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Rulers in crisis



In the choppy waters of public conversation, rulers have recently attracted much attention as they have bobbed along on its surface. This is not unusual, but in these months the attention has been more frenetic and perhaps harder to read. Whether it be Trump, Johnson, Andrews, Ardern, Berejiklian or Pope Francis, there have been unusual eddies about them that merit reflection.

Main image: SW Premier Gladys Berejiklian answers questions about what she knew about the business dealings of Daryl Maguire in the NSW Legistative Assembly (Getty Images)

Nothing useful can be said about Donald Trump, of course. He has always been a rip that takes everything and everyone reasonable out to sea and leaves them to drown.

Daniel Andrews, who has recently held his hundredth press conference on the coronavirus, is a more interesting case. TV watchers have been his Parliament, and scientific advisers his Cabinet. He is enduring. He has been professionally worked over by a hostile Murdoch Press and spokespersons for business groups, attacked by people impatient at restrictive measures imposed to deal with the virus, and left bleeding from the evidence of government mistakes and mismanagement of quarantine. He should be dead in the water and food for the sharks that pursue him.

Despite all this and despite popular weariness at the restrictions, popular support for him and for the lockdown he has presided over remains steady. Even more remarkable has been the popular response to journalists from hostile outlets who question him aggressively. The tidal flow of resentment that is social media has turned on the journalists and not on the premier, much to their discomfort. Whether or not Andrews survives the continuing economic and social pain brought by COVID-19, the level of his support and its passion are surprising.

In this context, too, we might mention Pope Francis whose reach and style of engagement with people have been much crimped by the coronavirus, and whose critics wanting more or fewer changes within the Catholic Church have multiplied. Yet he has also retained his popularity, and some of his critics have complained that they themselves are attacked by people who would normally be their allies. The currents here, too, are fluky.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has swum serenely towards election victory, unassailable when her success in suppressing the coronavirus and in responding to the murder of Muslim New Zealanders by a right wing terrorist. She is another ruler who carries the people with her.

Finally, Gladys Berejiklian seems to have survived the evidence that she had been in an intimate relationship with a former member of Parliament and businessman involved in dodgy deals and corrupt behaviour. In the face of the humiliation involved in the publicising of intimate emails and the questions raised about the separation of private and public interests involved in the relationship, she does not seem to have lost popular support. Even her political opponents praise her leadership in the time of the coronavirus. In this case, too, the sharks scented blood but the intended prey evaded them.


'Reflection on the representative character of rulers in times of crisis might also illuminate the hierarchy of vices and virtues that are taken to matter in rulers. Journalistic attempts to strip from rulers their moral legitimacy do not seem to be effective.'


Taken together these instances suggest that people now imagine their rulers as transcending party politics, and perhaps democratic institutions. They see them as personally representing their people. This view of leadership flourishes in times of crisis. It recalls the British attitude to Winston Churchill during the Second World War. He and others in similar positions were seen as protectors of the people, representing them through their endurance, as did Moses when he stretched out his hands while battle raged in the plain below. As leader of the people Moses also embodied the qualities that the people needed in order to survive. It is tempting to find in this story a parallel with Andrews’ endurance of a century of press conferences, his being cut and wounded by the journalists and his political enemies, and his emerging safe to plot the battle against COVID-19 late into the night. Because rulers represent the people, who themselves recognise their dependence on their leaders, any attack on the ruler is seen as an attack on the people.

The parallel with Moses also recalls the cosmic role attributed to rulers in much of human history. In a time of crisis and anxiety the presence of the king in his castle represents a universe in which the protective canopy of the universe is stretched over the people. Few moderns admit to thinking this way, of course, but we may commonly feel so, drawing on childhood experience of parents who can ward off harm.

