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A former Federal Greens candidate, JIM REIHER was among the tens of thousands who watched the live event. He gives his view on how he thought the two leaders performed

On Monday night, 21st June, Rudd and Abbott both spoke in turn to an audience full of church leaders assembled in Canberra to hear them, and to ask them questions. 

The event was telecast and hundreds of churches around Australia put up big screens and watched the event live. I sat in the Doveton Baptist Church in Melbourne, to observe and take notes.

How did it go? Will it influence people to vote for one or the other major party? Or will it reinforce in people’s minds the party they prefer already?

I thought both men spoke well when they delivered their prepared speeches. Rudd did better at answering questions from the floor, though Abbott still performed reasonably. 

I found some of the things said by each of them to be good, but others very disappointing.

“Rudd began personably, and reminded us of the contribution religion has made to society: in education, social welfare, and health care. He admitted religion gets it wrong some times too, and he was brave enough to emphasise that we are a modern pluralist democracy and we tolerate others who are different to us.”

Rudd began personably, and reminded us of the contribution religion has made to society: in education, social welfare, and health care. He admitted religion gets it wrong some times too, and he was brave enough to emphasise that we are a modern pluralist democracy and we tolerate others who are different to us. 

Rudd was strong on Labor’s credentials; spending big (but with responsible debt management strategies) to save us from the economic recession; putting $15 billion into school buildings around the nation; keeping unemployment steady at around five per cent as a result; supporting and continuing the chaplaincy program (begun by Howard) that is always spoken of well by all schools that have joined the program; wanting to revitalise the hospitals of the nation and put them more under the care of the Federal Government; working on providing more public housing for the homeless of the nation; always supporting the notion of welfare, and not discriminating in how that is applied; ending Howard’s ‘work choice’ legislation that dismantled the rights of many poorly paid workers; increasing the proportion of gross national income (GNI) that we give to the poorest nations of the world – lifting it from 0.3 per cent of GNI under Howard, towards the goal of 0.5 per cent (in real terms, instead of giving $3.2 billion last year, the Labor Government gave $4.4 billion); and acting on climate change. (Even though the emissions trading scheme was blocked by the Senate, he noted that his government is still spending in renewable energy and working on energy efficiency strategies). 

Rudd’s weaknesses were also noticeable. During question time, he justified the continued policies being expanded in the Northern Territory in regards to the intervention in Indigenous communities. He argued that the 50 per cent income management rule will be expanded to all people on welfare in the NT, (otherwise it is racial discrimination). While we would agree that the current policies are examples of racial discrimination, the solution is not to humiliate everyone else on welfare as well. All reports and investigations on Income management plans like the current one, always say it does much more harm than good. It undermines self-confidence, self-esteem, initiative, and it does not work. But none of that was teased out. Tragically, if Abbott becomes PM there was no indication that he would change any of this, since it was started by the previous Liberal Government (and Howard, his personal “mentor”, as he called him) anyway. At least Rudd admitted there were problems and their had been snags with the scheme to date, and he could only give his government five- and-a-half out of 10 for its efforts in this area.

Abbott’s strengths were seen. He was amiable. He talked of the separation of church and state (though that would not have pleased everyone there – many seemed to want the church to have more direct influence in the state than Mr Abbott was suggesting). He talked about loving God and loving neighbour (but I wondered why that does not include our refugee and asylum seeker neighbours – more on that in a minute). He had a clever line: “I am a Christian in politics, I am not a Christian politician”. He actually asked people not to vote for him because he is a Christian, but to vote for him because he will be a good leader. I liked that emphasis and I enjoyed having the right to not vote for him if I think he will not be a good leader. He tried to quote “man does not live by bread alone” just after saying how the Liberals are keen to increase economic well being and prosperity, and so after citing it he added “but prosperity is a good thing” (that seemed to me to simply be a way to “get around” some of the implications of Jesus’ saying). He had a clever comment about “The Good Samaritan was not a government official” when he called for less government activity and more community-based good-deeds. That was clever, and got a laugh, but it masked the harsher liberal policy that does not want to spend more on welfare. For some Christians they might agree but for others they will find that caviller attitude a bit lacking in compassion. 

Abbott’s most promising policy was one that many in the room did not like; paid maternity leave for women, on full pay, for six months. It is a more generous policy than the recent Labor policy. But to some in the audience it seemed to be saying that stay-at-home mums are second-rate. (Even I can see that it does not say that, but some are a bit blinkered when they talk on this issue). Mr Abbott tried hard (and quite well) to say he believed in families, and big families, and this policy would add to that. But it did not go down all that well with the people present. I think what went down better, was his willingness to talk about it openly.

“Abbott’s most promising policy was one that many in the room did not like; paid maternity leave for women, on full pay, for six months. It is a more generous policy than the recent Labor policy.”

