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The grace of courtesy

  • 23 June 2022
Since the Federal Election one of the most refreshing features has been the new Prime Minister’s connection with people. Whether it is shown by riding a bamboo bicycle with the Indonesian President, expressing sympathy for the Nadesilingam family for their prolonged ordeal before returning to Biloela or agreeing with Jacinda Ardern, herself a model of public empathy, about the unreasonableness of expelling to New Zealand people who had never lived there, his actions displayed a readiness to listen and to enter the experience of other people.

The response of political commentators was also telling. They saw this gift for empathy, though risky for giving unplanned signals, as a useful political tool for keeping support. But they warned that he would soon have to get into the true work of a prime minister: to deal with the energy, economic and social crises facing Australia. These provided the true tasks and tests of leadership.

This perspective on political leadership is correct in emphasising the importance of making prompt and wise decisions about the economy, energy supply, climate change and other issues. But it fails to put sufficient weight on the need for leaders to relate in human ways to people and to model decency for the nation. This quality is essential to win trust in making decisions that will impose burdens on people and in shaping expectations of how governments will treat people.

Although such qualities as decency, community spirit and humanity are difficult to quantify as a source of economic growth, they are essential in hard times. If people are to accept policies that impose hardship on them they must be convinced that they are for the common good, and that the common good matters enough for them to cooperate and make sacrifices for one another. Government leaders must model decency and humanity in their personal relationships with citizens because these qualities are the seedbed of the participation and trust needed in hard times.

For the Prime Minister to reach out to the Nadesilingam family was a symbolic gesture. It carried a weight greater than its immediate effects. To sympathise with people who have been cruelly treated by the implementation of policies and regulations by government implies that each person matters. As a corollary also implies that government policies and their implementation should respect each person affected by them. Precisely because each person has a unique dignity, Government policies must leave room for discretion in