In times like this it is easy to feel apocalyptic. 2020 has already thundered with disasters of biblical proportions, as one ticks off the various plagues of drought, fire, floods, hail, and now pestilence. The uncertainty of what kind of world we will awake to hangs over us all.
In reflecting the other day with a colleague, I mentioned to her that sometimes I wanted to ask God directly why he didn't prevent the virus, or the fires, and indeed the broader evil and suffering in the world. She looked away and answered that she felt the same but was worried that, if she did ask, then God might ask her the same question.
The reaction of the Australian people to these various disasters is unsurprising, and inherently connected to this broader response to suffering. Anxiety, anger, confusion and despair are all evident as we now face the rising reality of millions unemployed, ongoing outbreaks, and restrictions on travel and social interactions for an indefinite period.
The situation raises the question of how much hope and expectation we should put in our political leadership, and what role the government plays in our deliverance.
Since World War II, no Australian prime minister has had to face the level of challenge that Scott Morrison is. Previously touted as the "Miracle Man" after winning an unlikely 2019 election, there is no doubt now that a section of society was deeply unhappy with his leadership approach during the summer crisis. There were protests, direct verbal attacks on his visits to townships, and the hashtag #ResignMorrison trending over the period. Some have continued these criticisms through to the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the saddest but regular judgments in this time has been the mocking of the PM's Pentecostal faith. Ian Warden's piece in the Sunday Canberra Times just last week referred to the "Prime Minister's simple, Bible-stoked mind". While we might acknowledge the frustrations and the emotional validity of such reactions, it is also worth providing reasoned analysis on how the PM's faith and leadership style actually shapes his decisions in these times of disaster.
Morrison is known as a social conservative who is focused primarily on delivery. This means his approach does not naturally lean towards big visions, dramatic speeches and rapid reactions. Instead his inclination is to pragmatics which address long-term problems, attempting to hold together change and permanence.
Morrison in many ways embodies a transactionalapproach to leadership, and herein lies the difficulty. Transactional leadership is defined by Dr Robert Lussier as leadership which "seeks to maintain stability within an organisation through regular economic and social exchanges that achieve specific goals for both the leaders and their followers".
This model provides a certain level of extrinsic motivation for citizens, that of working hard in a fair system to earn a reward, but it struggles to build trust and congruence with values which leads to intrinsic motivation, especially in times of crisis.
The alternative is transformational leadership, which aims to inspire citizens to change the status quo by articulating the problems in the current system and presenting a compelling vision of what could be. The previous four Australian prime ministers would have arguably functioned more in this model of leadership, and they were all removed by their own governing parties for failing to deliver.
Governments are not a conduit for salvation, and all too many people view their leaders through one of two extreme lenses - unblemished or unredeemable, divinised or demonised.
The question is then how can the more pragmatic and transactional leadership approach of the PM, with his deep faith and focus on calm and efficient delivery, also provide the inspirational motivation needed to empower citizens to work together and go beyond the expected levels of commitment and contribution to not only rebuild a blackened nation, but also endure this unprecedented next season of viral outbreak?
Perhaps the solution lies in an analogous version of the above response by my colleague. For many people who do not hold to a religious faith, the head of state is the highest existing authority. Therefore, when disaster arises, demands are made primarily to the government as to how they intend to end the suffering.
Governments are not however a conduit for salvation, and all too many people view their leaders through one of two extreme lenses - unblemished or unredeemable, divinised or demonised. What is required is not only more sober expectations of our leaders, but also a recognition of the responsibility we have for our own neighbour. We may reasonably expect that Prime Minister Morrison "show leadership" and address the crisis, but we need to be aware that the challenge falls on us to do the same.
It is a well-researched fact that during times of war a country's "social capital" sharply increases. The idea is that the values, trust, cooperation, identity and shared sense of purpose built through networks of relationships in times of devastation can be hugely beneficial. In these times people find a way to transcend their own needs in the service of those around them, to take up the responsibility to act redemptively within their own context and spheres of influence.
The word apocalypse means "to reveal", and it is times like this that will reveal our true nature. We can of course spend our energy demanding that the government, or God, provide solutions to tragedy. However, the reality is that much will be asked of us throughout this pandemic. It is easy to despair and accuse in disaster, but much more difficult to focus on using our individual and communal agency to restore the good.
The damage from these events will last a generation, and there will be massive challenges ahead as our country adapts to new environmental, health and economic circumstances. However, for hundreds of years the Australian spirit has demonstrated itself more than up to the task. I pray that as we fortify ourselves for this scourge, we will emerge even more resilient and unified than before.
- Professor Stephen Fogarty is an author and president of Alphacrucis College.