You may not have heard of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), you've probably never met one of its members. But you've almost certainly felt its impact. The ACL is like the online pop-up ads of politics: You don't know where they come from, who's paying for them, or why people pay them attention. Yet they keep popping up, again and again.
Most recently, the ACL came out swinging during the Safe Schools debate, with press releases decrying the program for teaching students about "'queer sex' and cross-dressing without parental permission." It's not exactly clear why they felt the need to put queer sex in quotation marks.
The ACL also objected to the supplementary websites offered by the Safe Schools program, claiming youths could stumble onto unsavoury content if they clicked through enough links. Apparently, the ACL is unaware of how the Internet works—given there's ever only a handful of hyperlinks between the most innocuous content and porn. After all, it only takes four clicks to get from the ACL's Wikipedia page to a beginners guide to fisting (for those who aren't clued in: you just need lots of lube, good communication between partners, and a technique called "The Silent Duck").
However, campaigning to end Safe Schools is neither the beginning nor the end of the ACL's forays into public life. The group has made forcible contributions to most recent morality and "issues" debates, from campaigning against teen sex education in one of Australia's most under-educated districts, to begging the government to suspend anti-discrimination laws during the same-sex marriage debate, so the ACL can crank up their anti-gay rhetoric.
If you're thinking that this group sounds like a collection of fringe zealots, you may be taken aback at their access to the upper-echelons of government. It's no great shock they secured a meeting with Tony Abbott just after his elevation to Prime Minister. However, it's considerably more surprising that they sat down with Malcolm Turnbull just after his.
The ACL's influence even transcends party lines—Labor leader Bill Shorten spoke at the group's 2014 conference. It had meetings with both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and is even widely credited with Gillard's 2010 back down from supporting same-sex marriage.
Indeed, during the last Labor government the ACL somehow convinced top politicians that removing all the porn from Australia's internet was a wise, nay a necessary, move. As laughable as it sounds now, this was actual government policy from 2009 to 2012.
In an effort to assure voters who'd no doubt threaten mass emigration over the issue, the government insisted Australians could still access steamy content—all they needed to do was call up their ISP and personally ask for the porn to be returned to their connection. In a sad blow to call centre workers country-wide just waiting to have that conversation, the plan was quietly dropped in 2012.
However, that this policy was even considered speaks volumes about the influence of the ACL, who were receiving regular government briefings—even ahead of the press—throughout the process. So who exactly is this group: Who are their members, who funds them, and what coalition of Christian groups do they actually represent?
The last question is probably the easiest to answer. While the name "Australian Christian Lobby" implies that the organisation is some sort of religious peak-body, the ACL is very much disconnected from actual churches. While some churches are supportive of the ACL's efforts, others are less than impressed with the group's focus on what-goes-into-which-hole, as opposed to helping the needy and providing platonic love to neighbours.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Rev Angus McLeay was keen to separate himself from the group's activities, noting "the public, they just hear 'Christian' and they don't necessarily make fine distinctions." Likewise, Melbourne's Archbishop Philip Freier said, "I don't have a lot to do with the ACL." When VICE called the ACL directly, their media spokesperson failed to turn up any strong links between the group and other Australian churches, merely stating that, "We communicate with churches regularly. Mainly through email."
Looking into the group's membership and funding produces similarly vague results. Founded in 1995 by John Gagliardi, a businessman with ties to the National party and former Channel 10 presenter, the group boasts it has 50,000 members ready to be activated for campaigns. However, this figure is just the ACL's email subscriber list—an indication that 50,000 people have provided their email addresses to the group, not that it has this many involved members rearing to go. Similarly, the group receives over $1 million every year in donations, but shields the sources of this money, claiming these donors would be harassed for supporting the group.
One glance at the ACL's sad looking headquarters in Canberra and you can be pretty sure most of that money is going straight into anti-Safe Schools campaigns. It's definitely not being funnelled into buying a fancy office. Although, given the number of issues the group opposes the money might have to be spread pretty thin: They are anti-euthanasia, anti-same sex marriage because it's bad for straight couples, anti-same sex marriage because it's bad for gay couples, anti-gay parents, anti-R18+ video games, and they're the Socialist Alternative for allegedly trashing Cory Bernardi's office.
For a group high profile enough to arrange meetings with prime ministers, and influence public policy, the ACL is very opaque. As the country gears up for another round of debates on Safe Schools and same-sex marriage, we all know it's important to reflect on who is contributing to these debates, and who exactly they represent.
Who is the leader of the violent Socialist Alternative? Who sponsors them? So many questions, so little journalistic curiosity.
— Lyle Shelton (@LyleShelton)March 21, 2016