Federal Labor MPs Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett are said to be concerned that Labor is fighting, rather than cultivating, a style of dynamic religion that is rapidly gaining ground in aspirational electorates.
A Labor figure – who accused Hillsong’s benevolent arm of rorting millions of dollars of public funds targeted at Aboriginal communities – claimed party bosses tried to gag him at Hillsong’s behest.
The influential Labor Mayor of Blacktown in Sydney’s west, Leo Kelly, said Hillsong made ALP NSW secretary Mark Arbib ring him to try to tone down his attacks on Hillsong.
And NSW Labor MP Ian West, who levelled the allegations in parliament, said Hillsong officers “implied to me they had political influence”. “I’d be concerned if Hillsong tried to intimidate people, no matter which way they went about it,” Mr West said.
The church denies the accusations its Hillsong Emerge arm rorted federal grants designed to help Aboriginal people.
According to a source who attended a private meeting held to discuss Mr West’s allegations, Hillsong Emerge chief executive Leigh Coleman told Mr West: “It’s not in the interests of the community or the Labor party to attack Hillsong”.
Mr Kelly said Mr Rudd and Mr Garrett expressed a view, channelled through Mr Arbib, that he and Mr West should tone down their attacks on Hillsong Emerge.
“I object to Hillsong’s political interference in using some of the people in my party to try to shut me up,” he told The Australian yesterday. “I am not leaving this country to those bible bashers.”
Mr Arbib said he never mentioned Mr Rudd and Mr Garrett. But he confirmed that after meeting with Hillsong media officer Maria Ieroianni and another representative, he rang Mr Kelly to arrange for him to meet with Hillsong, which he refused to do.
“We shouldn’t be cutting ourselves off from any section of the community,” Mr Arbib said yesterday.
Ms Ieroianni yesterday said: “We defend our right to meet and speak with whomever we like in our pursuit of helping the people of our city”.
Mr Garrett said he had not discussed Hillsong with Mr Arbib, but said “it is important for us to outreach to those dynamic churches”. He said he had already met Ms Ieroianni and would in the next few weeks meet a full delegation from Hillsong.
Such churches, Mr Garrett said, were becoming increasingly strong in areas where a new professional class was developing.
The ALP was shellshocked by its loss of the seat of Greenway in Sydney’s outer northwest, where Hillsong has its congregational stronghold, to Liberal Louise Markus at the last federal election.
Ms Markus, an active Hillsong churchmember and former officer of Hillsong Emerge, won the seat with the campaign assistance of fellow church members.
Hillsong Emerge was given a $414,479 federal grant for crime prevention in the area covered by Greenway. It was withdrawn after Mr West’s allegations, denied by Hillsong, that it had deceived and manipulated an Aboriginal community to get the money.