Democracy's great institutions in need of renewal

It's plain that both the Parliament and many institutions between the individual and the State are in need of renewal

By Philip Huggins

September 2 2018We have lost another Prime Minister. Again, this is a person of talent and commitment to the nation. Upon reflection, what are the spiritual lessons?

Institutional leadership is tough. The leader has to hold a diversity of people together, as a unifying influence.

The leader has to make room for a plurality of views and personalities. There are limits. Some things, like racism and sexism are plainly unacceptable.

Other matters are more complex so the leader tries to hold a range of views together. For example, how do we manage climate change and still maintain a robust economy? One of many complex matters!

Making room involves compromises as the leader tries to keep everyone in the tent. Only retrospectively is it really clear whether those compromises have been wise and good.

Meanwhile, the one with the power is at the same time acutely vulnerable as to how that pursuit of unity, with its compromises, is treated by those ostensibly in the same tent!

The leader’s vulnerability can be exploited. This is particularly true if ideological differences veil unresolved resentments, a vengeful spirit, banal ambition unhinged from any recognisable reality!

In the scriptures we are urged to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” ridding ourselves of “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (James 1:19-21). Jesus speaks of how evil intentions defile us all, mentioning envy, slander, pride as he encourages us to live with a pure heart of good intent.

In our Church, as well as in national politics, I have been close enough to see the leadership of quite outstanding people diminished by the miserable and mean-spirited response of lesser people. This is so sad and such a waste of God-given potential.

Unless the spiritual lessons are better recognised, it will happen time and again.

A healthy democracy in which we are a free people requires that the intermediary organisations between the individual and the State are functioning well. That is, we have our best chance of sustained freedom if such intermediaries as faith organisations, trade unions and universities are healthy alongside a continuing separation of powers between the legal system and the parliament, a free media and a flourishing artistic community.

It is plain that both the Parliament and many of those institutions between the individual and the State are in need of renewal. The various Royal Commissions make this evident as regards entities as diverse as religious institutions and the finance sector.

Is this not a lesson for us, having lost our latest Prime Minister in very disappointing circumstances? The health of our democracy requires renewal, including in matters of the spirit.

Bishop Philip Huggins is a bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and President of the National Council of Churches.