Abbott sung the praises of the Howard years: the baby bonus; government funded chaplains (and a promise to keep them till at least 2014); and pregnancy support counselling services. He would, if elected: not support anti-discrimination legislation that makes church-based organisations employ people they philosophically disagree with (read there “gays”) – he had another clever line: “this kind of things smacks of freedom from religion, not freedom of religion” (Abbott definitely had more clever one-liners than Rudd); he and his colleagues have supposedly found $47 billion worth of cuts that can be made without affecting anything substantial (that should have made the Christians who worry about welfare cut-backs, sit up in their seats); and he said his government would not “penalise success or successful industries” (read “mining companies” there). 

Abbott’s worst moments were on climate change, refugee policy and the indigenous. 

Regarding climate change he said he believed in it, but he was not sure that it was contributed to by human action and the scientific world is quite divided on it. He is wrong on both counts of course. The popular journalistic world is divided on it, and they go to great lengths to find spokespersons for the denialist side, but the scientific world is not divided on this significant world problem that we face. And when we hear from qualified climatologists we find that no one doubts that human activity is adding to the problem. But Abbott wanted to say that he would do nothing to hinder Australia’s economic prosperity by following difficult and costly policies that might be misplaced. So much for climate change. 

When he spoke about refugees, some of the audience must have been holding back their tears. He began with a good one liner: “We have a real obligation to genuine refugees” – but the use of “genuine” meant that he would soon qualify his comments, and he quickly did. Nowhere did he define “genuine” but clearly most would not fall into that category for him. “Sanction and residency are not the same thing” he added. He then dropped the clanger: he wants to bring back temporary protection visas for asylum seekers. It is supposedly a good thing. However, this failed Howard policy led to the deaths of some who were sent back when their time frame lapsed. This heartless and offensive policy would be a terrible step backwards if brought back. Rudd has not been the progressive leader on this difficult issue that some thought he might be, but at least he got rid of that aspect of the policy. To bring it back would be a nightmare for desperate refugees fleeing persecution and warfare. 

Abbott’s third area of disappointment was his comments about indigenous policy. He wants to overturn the Queensland wild rivers legislation (read “to allow more development and economic exploitation of the area”) and his solution for the many problems of the indigenous in our country: he suggested we should all get to know them better, and there should be less government spending generally. “Government can’t do it all for them” he said, as he commended the approach of Noel Pearson. 

Abbott is a true Liberal: less government regulation and spending, less taxes, more freedom for businesses to do what they want; and less focus on welfare. At the end of the day, if Christians vote for this leader, they are agreeing to that philosophy. (And some will, and they have the right to believe what they want, even if others of us hold different views).

Neither leader had any policy to offer about tackling the sexualisation of young children by the media industry. I felt that their fear of putting the media giants off side hindered them from saying anything worthwhile there. They both stumbled and stuttered on this question. They both told us they are parents and just as worried about it as you and I, but neither party has any plans to further regulate the advertising industry. Abbott might have won the less discerning with his one line: “the current classification system is broken” but he noticeably did not indicate he would do a single thing to fix it! He quickly added in fact: “we need to be careful about the heavy hand of censorship”. But then flipped to “but laissez faire is not the way to go on this policy” (contradicting the Liberal philosophy of laissez faire!) I conclude that absolutely nothing will be done on this over the next term of government, whoever wins.

Both leaders gave almost exactly the same answer on the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Neither will change that. At least they both had the courage to qualify that and add that we can not discriminate against the gay community and gay partners, and they should be treated equally in the law. Rudd claimed to have changed 60 areas where there was discrimination against gays (as in superannuation pay outs and will disputes). 

“Both leaders gave almost exactly the same answer on the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Neither will change that.”

Both leaders will not stop the Lord’s Prayer from being said at the start of parliament. And despite Jim Wallace of the ACL clearly worrying that such a policy might be “traded off” in negotiations with parties holding the balance of power in the senate, for other outcomes, both leaders said they had no plans to stop that tradition. 

Finally, I was sad to see only Rudd and Abbott giving speeches. About one million voters in Australia voted for the Greens at the last election. That is about 10 per cent of the voting population, and all predictions are that is will be 12 per cent or more this year. Surely it would have been appropriate to have had Bob Brown also speak to the Christian Churches. His office asked if he could participate (after he heard that it was happening) but the ACL denied his request. Their reason: to allow the churches to hear from people who are in the running to be the next Prime Minister (and of course Bob Brown can’t be the next PM, being a Senator, and also because the Greens can not win half the seats in the lower house). 

Hopefully next time there is such an event, all three leaders of the three most voted for parties in the nation will be invited. 

Jim Reiher is a member of the Greens Party and an active Christian who works for Urban Neighbours of Hope. He has stood in a number of elections as a candidate for the Greens, and will be standing for the lower house seat of La Trobe in Victoria in this year’s Federal election.


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