The Secular Decline in Support for the NSW Christian Democrats

While the term is normally limited to use in finance and economics, ‘secular decline’ is an apt description for the downward trend in support for the NSW Christian Democrats over four decades, as well as being an irresistible play on words.

The Call to Australia was formed from groups that were active in the late 1970s campaigning against pornography, abortion, homosexuality and various issues that were often lumped together as “victimless crimes”. The Call to Australia campaigned to enter parliament.

Which it did at the 1981 NSW election when Call to Australia Leader, the Reverend Fred Nile, was elected to the NSW Legislative Council. The party polled 9.1% of the vote, 1.46 quotas, and might have elected a second member were it not for leakage of preferences.

After several previous announcements over many years that he would leave the Legislative Council, Rev. Nile is finally calling time on his parliamentary career after nearly 42 years. Nile will not contest the 2023 election. Instead he will put forward his second wife, Silvana Nile, to fill his spiritual void on the ballot paper.

Mrs Nile faces a difficult task. Support for the Christian Democratic Party has declined since its glory days in the 1980s. Even worse, the party has been de-registered at both state and federal level, so the Nile ticket will have no party label at next year’s state election.

Since party names were first printed on NSW Legislative Council ballot papers in 1991, no unlabelled group has ever elected an MLC. Pauline Hanson running as an Independent coming closest from 2.4% in 2011.

There is also another oddity. Often retiring members will vacate their seat in favour of their replacement, the NSW Constitution requiring that the replacement be from the same party.

But the Christian Democratic Party has not only been de-registered. It was actually wound up by the courts, so does not even exist as an unregistered party. The NSW Parliament has not previously filled a vacancy for a party that has ceased to exist, and appears to have no intention of doing so before next March.

The graph below shows the party’s decline in support since its first election in 1981. The party elected a member at every election until missing out in 2019.

There are several points to make about the graph. The CTA/CDP always polled more strongly at elections where Rev. Nile headed the party's ticket, shown in the above graph by elections in brackets. Rev. Nile's first wife, the late Elaine Nile, headed the party ticket in 1988 and 1995.

Also, note that the party's best results were recorded on the smaller ballot papers of the 1980s. Party names were not printed on NSW ballot papers until 1991, the election at which CDP support fell substantially and after which it never recovered. It is possible that the strong CTA/CDP vote in the 1980s owed something to the Nile name being known at a time when the names of very few MLCs were known to the public. (They still aren't, though my previous post on Mark Latham provides an example of one well-known MLC who may attract votes.)

I had originally prepared this post in June 2021 when Rev. Nile announced an end to his innings and nominated as his successor former Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton. Quite why the plan came to nothing is not clear, but the ructions in the party that led to its de-registration would have played a part. Hence why I didn't publish the original post.

It also wasn't the first time Rev. Nile had announced his retirement. In 2000 he announced he would retire in favour of John Bradford, a former Queensland Liberal MP for the Federal seat of McPherson. The proposal fell apart as Bradford did not live in NSW. Though as the proposal uncovered, while a candidate must be on the NSW electoral roll to nominate for election, they do not have to be on the NSW roll to be an MLC. Bradford could have filled a vacancy.

Rev. Nile did resign in 2004 to unsuccessfully contest that year's NSW Senate election, but his position was not filled until after the election. Nile was re-appointed to fill the vacancy he created.

For the record, the table below lists the Legislative Council elections and members elected. As the list shows, three of the four CDP MLCs who were not part of the Nile family left the party before the end of their terms. Though in the case of Jim Cameron, his departure was brought about by a major health crisis.

Election Candidate Notes
Fred Nile Elected
Jim Cameron Elected Former Liberal MLA. Resigned six months after election following a near-fatal heart attack. His seat in the Council was taken by Marie Bignold. Bignold was expelled from the Christian Democrats in November 1988 and she was one of three members whose term was ended by the passage of a 1991 referendum re-structuring the Council.
Elaine Nile Elected
Fred Nile Re-elected
Elaine Nile Re-elected Resigned from Council in August 2002 through ill-health. Replaced by Rev. Gordon Moyes.
Fred Nile Re-elected Nile resigned his seat to unsuccessfully contest the 2004 Senate election and was re-appointed to his Council seat after the election.
Gordon Moyes Re-elected Moyes was expelled from the Christian Democrats in March 2009 and formed a NSW branch of Family First. He was defeated contesting the 2011 election for Family First.
Fred Nile Re-elected
Paul Green Elected
Fred Nile Re-elected
Paul Green Defeated

1 thought on “The Secular Decline in Support for the NSW Christian Democrats”

  1. Thanks for this Antony. do you think the Nile non election will favour the LNP or will the Nile votes cascade across the spectrum of parties?

    COMMENT: The CDP only got 2.3% in 2019 and I don’t think the Nile ticket will get enough votes in 2023 to make much difference. The failure of preferences to flow from other small right parties to the CDP prevented the CDP from winning a seat in 2019, allowing Animal Justice to win the final seat. We will really have to wait to see the 2023 nominations before being certain.

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