New church-linked party could raise Christian right power in Australia

A new political party with links to a fundamentalist Christian church could emerge as an influential force in Australian politics following national elections this weekend.

According to vote tallies Monday, the Family First party _ closely linked to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God church _ has a strong chance of winning a Senate seat in Victoria state and a shot at one in South Australia state in the first federal election it has contested.

Prime Minister John Howard's government looks set to win at least half of the 76 seats in the Senate in Saturday's poll, gaining control of the upper house for the first time since the 1970s.

Howard said Monday he wasn't sure if he could rely on the Family First party to help pass legislation.

However, he could be underestimating a new player in Australian politics.

Pentecostal Christian churches are the fastest growing in Australia, experts say, and their popularity led to the party's founding in 2002 by former preacher Andrew Evans, who won a South Australian state parliament seat that year.

The party interprets the Bible literally, and is strongly anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion.

Party supporters allegedly threw eggs at leftist Green Party members, screamed obscenities and declared that lesbians were "witches who should be burned at the stake."

One Family First candidate distributed a leaflet that said: "Spot Satan's strongholds in the areas you are living (brothels, gambling places ... mosque, temples.)"

Monash University senior lecturer Nick Economou compared the rise of Family First with the growth of evangelical churches' influence on U.S. politics under President George W. Bush's administration.

"It's my suspicion that this is another sign of the Americanization of Australian politics," Economou said.

But Flinders University political scientist Haydon Manning, who has studied the emergence of Family First, doubted churches could become the political force in Australia that they are in America.

He said the proportion of Australians who attend church weekly was a small minority compared with the majority in the United States while compulsory voting in Australia meant church leaders here did not need to mobilize their congregations to vote.

"We're just a much more secular society," Manning said. "Give the Australian voter a whiff of sectarian politics, they'll run a mile."

In Victoria state, Steve Fielding, a political novice and committed Pentecostal church member, looks likely to become a Senator.

The party's South Australian candidate Andrea Mason, who has an outside chance of winning a Senate seat, is also the only female Aboriginal leader of a political party in Australian history.