Sunday, October 29, 2006

Far right puts fear of God into Young Libs

By Peter Wilmoth
September 4, 2005 SMH

When Liberal MP Victor Perton learnt last month that the Young Liberals, the group of which he was once Victorian state president, had put a motion to end a long-held policy of mandatory gender equality in the party, he heard alarm bells. The bells became louder on learning that, at the same meeting, a motion was put calling on the Howard Government to send undercover agents to kidnap or kill those responsible for the Bali bombing.

"It alerted everyone to the fact that there was a problem that many of us thought had been solved a while back. Putting a motion for entering a foreign country with assassination squads is the stuff of undergraduate pamphlets, not a serious policy-making body. And why would we take away a symbol of equality of the sexes? To me there were more important battles to fight."

Mr Perton is one Liberal prepared to speak on the record about the coverage the Young Liberal's behaviour has generated in the press (it's preselection time in November, which means no boat-rocking). But in the voices of many of his publicly dismissive, privately seething colleagues, you can hear the nervousness and the anger at "ill-thought out and unrepresentative" views that could damage the party.

Other Young Liberal motions put recently have included a call on Malcolm Fraser to resign his Liberal Party life membership and to condemn Liberal MP Petro Georgiou for his moderate stance on detainees. And the headlines have turned into headaches.

It became worse this week when Alex Hawke, 27, the national president of the Young Liberals, was named by former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden as the person responsible for telling journalists about Mr Brogden's drunken antics, which led to his resignation on Monday. Mr Brogden is in hospital after an apparent attempt at self-harm.

Mr Hawke has denied spreading the stories. Despite agreeing to an interview, he did not return calls by The Sunday Age.

Mr Hawke, a leading figure on the Young Liberals' right and tipped as a future MP, believes Mr Brogden was too liberal on issues such as republicanism, abortion, heroin injecting rooms and homosexuality, and had called for "renewal" in the party.

The views of Mr Hawke and other ultra-conservatives are causing anger within the Young Liberal movement, especially within the moderate Victorian branch. "The motions being put are certainly not views endorsed by the greater movement," says Andrew Higgs, a policy assembly delegate for the Victorian division of the Liberal Party. "I think the motions are absolutely disgusting and not consistent with the parliamentary policy platform. They unstitch the great work Menzies did to be inclusive of women and other important groups in the community."

Mr Higgs said views such as the motion to kill the Bali bombers were damaging to the State Liberals. "I'm asking Robert Doyle to pull in the reins of the Victorian Young Liberal leadership."

All this is quite a way from the old image of the Young Liberals as well-groomed conservatives out to meet like-minded members of the opposite sex. Since its inception 60 years ago, the Young Liberals has been a nursery for new talent (Andrew Peacock, Peter Reith and Robert Hill were all Young Libs), not to mention a training ground for those interested in parliamentary careers.

There has always been conflict within the ranks. The difference now is that the movement is dominated by the ultra-conservative Christian right, pushing extremist values.

"There's always been the right, the left, dry and wets in the movement, but not this 'We meet on Sunday and determine a moral agenda'," said a former Young Liberal figure. "It's causing some party members to be concerned that it's taking on an extreme and almost irresponsible feel about it."

Among the new Young Liberal hate figures is, with his moderate stance on social issues and attacks on the Howard Government, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. "He is without doubt the worst prime minister Australia's ever had," West Australian Young Liberal president Matt Eggleston recently said, according to The Monthly magazine. He called for Fraser's resignation because of his "abominable disloyalty".

The demonisation of Fraser is consistent with a policy platform that flirts with the political extreme. In May, national president Alex Hawke told a newspaper: "Nobody joins the Liberal Party to be left-wing. If you stand for compulsory student unionism, drug-injecting rooms and lowering the (homosexual) age of consent, you can choose the Greens, Labor or the Democrats."

Health Minister Tony Abbott supports the Young Liberals, giving up part of his summer holiday each year to speak at the national conference. Abbott was never a member, instead being part of the conservative Sydney University Liberal Club. "The Young Libs in those days were constant critics of the Fraser Government, ironically enough for being too right-wing, and basically supported the usual centre-left causes — gay rights, drug law reform," he said.

"The Young Libs these days would be — to use a tag — to the right of the party. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's a good thing."

