This week’s Make It Count leaders’ forum in New South Wales allowed church leaders a close-up look at the style and substance of the Premier and Opposition Leader in the lead-up to the March 26 election.

About 130 denominational heads, pastors and ministers were present at the Theatrette at Parliament House in Sydney to hear Kristina Keneally and Barry O’Farrell present their case for the Christian vote.

Both leaders addressed the crowd separately and then took questions from the audience.

Ms Keneally, who mentioned her Masters of Systematic Theology and personal Catholic faith, spoke about the government’s reasoning for introducing ethics classes which clash with Special Religious Education (SRE), support of gay adoption and  legislation to make the King’s Cross drug injecting centre permanent.

All of these positions are at odds with the vast majority of evangelical and orthodox Christians, something the Reverend Richard Quadrio, President of the NSW Council of Churches, pointed out to the Premier.

Mr O’Farrell also spoke of his Catholic faith and about his identity as a Liberal: standing for individual freedom and private enterprise.  He said politicians should not let private faith influence public life. He said he would welcome Christian advice and if elected, he would draw strength and guidance from Christ’s teaching.

There were a wide range of denominations present at the forum, including the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Prebysterian Church of NSW, Uniting Church, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Fellowship of Congregational Churches, Baptist Union of NSW and ACT, Fellowship of Congregational Churches and Australian Christian Churches.

The Very Rev Fr Tadros El-Bakhoumi OAM, from the Coptic Orthodox Church, voiced his concern to both leaders over laws passed last year to allow same-sex couples to adopt children because this deliberately denied a child the love of a mother or a father. Both leaders said they supported the legislation despite believing a mother and father was the best environment for children.

When Rev Quadrio asked the leaders to introduce earlier closing times for licensed venues as a way to curb alcohol-fuelled violence, Ms Keneally said the government was already targeting violent venues in Sydney and a one-size-fits all approach wouldn’t work. Mr O’Farrell agreed with Ms Keneally about giving police greater move-on powers and also agreed one-size doesn’t fit all.

The response of both leaders raises questions about the power of the hotels’ lobby.

When they were asked about whether they would decriminalise abortion, both committed to not introduce new legislation to change it.

While their commitments on behalf of their parties to holding the line on abortion is welcome, there is always the possibility the pro-abortion Greens Party or a private member might introduce a bill to remove what few remaining protections there are for the unborn in NSW law.

The big policy commitment from the night was from both leaders was not to legislate away key protections for religious freedom on employing staff in Christian organisations.

Neither leader would be proactive in taking up Christian leaders concerns over ethics classes clashing with SRE. When asked, Premier Keneally said she would not commit to reviewing ethics classes in 12 months time. Mr O’Farrell said the Liberal party was unlikely to control the upper house and couldn’t promise overturning the legislation.

When pressed by ACL’s NSW Director David Hutt as to whether he would revisit the issue if the Liberals controlled the Upper House, something polling indicates is a possibility, Mr O’Farrell disappointingly avoided the question.

Both leaders also confirmed that their commitments that night would not be traded away in a preference deal or deals to gain control of the upper house.

The meeting was reported in the media including the SMH, Sydney Anglicans, ABC radio, and 2SM.

Video footage of the evening will be made available soon on ACL’s special election website