Reflection on the representative character of rulers in times of crisis might also illuminate the hierarchy of vices and virtues that are taken to matter in rulers. Journalistic attempts to strip from rulers their moral legitimacy do not seem to be effective. Andrews faces daily assaults to pin on him responsibility for the mistakes his government has made and for his economy with the truth, but they do not wound him fatally because to the people such failings do not greatly matter. The ambiguities of governance raised by Berejiklian’s relationship with her ex-partner, too, may be seen to matter as little as did the financial dealings and sexual morality of medieval kings to their people. The virtue that is taken to count is their endurance in the struggle to protect the people. In their endurance people find security.

This is admittedly a very crude moral universe, neglecting as it does the connections between personal faithfulness and public reliability, and between personal integrity and public trust. In a world where triviality reigns, however, it does have the merit of focusing attention on the serious things that matter. Stern moralists are left to take comfort in the knowledge that rulers who are respected as protectors often lose their position at the end of the crisis. From Moses who was refused entry into the promised land to Churchill who lost the first post war English election, rulers in crisis have served their people when their strength was needed and have given way to others when their weaknesses and excesses were seen more clearly.

In calmer waters the sharks that smell blood may have their way. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: SW Premier Gladys Berejiklian answers questions about what she knew about the business dealings of Daryl Maguire in the NSW Legistative Assembly (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Daniel Andrews, Jacinda Adern, Gladys Berejiklian, Pope Francis, leaders, crisis, COVID19



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Existing comments

That's an interesting array of comments Fr Andrew and though I don't agree with you on Trump, the underlying theme in the survival of politicians is one of endurance and fortitude in times of crisis. Despite that, Andrews should not have given the Vicrail train build tender to an SOE when it could easily have been handled in Australia's manufacturing sector. Nor should he have sold the Port of Melbourne on a 50 year leasehold to another SOE. These are monumental blunders that undermine our children's future. Churchill, the master of throwing the Colonials to the Guns as canon fodder, a drunk, a silver spoon Royalist inimical to the Irish cause. The world can live without his legacy as some type of British political saint. Gladys Berejiklian, agreed, her private life and her public life should remain entirely separate and not put on the rack by ICAC. At Common law, a wife does not have to testify against her husband, whatever his failings may be. And yes Jacinda Adern has done an enviable job. We as Australians should be ashamed of what occurred in Christchurch and the fact that Clan attitudes can flourish in the lucky country.

Francis Armstrong | 22 October 2020  

"Nothing useful can be said about Donald Trump, of course" would have to be the most comprehensive and meaningful assessment of Trump ever written. Apropos Premier Andrew's apparent support in Victoria what else could be expected from Australia's show case of militant leftist/Marxism born of Eureka Stockade [ also abbreviated as ES!!] which has given Victoria amongst other things the recognised most retrogressive abortion and euthanasia law in the Judeo-Christian Western world. "Give the people what they want and they will not abandon you", politically safe advice with dire consequences if ignored by the likes of Marie Antoinette !!!!

john frawley | 22 October 2020  

Francis Armstrong, how can Gladys Berejiklian's private life and public life remain "entirely separate" when she herself has inextricably bound them together? How can a responsible ICAC ignore a liaison between the Premier and a (very dodgy) senior member of the government when his dealings, like it or not, do involve her, as is becoming more and more evident? And what is it that you disagree with about Andrew Hamilton's brilliant image of Trump as a "rip that takes everything and everyone out to sea and leaved them to drown"? Too kind, I would have thought.

Barry Breen | 22 October 2020  

Thanks again for your wisdom here. I appreciated your assessment of the political narrative & the varied consequences for our leaders. Your compassion along with your realistic review of leaders gives food for further thought & reflection. Thanks again Andy.

MARYANNE CONFOY | 22 October 2020  

Your second paragraph about Donald Trump is a pearler, Andy. Certainly, we are in a time of crisis and our political leaders have been under greater scrutiny partly because we are so reliant on them at this time. Inspirational leaders are those who tough it out for their people, who have some character quirks that are appealing and who relish (and their people can tell they relish) their roles in our lives. They don't need to be paragons of virtue, although an unflinching commitment to not give up on trying to be better should be appreciated. Political leaders like to find the angle that works best with an electorate however it is the human touch that we, the electors, find most heart-warming.

