NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Mary-Louise FowlerNews Weekly
Rudd and Howard woo the Christian vote
, September 1, 2007
Audience responses (or indeed lack of response) to Howard and Rudd's addresses at the National Press Club should give party strategists some insight into the minds of Christian voters. Mary-Louise Fowler reports.On August 9, 2007, around 200 Christian church leaders and "para-Christian" leaders gathered at the National Press Club to listen to what was hailed as the landmark "2007 Make It Count - Howard/Rudd Address Christian Voters" broadcast.
Harnessing the latest technology, around 100,000 Christian leaders and congregations packed church halls all around Australia, to watch the two leaders address them by live web-cast.
Was this really a landmark broadcast?
Predictably, each leader included in his address the odd parable or scholarly reference, as if to demonstrate his Christian credentials.
Prime Minister John Howard astonished some Christians by interpreting the Parable of the Talents as an endorsement of free enterprise and as a supposed divine decree to those who possess assets to "add to their assets".Nods of assent
However, Mr Howard fared better when he announced the Coalition's $189 million NetAlert package. The little nods of silent assent among the Canberra audience demonstrated that this is a key concern for the Christian voter.
Most of those present were unaware that this announcement was mostly a re-announcement of the long-awaited free PC filtering package promised over 12 months ago. The only new features were pledges of additional monies to be spent on an advertising campaign, and of giving the Australian Federal Police additional powers to deal with online safety.
Despite the serious limitations of the Coalition's promised PC-filtering package, Howard's announcement pleased the audience.
Labor Opposition leader Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, remained silent on the matter of internet safety - which was an amazing omission.
After all, the Labor Party's stated policy, with regard to internet safety, favours mandatory filtering of pornography at the internet service-provider (ISP) level, a policy advocated by the Australian Family Association and the Integrity Alliance.
Had Mr Rudd personally affirmed Labor's position on internet safety in front of 100,000 Christian voters, surely this would have put Labor on the front foot. But instead, silence. This is a worrying portent. If Labor wins, will Rudd fail to deliver?
Audience responses (or indeed lack of response) to other issues raised by Howard and Rudd should give both parties some insight into the hearts and minds of Christian voters.
For instance, when Mr Howard mentioned his decision in 2004 to push through with the Amendment to the Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, he received a spontaneous and rousing ovation. By contrast, when Mr Rudd mentioned that he supported the introduction of a Relationships Register, as exists in some states, there was no acclamation from the audience, just a tense silence.
There was no applause when Mr Howard spoke about childcare cash benefits or promoting work-based child care. However, when he mentioned that he felt strongly that children are much better off when cared for by a parent at home, stating "that it is a good form of childcare", the audience once again erupted into loud applause which fell just short of cheering.
Mr Rudd tried to convince his listeners that, in order to strengthen educational and hence employment outcomes, it was necessary to get all four-year-olds into pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs; but this was not well received.
Mr Rudd announced that Labor would commit half a billion dollars to ensure that all four-year-olds spent 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year in these programs. However, in conversations following the web-cast, the concept of coercive compulsory early childhood education was definitely not
a winner with Christian constituents.
Both leaders gave their spin on subjects such as climate change, refugees, foreign aid and employment - nothing remarkable in any of that. More telling, however, was the failure by both leaders to raise the issue of abortion - a serious stumbling block.
Nothing about either leader's address deserved the accolade of being "landmark".
It was certainly a notable achievement on the part of Jim Wallace's Australian Christian Lobby, which organised the event, to convince Christian leaders from diverse denominations to make the effort, at fairly short notice, to come to Canberra for the broadcast.
What made this a landmark broadcast was simply the fact that it happened. Five years ago, such an event would scarcely have been possible.
So, even in the absence of earth-shattering announcements, just having the Prime Minister and Opposition leader address 100,000 Christian voters via a web-cast indicates a palpable shift in attitude, and a growing sense that there is a Christian constituency and that it should be listened to.
What is important now is for Christians to stay at their post and use well the political traction that has been gained.- Mary-Louise Fowler is NSW president of the Australian Family Association.