Forget Copeland, new political party is Destiny's child

Last updated 12:03 19/09/2007

If anyone had ever wanted an example of why Christian parties find it so hard to make it into Parliament, you need look no further than the first splutterings of the latest "unified'' political vehicle.

No sooner had it coughed into life at a press conference in Auckland staged by the always-slick (and I'm not just talking about Brian Tamaki's hair) Destiny Church than Gordon Copeland, Parliament's resident gaffe-meister, went and poured sugar in the petrol tank.

Rather than welcome Destiny's Richard Lewis as his fellow co-leader, Copeland told journalists he wasn't sure whether Lewis was up to the task.

"Richard has the potential to be a good co-leader of a political party but it's not going to happen all that quickly,'' mused Copeland.

"I think I can live with that,'' he added. "But the reality is I've got five years of parliamentary experience so from my point of view quite a lot of mentoring will have to happen.''

Once journalists had picked themselves up off the floor, one recovered enough to ask why Copeland believed that he, who had made his share of groan-inducing errors in his time in Wellington, was a suitable mentor for any student of politics?

"What gaffes are you referring to?'' inquired Copeland, who seems at least to have developed a politician's habit of the convenient memory lapse.

Quite what Copeland's credentials to lead a political party are I'm not yet clear. He entered Parliament on the coat-tails of Peter Dunne then welshed on the voters who put him there as a representative of United Future, leaving the party ostensibly because it didn't oppose Sue Bradford's child discipline bill.

As an independent, Copeland has been threatening to start up his own political party, aided by other creatures of the party list without a snowball's chance of ever winning an electorate seat - Larry Baldock and Bernie Ogilvy.

But at some point reality must have dawned on Copeland's brigade that without the money and the membership muscle of the Destiny Church they were never going to get anywhere.

The immediate flaw in this Faustian deal with Destiny has become apparent: too many egos, not enough party. Copeland thinks he should be in charge because he's an MP; Destiny has the media management skills, thousands of supporters, and lots and lots of money.

In politics it's money that buys power, which is why Copeland's really a back-seat passenger, whether or not this has dawned on him yet. Peter Dunne himself knew that. Why else would he have hooked up his party, United, to Future NZ, a Christian organisation with money and supporters?

The holy grail for all Christians intent on forming their own political movement is the 5% threshold for seats in Parliament. They figure that given roughly half of all voters identify themselves as such, surely if one party could get its act together, getting into Parliament should be a shoo-in.

The reality is, as countless Christian parties have found out, not nearly that simple. For one thing, just because many voters are Christian doesn't mean they will vote for a Christian party. In fact, some loathe the idea. They want more Christians in Parliament, but not all in one party.

For another, the 5% threshold is higher than they think. It's 100,000 votes, give or take, unless a candidate can be found who is capable of winning an electorate. And running a disciplined political party is harder than it looks. Ask Christian Heritage. It split apart even before its leader Graham Capill ended up in jail on sex convictions.

Finally, assuming all Christians think alike or have the same political views is as idiotic as thinking all Maori will vote for the Maori Party or that only lower-income people vote Labour.  

Often the competing interests and agendas in Christian parties seem to blow them apart, perhaps because they don't have the same ideological prism that members of Labour or National or the Greens or ACT can offer their membership.

That's not to say that it can't be done. The Christian Coalition came close in 1996, winning 4.3% of the vote. Destiny is very strong in South Auckland in particular, and if it can convince Phillip Field to stand for the new party in Mangere, it may be able to enter Parliament through the back door.

But there are many problems. Field may yet be charged with criminal acts. The presence of Bishop Brian Tamaki, even in the background, is likely to scare off as many voters as it attracts. Many voters haven't forgotten the march of the blackshirts on Parliament for the "enough is enough'' rally against civil unions. Add in the bumbling Copeland and you could have a recipe for disaster.

Destiny is claiming widespread support from more traditional churches for the new political party, but that's yet to be demonstrated. The Catholic and Presbyterian ministries have reacted with extreme caution. The Salvation Army today denied having anything to do with it.

And that's perhaps the biggest problem the new Christian party faces. Most of the mainstream churches maintain strictly apolitical stances, and many New Zealanders have long believed religion and politics shouldn't mix.

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