No date has yet been set for the upcoming federal election. But you could have been excused for thinking you were in the middle of a campaign this week.

Addressing a room filled with Christian leaders from across the nation on Thursday night, both the Prime Minister, John Howard, and Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, were in spruiking mode - Mr Howard telling of the Government’s achievements and Mr Rudd explaining how a Labor government would change the way the nation is run.

FORUM INDICATIVE OF IMPORTANCE OF CHRISTIAN CONSTITUENCY, SAYS AUSTRALIAN CHRISTIAN LOBBY HEAD

The fact that both Prime MInister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd spoke at this week’s forum underlines the growing importance of the Christian constituency in Australia, according to Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby.

“I think we saw an acknowledgement that there was a Christian constituency after the last election...and I think the fact that we had both leaders there is definitely indicative of the importance of it,” he says.

Mr Wallace adds that the fact that 80,000 to 100,000 across the country were watching the event “bodes well for bringing the constituency’s influence into the political square”.

He applauded the Government’s NetAlert initiative to protect children from internet predators and pornography and Mr Rudd’s commitment to family impact statements as well as his announcement regarding a multilateral conference on the situation of Iraqi refugees.

The ACL intends running a similar form in the run-up to the next federal election and will also look at running similar forums during state elections.

- DAVID ADAMS 

The men were speaking at a special event convened by the Australian Christian Lobby at the National Press Club in Canberra. Between 80,000 and 100,000 Christians were estimated to be watching their speeches in more than 700 locations around the nation via a webcast.

Mr Howard took the opportunity to announce some of the details of his Government’s $189 million plan to protect children online. Under an expanded ‘NetAlert’ package, the Government would provide free internet filters to every family as well as public libraries in Australia to reduce the threat of exploitation of children online and the risk of exposure to inappropriate material.

The plan also reportedly includes $43.5 million for 90 additional Australian Federal Police officers to join the online child sex exploitation team, $11.7 million for more child safety officers at the Australian Communications and Media Authority to promote safe practices online and a new telephone helpline to support parents.

Elsewhere in his speech, Mr Howard noted the low unemployment rate - in particular the figure for the long-term unemployed which has fallen by 29 per cent in the last 12 months - as well as his government’s economic and industrial relations record. He rejected any suggestion his government didn'tt care about the marginalised.

“I don’t deny the rich have got richer...but they have not got rich at the expense of the poor getting poorer,” he said. 

Mr Howard also spoke of Australia’s responsibility to maintain an adequate level of foreign aid and said the developed world could do more to help the developing world through the lifting of trade barriers than the provision of foreign aid. But he said foreign aid remained an important element in helping developing countries and noted his Government’s commitment to doubling the overseas aid budget, based on 2004 levels, by 2010.

In response to a question, Mr Howard said his government would not replace daily Christian prayers in Federal Parliament with dedications from other religions. Noting his annoyance that some department stores have abandoned nativity scenes because of what he describes as a form of “absurd political correctness”, Mr Howard said he found the idea odd that you had to “demonstrate your tolerance by denying your own heritage”.

Mr Howard also referred to the Government’s stance with regard to limiting the definition of marriage to an institution between a man and a woman. He said he wanted to involve the churches in advising the government “to an increasing degree”.

Mr Rudd, meanwhile, announced that a Labor government would initiate a multilateral conference looking at how to deal with the 1.8 million refugees who have fled Iraq, around a third of which are from minority Christian groups.

“If you’re going to go into a country and bust it up in a war, you do have an enduring humanitarian responsibility to assist those who have become victims of that war, including its refugee community,” he said. 

Mr Rudd applauded the Government’s increase of foreign aid but said the country needed to go further and noted that he had recently committed to lifting the aid commitment from 0.35 per cent of gross national income by 2010 to 0.5 per cent by 2015-16. 

Elsewhere, he spoke about the Opposition’s housing affordability and IR policies which he said would be better for Australian families. He said a Labor government would prepare a family impact statement for every submission to cabinet. 

Mr Rudd said there needed to be more investment in education and broader action on “closing the gap” between indigenous and other Australians. He outlined a series of actions the Labor Party, if elected, would take on climate change, which he described as the “great moral and environmental and economic challenge of our generation”.

Responding to a question, Mr Rudd reaffirmed the position that marriage is between a man and woman but said the Labor Party was “prepared to embrace” the possibility of relationship registers for relationships which exist outside of marriage.

Asked what guarantee he could give that freedom to preach the Gospel would be protected, he said his party would consult with the Christian community were there any changes proposed to the law in this area.

Both leaders referred to the Christian heritage of Australia. Mr Howard noted that while Australians have a “strange ambivalence” in talking about the influence of Christianity on public life and political parties, “of all the influences on Australian society and character none has been more profound than that of the Judaeo-Christian ethic”. 

Mr Howard, who said his own political view was influenced by both the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, added that God is “neither Liberal nor Labor”. “There are people of good faith in all parties,” he said.

Mr Rudd, who described his faith as “garden variety”, said Australia should be “unashamedly proud” of its Christian heritage and said Christians have as much right as anyone else to have their voice heard.

He said Australians should recognise afresh the contribution Christian organisations - such as Caritas, Anglicare, the Salvation Army and World Vision - have made to Australia and will in the future.

www.acl.org.au.