In Canberra several hundred Christian leaders had the opportunity to hear and interact with the leaders of the two main political parties. Both Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd were allowed to address the audience with a thirty minute address, followed by four or five questions each.
The event was a first in Australia, with both leaders professing a Christian faith, and the event telecast to well over 700 churches around Australia. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people throughout the nation took part in the live event.
With Christians still making up a majority of Australians, and many becoming more politically aware and active, both parties have been keen to target the Christian vote.
This event was meant to showcase the faith of the leaders, and provide them with a chance to explain how their government would address concerns of the Christian community. Jim Wallace and his team from the Australian Christian Lobby are to be praised for all the hard work in making this event possible.
So how does one evaluate the just-held forum? The short answer is that the two leaders both gave fairly safe, fairly predictable and fairly standard presentations. The talks, and the answers to the approved questions, revealed very little new information. Anyone following the two men over the years would not have really gleaned anything new here.
John Howard did announce a policy on protecting families from Internet dangers, but this had been hinted at previously. He did say a national ISP-level filtering scheme would be introduced, but on an opt-in level.
While any moves to protect children and families from Internet porn and other nasties are welcome, this could have been given a stronger direction, as in an opt-out plan. That is, it should apply to all, except for those who want to opt out of the filtering system.
Surprisingly, Mr Rudd said nothing about porn or the Net, even though in the past Labor had suggested an opt-out ISP-level filtering arrangement. Many believers are concerned about these sorts of issues, yet the Opposition Leader said nothing about them during the night.
Also, the talks and answers were all fairly safe and constrained. Nothing really controversial or risky was mentioned. This was in part because leaders in election mode tend to be quite careful, and partly because questioners were hand-picked by the organisers. Thus no unpredictable questions were allowed. And fair enough. But the result was some fairly standard political speeches and answers to questions.
In the speeches, familiar territory was traversed. One would have liked to ask more pointed and probing questions about these addresses. For example, Kevin Rudd expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq today. One would have liked to ask him if he had been equally concerned about some very real humanitarian crises in Iraq under Saddam, or whether this was just a case of selective outrage.
And John Howard could have been quizzed on doing more about pro-life concerns. Indeed, the A word was totally absent from the evening discussions. Abortion and other hot potato items were mostly absent at this forum.
There were only two fairly tough and important questions, both addressed to Mr Rudd. One was on same-sex marriage and parenting issues, and the other was on Labor plans for religious vilification legislation. Unfortunately Mr Rudd skirted around the issue of marriage and relationships, and refused to answer whether a Rudd Labor Government would introduce religious vilification laws.
The inability or unwillingness of the Opposition Leader to clearly answer these two questions was perhaps the most telling moment of the night. The rest of the questions and responses were fairly formulaic and non-controversial.
A third thing to say about the talks and the answers was that perhaps 80 to 90 per cent of them could have been delivered anywhere. They were fairly generic political speeches and answers, with very little specifically Christian content about them.
When the two men were given the chance to elaborate a bit more about their faith and their understanding of Christianity, neither one really added anything to what they had already said in their opening addresses. Indeed, they tended to simply repeat what they had said there.
So if the evening was meant to give us more insight into the faith and beliefs of the two leaders, we learned nothing new, and nothing of substance.
A last element worth mentioning about their presentations was the fact that there was not a huge amount that distinguished them, in terms of policies and core values. For example, both spoke about the importance of families, and the need to look after the poor and vulnerable.
Both could emphasise choice: Howard spoke of choice in day care, while Rudd spoke of choice in education. Both spoke of climate change and the need for action, and both spoke of raising the percentage of spending on foreign aid.
While there were certainly differences of emphasis, these were differences we had all heard numerous times before. Thus it is a moot point whether at the conclusion of the event, believers would have been any wiser as to how they might vote.
Chances are they will still follow their basic concerns, whatever they may be. Thus those who think the economy is important may think Howard has done a fairly good job thus far, and stick with him.
If believers feel that current industrial relations legislation is unfair, they will want to go with Rudd. So voting patterns and intentions may not have been changed very much tonight.
All in all, it was a good exercise to bring believers and the two leaders together. But whether there was anything new or noteworthy or significant or specifically Christian that emerged from the two men is debatable.
The politicians played it safe, the organisers played it safe, and the questioners, with two exceptions, played it safe. Such control and restraint may have been necessary for an event such as this. But the result was that very little new knowledge was gained as to the faith of these two leaders, or how believers should vote at the next Federal election.