A bitter rift is playing itself out between the moderates in the Young Liberals and the Christian right in the Australian Liberal Students Federation. Says a former senior YL figure: "It's being driven a lot by personality fights in NSW and this weird influence of the Christian right, although I'd say it's a bit demeaning to call it Christian, call it religious right."

Mr Hawke touched on the influence of religion when he recently told The Monthly magazine: "The two greatest forces for good in human history are capitalism and Christianity and when they're blended it's a very powerful duo."

According to ALSF president Julian Barendse, the group forms "the most dynamic student political movement" on campus.

"In Victoria, Young Liberals have traditionally been less interested in policy debate and more interested in social functions," Mr Barendse told The Sunday Age. Asked whether the recent controversial motions were taken seriously, Mr Barendse said: "This is a forum which has 16-year-old high school students in it — it's not exactly a think tank."

Mr Barendse said it was different federally, and he had a warm relationship with Mr Hawke, who was doing "a very good job".

So who are these new warriors of the Christian right? Some are working at the heart of mainstream politics as advisers for federal or state ministers, giving them positioning for political contact. Mr Hawke is a staffer for the ultra-conservative NSW MP David Clarke. The Young Liberal president and vice-president get to sit on the party's federal executive five or six times a year and have direct contact with the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the executive. They have a vote each.

Asked if the extreme views reflected poorly on the party, a senior Victorian Liberal said: "Extremes always worry me."

So, if they're being embarrassing, what can be done? "The last few weeks has been a reality check for them," said one former Young Liberal figure. "You've got to have an exuberant group of young supporters, but you wouldn't want the immature or opportunists to rise to the top."

NSW zealots wrest control
By Frank Walker The Age
September 4, 2005

THE advancing army of clean-cut arch-conservative Young Liberals has its first scalp in John Brogden, and has delivered control of the NSW Liberal Party to the hard right.

It has been a relentless and methodical four-year campaign led by Young Liberal leader Alex Hawke, 27, and the man he works for, Catholic Right Liberal MP David Clarke, to oust moderates from the party.

New NSW Opposition leader Peter Debnam owes his win to numbers organised by Mr Clarke. Moderates in the party fear Mr Debnam won't be able to resist their demands for a marked shift to the right.

Liberal preselections start next month and up to six moderates stand to lose their seats after branch-stacking efforts. Upper house MPs John Ryan, Patricia Forsythe and Don Harwin seem set to go, as do another three lower house moderates.

Ms Forsythe told the ABC on Friday that the "extreme religious right" were determining preselections with an agenda devoid of human decency, tolerance and compassion.

"There are extremists and zealots who have got a lot of power inside the Liberal Party at the moment and ordinary members and ordinary people standing up for their positions, standing up for the policies that they think are important, are quite capable of being swept aside."

Mr Brogden pointed an accusing finger at Mr Hawke as he resigned, saying Mr Hawke was behind efforts to undermine him and that he "needs to take a good hard look at himself".

Mr Hawke denied the accusation, saying he had not spoken to any journalist about Mr Brogden's behaviour before it became public.

"To ascribe any role to me in this embarrassing episode is false and I reject it totally," he said.

Mr Hawke had been a critic of Mr Brogden, particularly over his support for the Kings Cross drug injecting room and lowering the age of consent for homosexuals.

Four years ago Mr Hawke and an evangelical Christian Right wrested control of the Young Liberals from the moderates, who had dominated the youth group. Angry moderates last week described methods used by the new arch-conservative Young Liberals as ruthless, militaristic and bullying.

"The Young Libs are now run like a military operation," said one member. "David Clarke is the general and Alex Hawke is the colonel with all these burly sergeants out in the field organising standover operations, branch stackings and recruiting."

Young Liberal numbers in Sydney have swelled from a few hundred to around 3000 in the past four years. Last year the Right signed up 80 Christian Young Libs to start a Punchbowl Branch, to try to obtain one more vote in upper house preselections. When 200 moderates arrived to sign up, police were called as a mini-riot broke out. The branch was abandoned.

"Moderate Young Liberals are afraid to go to Young Liberal Council meetings as they are ridiculed, shouted down and bullied by the Alex Hawke-led hard right," said one Young Lib.

A moderate Liberal MP said that "David Clarke told them … that moderates in the party were sympathetic to the Muslims. The Right hoped to win the parliamentary party in one or two elections, but now they have already grabbed it."


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