It is little wonder that reporters covering the South Australian state election in February 2002 failed to anticipate the success of the Family First party. Long renowned as a haven for lecherous drunks and Godless communists, the profession of journalism effectively quarantined itself from the new wave of evangelical religious fervour that was taking hold in the less fashionable suburbs. The phenomenon was politically activated in September 2001 with the launch of Family First by Andrew Evans, a senior national figure in the Assemblies of God church and pastor of the Paradise Community Church in north-eastern Adelaide, which boasted a 4,000 strong congregation including future Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian. Tapping into a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support the party polled 4.1 per cent of the vote for the Legislative Council, enough to win Evans a seat at the expense of the much more fancied Greens. Not surprisingly, Evans’ success has encouraged the party to broaden its horizons. Yesterday saw the launch of Family First as a national entity with plans to field candidates in most lower house electorates and for each state in the Senate.
Having demonstrated that the electoral market gap that Fred Nile has filled in New South Wales is there to be exploited in other states, there seems every reason to believe that the party might continue to operate beneath the radar of the national media and once again surprise pundits on election night. Queensland has a large mass of disaffected voters who have been left looking for a new home with the decline of One Nation. Religious conservatives in Western Australia have long had no obvious option. The Democratic Labor Party in Victoria has never reached beyond the Catholic community. And Brian Harradine’s electoral base and Senate seat are up for grabs in Tasmania.
With One Nation effectively out of the picture it had seemed safe to assume that the non-major party vote would return to its traditional pattern of favouring Labor on preferences to the tune of 60 per cent or more. This could be jeopardised if Family First proves successful in harvesting a substantial share of the minor party protest vote. While their preferences are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the House of Representatives, for which many voters make up their own mind about preference allocation, they could play a crucial role in the Senate, where 95 per cent of voters accept the party’s nominated preference distribution by exercising the above-the-line voting option. Excluding independents and micro-parties, Family First’s preference order for the South Australian Legislative Council election in 2002 ran Nationals, Liberal, Labor, Greens, Democrats and One Nation. Unless the party has a substantial change of heart for the federal election, this could provide a substantial boost to the Coalition’s chances of gaining a blocking majority by controlling half the Senate. One could even fantasise about them achieving this despite losing government, in which case Mark Latham might find himself emulating his mentor Gough Whitlam in a manner he would have preferred to avoid.