Case Study: Candidate Forums

A candidate forum is an event, held a few weeks before an election, where the main candidates for an electorate are invited to speak to the Christians in that electorate and answer their questions. Candidate forums are a central part of the Freedom for Faith strategy to help churches be more effective in political engagement. They are an opportunity for politicians to hear the concerns of the Christian community, and give specific and direct responses. They are also an opportunity for Christian voters to hear directly from their candidates on a variety of issues, so that they can make an informed choice.

Candidate forums can also affect party policies. In tight elections, every vote counts. If the major political parties understand that there is an issue that could swing a decent number of votes, then they will consider shifting their policy. The example of the 2023 NSW State election is a good case:

NSW 2023

In the lead up to the NSW election in March 2023, Freedom for Faith helped mobilise and resource churches to hold candidate forums for the election. We helped identify and talk to churches to find hosts in each electorate, provided how-to guides and support for organising the events, as well as a set of recommended questions on five key issues that the churches of NSW had strong agreement on. Those issues were:

  • Faith-based organisations being able to employ based on faith
  • “Conversion therapy” legislation
  • Special Religious Education (public school scripture)
  • Poker machine gambling reform
  • Housing affordability

The plan for candidate forums had only been developed by Freedom for Faith in November 2022, so we had limited time to implement it for NSW. Even so, there was a fantastic response from churches. 51 of the 93 NSW electorates had a church willing to host an event and inviting candidates. Not every event happened, with some MPs in safe seats choosing not to participate. Even so, 35 events went ahead with candidates from major parties attending. These events covered over one third of NSW electorates, and almost every marginal electorate.

In the months leading up to the election, Freedom for Faith helped and guided churches in planning the event, and made it as easy as possible. This included:

  • How-to guides for each stage of the process.
  • Support contacting and inviting candidates, keeping track of responses and following up
  • Suggested outline and structure of the event
  • How-to guides for many aspects of the event
  • Help promoting the events including suggested PPT slides and newsletter texts, and help communicating with other churches in the electorate

At each phase, Freedom for Faith contacted the organising minister or church organisers, let them know what they need to do next, and gave as much help as possible.

Policy outcomes

In the weeks before the events, Freedom for Faith engaged with the campaigns of the major parties, and briefed them on the number of events and the questions that were being asked. As a result, we were able to have significant policy conversations leading up to the election.

The most significant conversation was on “conversion therapy” legislation:

“Conversion therapy” legislation

The election was predicted to be tight and likely to result in a minority government. The independent MP Alex Greenwich was likely to be vital for any incoming Government to pass legislation. Mr Greenwich had clearly stated that “conversion therapy” legislation was a precondition of his support for any government. Mr Greenwich had also indicated he wanted legislation based on the Victorian model. In the lead-up to the election, both major parties committed to banning “conversion therapy” in principle, however they had no detail and had not engaged with the implications of the Greenwich or Victorian models.

In the weeks before the candidate forums, Freedom for Faith was able to discuss this issue with the major parties, and explain our concerns and the details of the Victorian model. Labor, in particular, were keen to be able to make a commitment on “conversion therapy” that would would be acceptable to faith communities. The ALP provided a script for their candidates to use when answering the question at church-based candidate forums. That script stated:

… Neither the Greenwich Bill nor the Victorian model will be the starting point for our legislation. Any legislation to ban conversion therapy or suppression practises must not outlaw individuals voluntarily seeking out medical health, allied health or other advice and assistance regarding their personal circumstances.

Chris Minns, as Leader of the Opposition, attended a multi-faith town-hall where he made similar commitments:

… I’ve said that we’re going to pursue our own bill in relation to this. We’re not just going to transpose the Victorian legislation and implement it into New South Wales …

… Taking offence at the teachings of a religious leader will not be banned. Expressing a religious belief through sermon will not be banned. And an individual, at their own consent, seeking guidance through prayer will not be banned either.

Mr Minn’s town-hall as well as many of the candidate forums were live-streamed, with the comments preserved in YouTube videos.

These commitments have formed the basis for ongoing advocacy with the new Minns Labor Government.

The candidate forums also developed relationships between the hosting churches and the candidates who became MPs in those electorates. These relationships have proven to be invaluable in ongoing advocacy efforts and will continue to bear fruit.