After 41 years, controversial Christian crusader Fred Nile prepares to leave NSW parliament

Some say the former head of the Christian Democrats may have ‘mellowed’ over time – but the 88-year-old says he hasn’t changed his views

One of the final acts in the long, divisive career of the Rev Fred Nile may have been thwarted by an administrative error.

In the New South Wales upper house last week, Nile had been due to begin the debate on a bill he co-authored with the progressive MP Alex Greenwich to reform the protection of Indigenous culture and heritage.

The culture is identity bill aimed to prevent the destruction of Aboriginal heritage in NSW by giving custodianship of significant sites, objects and remains to a new independent agency called the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council.

It was, Nile said in June, “the culmination of my life’s work and public ministry”.

Instead, according to multiple sources in the chamber at the time the debate was mistakenly adjourned, meaning the bill won’t be dealt with until the next parliament.

By then, Nile will be gone. On Thursday, after more than 40 years in NSW politics, the conservative Christian crusader will give his final speech in parliament.

But after a series of failed succession plans and the court-ordered winding up of his party, the Christian Democrats, after an ugly and long-running internal feud, his retirement has – in the words of one conservative MP – “come about seven years too late”.

Colleagues in the upper house have been openly speculating about the 88-year-old’s future for months. Many were surprised in May when he said that he did not intend to retire, and suggested four decades in parliament had been too long.

Last month, he officially announced he was retiring. In a statement, Nile said he had adopted “a new strategic direction” for the Culture is Identity bill in the next parliament.

He is expected to hold a cross-party press conference on the bill on Wednesday.

Nile said he remained an “active and engaged member” of the parliament, and hit out at “defamatory accusations made by anonymous and seemingly spiteful actors”.

“There is a state election on the 25th of March and these actors are making red-herring statements to distract the public from the work that is required to be done,” he said.

Over four decades, Nile has been a bulwark for conservative Christians in NSW, infamous for praying for rain before the gay and lesbian Mardis Gras each year and for his virulent opposition to social reform such as same-sex marriage and abortion decriminalisation.

David Shoebridge, now a federal senator for the Greens who sat in the NSW upper house with Nile for 12 years, said his “ongoing presence in the parliament gave a very unwelcome platform for homophobia and transphobia, with real effects on vulnerable communities”.

He also questioned Nile’s effectiveness, saying that in the balance of power his vote was “notoriously easy to obtain by the government of the day”.

Nile also made headlines in 2010 when, after an audit of internet use by MPs, he issued a statement denying he or any of his staff had been “perving over a pornographic film”.

At the time, he said the looking at sites, including those of the Australian Sex party and the Eros Foundation, had been conducted by a staffer for research purposes.

“I suppose it may confuse some people but they can be quite confident in my own integrity,” Nile said at the time.

“I have not viewed this material, neither have I had my staff sitting there perving over a pornographic film – but investigating this very important social issue area.”

But Nile also played a role in passing a some progressive reforms. In 2012 he introduced a bill removing the so-called “gay panic” defence from the Crimes Act. In the early 1980s he played a key role in cementing Aboriginal land rights in the state.

In recent years, Nile has become an ally, of sorts, of the Animal Justice party’s Emma Hurst, supporting a number of the party’s positions, including casting the deciding vote in passing a bill banning intensive puppy farming in NSW earlier this year.

Hurst has built a reputation for having Nile’s ear on a series of progressive issues. This week she met with him prior to his decision to vote against a government bill that would have made it easier for farmers to cut down koala habitat across the state.

Nile’s decision led to the NSW agriculture minister, Dugald Saunders, to withdraw the bill.

“When I was elected to parliament I said we’ve got an open door policy and that we’re happy to talk to anybody about issues and Fred Nile was, I guess, one of the few MPs on the right who was open to that,” Hurst said.

“There’s a lot of people in this building who have caused a lot of people pain. That’s always going to be hard to deal with, but at the same time we’ve got to be able to work with everybody. That’s the job.”

Some of his colleagues suspect Nile may have “mellowed” over time. In June he also gave his support to a series of Greens amendments to a bill recognising LGBTIQ+ and disability rights.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last month, Nile apologised for his long tradition of praying for rain before Mardis Gras and for his opposition to halal products being available in Australia.

In a statement, Nile said he stood by what he said in the interview, but said “I have not changed my views on same-sex marriage” or on abortion decriminalisation.

The parliament’s notice paper in his final week puts paid to any suggestion he has changed his views.

It includes, among other things, motions calling for women to have to “view an ultrasound of their unborn child” before receiving an abortion, and pushing for the repeal the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.

Contributor

Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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