Kevin Rudd knows his prime ministership is, at least in part, owed to the substantial number of socially conservative Australians and Christians who voted Labor for the first time at the last election.
Modelling himself as a “fiscal conservative” and being open and comfortable about being a regular churchgoer, Mr Rudd was able to portray himself to the nation as a safe alternative.
After the election, demographic research by former Labor senator John Black found an identifiable cohort of the electorate who had been entrenched with John Howard for a decade or more, but had indeed switched.
According to Black: “The strongest correlate of the swing to Kevin Rudd’s new Labor Party was Pentecostal churchgoers, alongside Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, Salvos, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Uniting Church.
“With the Uniting Church included, these activist religions represent 10 per cent of Australians in total and they were located in the best possible areas for Labor.
“In fact, 12 out of the top 20 Pentecostal seats in Australia are located in Rudd’s home state of Queensland and (he) won five of them.”
But there was inevitably going to be tension between Mr Rudd’s values and sections of the Labor Party, particularly among that portion of the left whose ultimate aim is not economic equality, but a desire to rewire and remake the fabric of society.
Despite his personal opposition to abortion, Mr Rudd was unable to stop the Cabinet overturning an Australian ban on overseas aid being used to fund terminations in developing countries.
At the recent ALP national conference, those values were tested again on the issue of same-sex marriage.
The Sydney Darling Harbour conference was a carefully stage-managed event, and the “gay marriages” issue was the only policy matter to result in controversy.
The trappings of power, and the increasing blurring of political ideologies between the major parties, and Mr Rudd’s desire to control the media message – all these factors dictated that any serious policy debates were kept off the centre stage.
Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, himself a veteran of past fiery Labor debates, was even forced to defend the conference malaise, describing it as “relaxed” rather than dull compared with the 1980s when uranium and other issues saw boil-overs on the conference floor.
The same-sex marriage push came from a group which called itself “Rainbow Labor”, an organisation of almost exclusively left-wing gay ALP members.
The group has become incensed about party platform wording telling the states that they must “not create schemes that mimic marriage or undermine existing laws that define marriage as being between a man and a woman”.
It wanted to replace that clause with one which supported the recognition of same-sex unions.
Observers believe Rainbow Labor was a minority viewpoint and that the vast majority of the right (which still controls about 55 per cent of party delegates) had no interest in changing the platform.
Mr Rudd and other senior ALP figures worked overtime to stop the issue taking over the conference, and the Prime Minister emphasised in media interviews that Labor opposed gay marriage.
“When it comes to civil unions, civil unions mean the effective amendment of the Marriage Act and that is something that we (the Australian Labor Party) don’t support,” Mr Rudd said.
On the other hand, Mr Rudd pointed out that his government had done away with around 84 areas of the law which had discriminated against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Many Christian groups were not necessarily opposed to such changes because they accept that the law should be neutral about the decisions people make about their private property, their estates and superannuation.
In the end, a motion at the conference, which was moved by Anthony Albanese and seconded by Attorney-General Robert McClelland, was passed.
Under the new platform Labor now supports laws which prohibit discrimination of people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender status, but also encourages “couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life to have their relationship officially recognised”.
Critically, though, another key clause was inserted, stating: “These reforms are to be implemented consistently with Labor’s commitment to maintaining the definition of marriage as currently set out in the Marriage Act.”
According to the Australian Christian Lobby, this clause maintains the promise Mr Rudd made to it before the last election to defend the institution of marriage.
Mr McClelland claimed that Labor’s anti-discrimination reforms had the support of faith-based communities.
“(But) the support of Australia’s faith-based communities, consistent with undertakings made before the last election and indeed reflected in our current platform, was based on those reforms not undermining the institution of marriage,” he said.
“Marriage is defined, as the amendment reflects, that we acknowledge and commit to the definition of marriage. That is defined in the Marriage Act as being between a man and a woman. And indeed that definition, I believe, is certainly consistent with the provision of the Australian Constitution.
“The amendment confirms, in clear terms, that to be the position of the Party.”
However, not everyone in the Christian community was happy with the change in wording. Morals crusader and NSW leader of the Christian Democratic Party, Rev. Fred Nile MP, has described the new wording as highly deceptive.
Mr Rudd and Mr McClelland’s reassurances notwithstanding, the conference amendment has deleted the statement that the ALP believes “marriage is between a man and a woman”. Also removed are the words that future same-sex unions “should not mimic marriage”.
Mr Nile claims the changes still “undermine traditional marriage and open the door for same-sex marriages” at future conferences.
On the final point Rev Nile may be right because Rainbow Labor has promised to try again in three years’ time.
By then Mr Rudd may not be prime minister. Or, alternatively, Labor may have such a majority after the next election that the Christian vote may not matter as much after all.