Liberal leader Matthew Guy ignored warnings about Renee Heath’s religious views

At least nine senior Liberal Party members wrote to Opposition Leader Matthew Guy and other party leaders weeks ago to sound the alarm about the political risks of candidate Renee Heath’s controversial religious views, but were dismissed or received no response.

Heath received extensive training from a global network of ultra-conservative churches, the ISAAC Network, whose leader is a Malaysian pastor who equates abortion with the “spirit of murder”, The Age reported on Saturday.

Liberal members warned Matthew Guy about Renee Heath weeks ago, but were ignored. Credit:Composite image

November 10 was the last day the party could dis-endorse or replace a candidate for this Saturday’s state election. But with ballots printed and early voting already under way, there is nothing Liberals can do to remove Heath, who they preselected at the top of their ballot in the Eastern Victorian Region, from the party.

The joint investigation with 60 Minutes has revealed allegations of disturbing conduct by members of the Heath’s family church, the City Builders, including a violent exorcism on a 12-year-old boy, and treating homosexuality as “demonic”.

In response to questions on Saturday about Heath’s beliefs, Guy said she would no longer sit in the Liberal’s party room. But letters obtained by The Sunday Age show some party members called for immediate action against the upper house candidate weeks ago.

Scott Newstead, who chairs the Liberal Party’s Monbulk branch, wrote to Guy, Liberal Party president Greg Mirabella and state director Sam McQuestin on November 7 to warn about the political impact of media reporting on the church’s ties to gay conversion therapy and “child stealing”. Through lawyers, the church has denied it supports gay conversion therapy, discriminates against non-heterosexual people or engages improperly in politics.

“I’m concerned this story will paint the entire party and all candidates in a particular light and doesn’t account for the breadth of views in the party,” Newstead wrote in a letter obtained by The Sunday Age.

The Liberals’ Nepean branch secretary, Anthea Mollison, wrote a separate letter on the same day after calling an executive meeting to discuss the “rapid escalation of the religious involvement in the state campaign and the potential negative effect on the Nepean campaign”.

In her letter, Mollison outlined concerns about the City Builders and allegations it promotes gay conversion therapy, as well as the candidate’s “financial ties” to the church, of which “she is a financial beneficiary”. Heath is a shareholder and active member of the ultra-conservative church.

“The Nepean [branch] strongly urges the Liberal Party executive and administrative committee to take immediate action to mitigate any damage this …may have on the state campaign, as well as our local campaign,” Mollison wrote.

Mollison made three formal requests: that Heath receive counselling against espousing the beliefs of her church, be directed not to campaign in any electorate without warning, and give each candidate a right to issue a statement to distance themselves from Heath’s views and those of her church.

Heath was pre-selected for the safe upper house seat in July following a narrow victory against Catherine Burnett-Wake, re-igniting debate over the party’s commitment to laws banning gay conversion therapy. The opposition leader on Saturday described gay conversion therapy as “abhorrent” but on Wednesday, when The Age asked Guy whether he had personally asked Heath about her views, he said he was too busy campaigning.

Heath and her church have not responded to questions about her views or the influence of the church, where her father Brian is a pastor, on her political ambitions.

Four Liberal vice presidents – Holly Byrne, Anthony Mitchell, Amanda Millar and Tony Schneider – wrote a combined letter to the party’s leadership administrative wing calling for an investigation weeks ago, according to a number of sources. “They didn’t even get a response”, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

In another letter obtained by The Sunday Age, Helen Reid, a long-time Liberal Party member and former secretary at both its Bass and Pakenham branches, wrote on November 7 to Mirabella and McQuestin that Heath represented the “extreme views of a very well-organised and orchestrated minority”.

Reid, who has been a member of the party for 24 years and held a number of branch roles, said she was considering cancelling her party membership over Heath’s preselection.

“I worry about the direction that the Liberal Party is taking and that it no longer represents my views and values and many others like me… I believe most Victorians abhor either extreme ‘left’ or ‘right’ views and sit somewhere in the middle.”

Another Liberal Party member, Rob Sheehan, wrote to Liberals state president Robert Clark to outline what he described as “diabolical” problems for the party in the region.

“If Pentecostal Christians in Gippsland want to take over Liberal Party branches, fine by me – provided they do so openly and declare their agenda openly.”

Sheehan said the “secretive approach … undermines trust and confidence in our democratic system” and called for “open, respectful and inclusive” debate on public policy.

“The state director, president and Matthew Guy thought there were no concerns, and this is the end consequence we’re now having to deal with,” said one Liberal within the administrative committee. “This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it’s more like a log than a straw.”

The source said the party was bracing for electoral damage across inner-city seats, such as Hawthorn and Brighton, following the federal election, in which a number of moderates were ousted over a perception the party had moved too far to the right.

Liberal candidate John Pesutto, who is fighting a teal challenger in Hawthorn, appeared on queer radio station Joy Media on Saturday to say he would publicly call out discrimination in the party, and to praise Guy for removing Heath from the party room.

“No party can be across every detail, if a candidate doesn’t disclose something,” Pesutto said. “What Matthew Guy announced this morning, with respect to Renee Heath, was an appropriate course.”

University of Sydney expert David Smith says religion is declining in Australia, and particularly Victoria, meaning the Liberals’ association with churches like City Builders will harm the party brand.

“Given Victoria is the most secular state in the country, there’s a danger that the more they become associated with religious groups, the more limited their electoral appeal,” he says. “A lot of non-religious Australians are very wary of the political influence of religion.”

Smith said fringe religious groups were unlikely to have policy impact because unlike in America, where the church and state are more intertwined, “ordinary Australians” are concerned about the religious groups curbing voter rights.

Mirabella and Heath did not respond to requests for comment. McQuestin declined to comment.

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