Less than a week before the federal election, the assistant minister for women, Amanda Stoker, sat down for a video interview with Warwick Marsh, a conservative Christian and men’s rights activist.
Marsh was sacked as a federal government men’s health ambassador in 2008 after he refused to distance himself from some of the claims in a report he co-authored that claimed “homosexuality is a mental disorder”. He has denied being homophobic and said previously there is a “war on men” and that the gender pay gap is “a myth”.
Stoker spoke about her campaign to return to the Senate, having been bumped to third on the Liberal National party’s ticket in Queensland, leaving her in serious danger of not returning to the federal parliament.
“Warwick, thank you for your friendship all throughout my opportunity to serve,” she said.
The video of the interview has been watched about 400 times on Facebook – even fewer on YouTube. Such marginal viewership might lead voters to wonder why Stoker would court controversy – and waste 20 minutes of her time – speaking to Marsh.
But it is typical of the way Stoker is fighting to retain her seat, narrowcasting to rightwing Christian causes and voters flirting with fringe parties, in a campaign that puts her (from the No 3 spot on the ticket) front and centre of view.
Stoker has spent more than $60,000 on Facebook advertising in the weeks before election day – vastly outspending most other Senate candidates. Many of her posts are targeted directly at the news feeds of older people, particularly older women.
One of those was a spend of between $3,500 and $4,000 to promote a Facebook post from 5 May, which showed her speaking at an anti-abortion rally in Brisbane.
The group that hosted the rally, Cherish Life, was last week accused by a Labor MP of running a “disgusting smear campaign”, which claimed Labor wants to enact an “extreme abortion agenda”, something the party denies. Cherish Life has said it stands by the campaign and has released its own how-to-vote cards urging its supporters to vote for Stoker and other anti-abortion candidates below the line.
The Australian Christian Lobby, in an interview with Stoker, also urged people of faith to vote below the line.
Queensland’s Senate race is hotly contested this year, with the Greens, Clive Palmer, One Nation and the former premier Campbell Newman all seeking to challenge the major parties for the six spots.
Dr Glenn Kefford, a political scientist at the University of Queensland, says the LNP will almost certainly win two Senate seats meaning James McGrath and Matt Canavan, who are in the top spots on the ticket, will be elected.
Kefford says Stoker’s strategy of speaking directly to rightwing Christian voters would be a deliberate attempt to encourage them to vote for her below the line on the Senate ballot paper.
“Unless she’s running a completely rogue campaign, which is unlikely, she’d have been given a tick off to run a differentiated strategy from the rest of the ticket, to really harvest the vote of the Christian right in Queensland,” Kefford said.
Kefford said the strategy was similar to the one employed by the Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz, who finds himself at risk and is encouraging people to vote for him below the line.
“That’s really the strategy … similar to what Abetz has done, to persuade voters that she has a political niche and to vote for her below the line.
“It does set her apart from the other LNP candidates. We know that there’s a real strengthening within the LNP of the Christian right and it’s an attempt to narrowcast to that base … to differentiate herself from the rest of the ticket.”
During the election campaign Stoker has been interviewed online by the Australian Christian Lobby and appeared at the group’s Gold Coast politics forum, where she was introduced as a “legend”. In recent months she has published paid social media advertisements saying she supports “conservative, family values” and spoken at a Sunday service at one of Brisbane’s biggest evangelical churches, Gateway.
Stoker has spent more than $20,000 on her most recent advertisement on Facebook, seeking to link Labor to the Greens in a bid to bring rightwing voters flirting with minor parties back into the tent.
“If they channel that support into the LNP, to get me up as the third in Queensland, they’ll have a fighter for their values … in the room,” she said.
In her interview with Marsh, Stoker made what appeared to be a veiled dig at McGrath, who beat her for top spot on the ticket in a tense preselection that underscored tensions in the LNP between so-called moderates and a growing faction of “Christian soldiers”.
“Ultimately, you know, politics is a numbers game,” Stoker said. “This is true of anywhere in life. You succeed in the places where you invest your efforts. I invested my efforts in doing the hard policy work of the government rather than counting numbers.
“It’s deepened my faith, my trust in God … I’m really comfortable with where I am because I know that if I can deliver this then I’m moving the dial in a way that I wouldn’t have in a safe spot.”
Stoker did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia about her campaign.