stage, but what I've learned from other nations is as it grows, then somehow the tension develops. "The Muslims themselves change. They become more demanding and begin to flex their muscles. They're doing that in the United Kingdom, demanding Sharia courts. On our own soil we should have a moratorium to keep that Muslim population at 1.7 per cent" of the nation's total, he said.
Mr Nile is his party's sole representative in the Legislative Council, or the upper house, of the New South Wales parliament, where the state government often has to rely on minor parties to ensure that its legislation is passed, a situation that has at times given the CDP a decisive say in crucial matters. First elected to the New South Wales parliament in 1981, Mr Nile has positioned himself as a defender of Australia's Christian values, although the CDP's electoral success has, at best, been modest over the years.
"We are not a white Australia party and we're not a racist party," he said. "I meet with Muslim leaders. Even though I've got these reservations, they know I have no hatred or bitterness to them as people. I want to try to help them to assimilate and have all the opportunities everybody else has in Australia," Mr Nile said. "You can't transfer what the Quran is laying down into a modern Australian society. That's where the tension is."
Mr Nile's opinions, in particular his call for an immediate cessation of Muslim migration, have drawn an exasperated response from Islamic activists. "That is a very dangerous statement and endangers the mosaic of multiculturalism and harmony [in Australia]. Muslims will become more fearful, isolated and alienated," said Asem Judeh, a Melbourne-based Palestinian who was born in Kuwait. He said he believes that the denigration of Muslims in Australia can be traced directly to the actions of the federal government, where, he has argued, Canberra's support for Israel and the US-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a distorted view of Islam.
"Australian politicians' extremely biased policies in the Middle East encourage the wider community to discriminate against Muslims and Islam. Fred Nile's comments are clear examples of that," Mr Judeh asserted. The Muslim community in Australia hails from a broad range of different ethnic and theological traditions, the foundations of this great cultural diversity having been laid in the mass migration programmes introduced at the end of the Second World War.
Disparate groups of settlers from Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have given Australia a unique blend of Islam, but one that Mr Judeh believes does not always speak with one strong voice capable of countering the beliefs propagated by Mr Nile. "Our community is not united and organised enough to tackle these issues," Mr Asem said. "We are working on these issues on an individual level, which is not good enough, but if we have strong community leadership then, yes, we can isolate these right-wing politicians."
The CDP has identified Islam as well as Australia's plans for an emissions trading scheme as the most pressing issues of the day as it continues its campaign in Bradfield. Antony Green, an election analyst with the Australian Broadcasting Corp, said the party's chances of success were almost non-existent. "In every country immigration and the fear of people who are different is always a very big motivating force in people's view of politics. It is very difficult for political parties to tap into that because it is such a primal force. People will do irrational things on the basis of race," Mr Green said. "I think the Christian Democrats are playing with fire tapping into this issue. I'm not sure it will work for them in an electorate like Bradfield, which is very affluent, where there isn't a large Muslim population. These issues may not be as relevant as in seats where there is a larger Muslim population and people get concerned about the growth of migrants."
In total, 22 candidates will contest the Bradfield by-election, including representatives of the Greens, Australia's leading right-wing party, the Liberals, and a host of independents, who have chosen to ignore the controversial stance on Islam taken by the CDP. The governing Labor Party has decided not to contest Saturday's poll in Sydney's conservative heartland, where it has traditionally failed to muster significant support.