The Victorian opposition leader, Matthew Guy, has dumped an upper house candidate who is a member of a conservative church from the Liberal party a week before the state election.
Renee Heath is still expected to be elected to parliament, given she occupies the top position on the Liberal party’s ticket for the eastern Victorian region.
But her involvement with the City Builders Church, where her parents are pastors, has repeatedly come under scrutiny, including in an investigation published by the Age on Saturday.
The story claimed Heath was a lifelong member of the church, which had been directed by its global leader to infiltrate Coalition politics, and is opposed to gay, trans and reproductive rights.
Heath has denied having the same views as her parents.
Guy had previously backed Heath, a chiropractor based in Gippsland, saying in July that “Renee is not her family, Renee is herself”.
“She’s a professional woman, she’s in the health field, she’s a professional person. I’ll ask people to judge Renee by Renee and not by anyone else.”
On Saturday, Guy said Heath would not sit in the Liberals’ party room if she was elected, following more revelations regarding the church and an interview with members of Heath’s family that was published by the Age.
He said that given the election was a week away, it was too late to disendorse candidates. It means that Heath will appear as a Liberal candidate on the ballot.
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Guy said that while he was not going to discuss matters raised in an investigation published by the Age that outlined ultra-conservative views allegedly espoused by members of Heath’s church, he confirmed they included gay conversion practices, which are banned in Victoria.
“I’m not having any discussions around some of those matters raised in the paper, because my position on those are clear and are sensible and are reasonable and they just need to be mainstream and sensible, that’s what the Liberal party is.
“I’m not in any way going to have the Liberal party in any way going to be supportive or tacitly supporting any type of practices that should [be] and are illegal in this state.”
He said Heath had not told him she supported such practices, but he would not be drawn on personal conversations he had with her.
When repeatedly pressed about why Heath was not dumped earlier, given questions had previously been raised about her association with the church, Guy said some of the allegations in the Age article were not known at the time of the candidate review process.
But questions have been raised regarding Heath’s views since she narrowly won preselection in July.
The ABC published a story in September outlining concerns the church had infiltrated Liberal party branches in a push to influence state politics. The story largely focused on the activities of Heath’s father, Brian Heath, a former Family First candidate and the vice-president of the Liberal party’s Morwell branch.
Heath said in a statement to the ABC at the time: “I am not my father. To suggest that I am is offensive as it belittles me.
“I am running for state parliament because I believe we need a fresh, new government that barracks for us all, as valued members of the Victorian community.
“Only the Liberal team, including our strong, competent women, can help deliver the government Victorians truly deserve.”
Later that month, the Liberal MP who was narrowly defeated by Heath in preselection, Cathrine Burnett-Wake, railed against “extremists” in her valedictory statement to parliament.
While she did not mention Heath or her church, Burnett-Wake referred to the strategy of “infiltrate, impact, impel”, which has reportedly appeared on documents circulated by Christian members of the Liberal party that outline their tactics.
Despite the concerns, Heath has been active during the election campaign. Since October, she has posted photos on social media of her on the hustings with eight separate candidates, and meeting with senior figures including Guy and the shadow health minister, David Davis. Her Facebook page still contained Liberal branding on Saturday afternoon.
It is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding preselected candidates and preference deals to have dogged the Liberal party during the 2022 campaign.
Guy has had to defend the preselection of Moira Deeming, who allegedly holds conservative views on abortion and transgender rights, rebuke a candidate who said the premier, Daniel Andrews, was responsible for the murder of 800 people, and come under fire for preferencing a minor party candidate, who called for Andrews to be hanged, above Labor.
Andrews tweeted on Saturday, without naming any candidates, that “Nazis, racists and bigots have no place in politics” and that “the Liberal party are actively supporting candidates who espouse those views”.
He made similar comments to Guardian Australia in an interview published on Saturday, when he said in reference to the Liberal party’s decision to preference all minor parties ahead of Labor that “it’s very, very dangerous. It’s worrying. What’s more worrying is when the alternative government essentially enters into a political partnership with those fringe elements.”