For the last few years I don’t think anyone would disagree that we have seen the fabric of democracy fraying in a way that seems very serious.
The core of the damage seems to be that we have lost trust in the people who are supposed to lead us, and in particular we have lost trust that those people will tell us the truth. Our politicians are operating in an environment of profound mistrust… and no matter what they do they seem unable to break through the dark veil of skepticism.
On Wednesday I attended a remarkable breakfast. At a time when politics is incredibly polarised, I witnessed a moment of hope.
The 2017 Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast saw 461 people, largely from Christian churches, join with more than half of Tasmania’s Members of Parliament including the Premier, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Greens.
It is hard to imagine a more highly charged time for political leaders to be in the same room as Christian leaders. There is about to be a national postal plebiscite about Same-Sex Marriage and at the state level, there was a bill calling for the removal of the Lord’s Prayer from the opening of Parliament. Feelings are running high on Social Media and also the National “Mainstream” Media.
It was into this context on Wednesday morning that Stephen Baxter stood up to introduce the morning’s events. He said something like “this breakfast has been happening for 12 years. This is a safe place where we come together in the name of Jesus Christ to pray for our leaders and hear from one civic leader how their faith has informed their own journey.” Stephen said a lot of other things, but in laying down the ground rules it was clear that this was not a moment for political activists to fight about issues.
There was a beautiful moment when Stephen asked everyone who wasn’t a politican to stand and express their thanks to those who had given their lives to serve. The applause was long and heartfelt.
I am frequently reminded of the words of Winston Churchill who wrote:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
Leadership in a democracy is not easy. As a politican your task is twofold: you need to work to convince people inside your party, and in the general community, of your preferred position on policy issues, and then you need to represent the position your party comes to, whether or not you agree with it. The nature of politics is constant compromise.
In this system with which we attempt to govern ourselves, effective leaders are people who have a strong internal compass and can effectively convince people of a point of view.
Convincing people. That’s the problem. There are lots of different factors, but very few leaders are able to change people’s minds about much at all these days.
A while ago I read a book about what it means to bring about change, called Influencer: the new science of leading change. One of the things that the authors pointed out was that once a culture of mistrust has formed, its almost impossible for leaders to lead:
When you invite people to change, they begin to scan you for evidence of credibility… They consider your every move—past and present—in order to answer the question, “Why should I believe and follow you?” Not only that, but when your behaviors appear ambiguous, they rarely give you the benefit of the doubt. The sad truth is that in an environment of mistrust (i.e., the known universe), all ambiguous behaviors are interpreted negatively. And by the way, all behaviors are ambiguous.
At the breakfast, in addition to a glimpse of the people behind the politics, we also had a glimpse of the kind of leadership that can actually make a difference in a toxic environment.
The speaker was former New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione. As he shared it became clear that Scipione’s faith gave him what he called an “anchor” that meant he could find his bearings in a workplace environment so corrupt that only a royal commission could unravel some of the mess. He shared about how difficult it was, particularly when he became responsible for the Internal Affairs department.
It was Scipione’s anchor of faith that meant, as the corruption was becoming evident, he was the one person trusted to be chief of staff to the new commissioner who was supposed to fix it. The people around him were watching him, and when others took the easy option of going with the flow, he stayed true to his values. That commitment would ultimately result in him being the longest serving Police commissioner in the last 50 years.
I think most people were left wishing that Andrew Scipione could be Prime Minister of Australia. Why was that? Because it was clear that he had an internal rudder that was more important than his own ego.
I was left with a sense of hope for the future.
I had been reminded that our politicians are, by and large, good people who are doing their best, and I had also been reminded what good leadership looks like.
The Christian worldview is not the dominant one any more, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Dallas Willard wrote:
Putting Jesus Christ into a worldwide competition with all known alternatives is the only way we can give our faith a chance to prove his power over the whole of life.
Christians don’t have anything to fear from a battle of alternatives…
I am confident that when Jesus said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life, he was telling the truth.
It is the lives of people like Andrew Scipione, which actually demonstrate that truth.