Pam | 22 October 2020  

It seems that there are two classes of leaders- those who put expediency first and foremost- and you have given examples of Winston Churchill and Donald Trump [strange bedfellows, but comfortable ones]; and the second type, who are visionary, with examples of Nehru and John Curtin, who looked to the future, rather than the past for direction. Many 'leaders' suffer from myopia; our federal government is full of them- they cannot see how to turn aversity into opportunity. Now we have a real chance to do that, and they funk out. The measure of any success is always seen through the prism of the planning and execution of that plan. So far we have seen the same old methods used to get us back to where we were last year. When good advice is ignored, then we can say that the people who are in receipt of it, are culpable of two errors, not one- not only are they not recognizing a good idea, they are also going in the wrong direction. As they say, blind Freddy should be able to know that what has been tried and failed, should be avoided in the future. However, that's not happening now.

john willis | 22 October 2020  

Well, I couldn't agree with Andrew more about Trump's effect on everything. And what a perfect metaphor! I don't think I've ever seen a more fitting image of the man's effect on individuals, humanity and history.

PaulM | 22 October 2020  

Trump the rip. Wonderful description. Unfortunately, I didn't have any coffee to spill at the time. But reasonable is not how you cut a Gordian knot. Three Supreme Court picks down, probably no more to go if he is reelected as Breyer doesn't look like he'll be going up or sideways. But there's China, and a new manufacturing paradigm (manufacturing charity begins at home), coming. And Israel still needs to be shored up.

roy chen yee | 23 October 2020  

Propaganda has come a long way since the 1950s when Vance Packard alerted readers to the psychological techniques being used by advertisers, marketers, and politicians. In 1989, Kirk and Madsen outlined how they would change the public’s beliefs about homosexuality through “a planned psychological attack in the form of propaganda fed to the nation via the media” and that “our effect is achieved without reference to facts, logic, or proof.” 90% of US media pushed a fake Russia/Trump collusion hoax for 3 years. Now they are suppressing news about the Biden family’s foreign business dealings, which Left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald said was, “a prohibition erected by journalists around this story to defend Biden.” Last week, a Facebook Insider revealed that Facebook has hired 12 Chinese nationals to work on censorship and to manage what content shows up in user’s newsfeeds. Daniel Andrews Big Brother government proposed a Covid-19 Bill that allowed arrest without charge and imprisonment without trial, overturning the 800-year-old Magna Carta right of Habeas Corpus. This Grand Final weekend Victoria police will monitor citizens by flying drones over their backyards. And when the Human Rights champions remain silent throughout, it’s clear that spin and politics trump principles.

Ross Howard | 23 October 2020  

Hm. Who do we see as a leader? And as Waleed Aly in today's SMH/The Age asks, 'do we even care?' Myself, I only seem to see argy bargy, carping, cover up/expose and terrible amounts of same old - specifically not leadership. So I have been curious as to why we suddenly 'like' the person who happens to be at the helm when something happens. Or worse, we want to beatify them - why? It's worth wondering about because imputing leadership doth not a leader make! Or as Andrew saying, do people have a part in making their leaders? Either way, it seems worth thinking on because if we don't know what we want, we aren't gonna get it. And we will have more crises.

Catarina Neve | 23 October 2020  

Metaphors and smilies are always inaccurate. Sometimes they can take centre stage like a loud gaudy hysteric. I found this article a sargasso sea of images and models which made it hard to see the pattern. Unsurprising. Matters of power and governance are seriously complex and hard to diagnose. They evoke unconscious child needs for safety from parental protectors. At another level they are the gossip of the day. Recalling and reviewing past leaders is in danger of omitting media we take for granted. Leaders are in a multi level relationship with their groups. A total industry with infinite motivations stands between us and the facts of what a leader does. I always have two criterial considerations. Follow the money and money and no leader can do it alone-Who is getting a rake off?

Michael D. Breen | 25 October 2020  

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