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Where there is no vision, the people perish

IT IS EASY to denigrate politicians.

With the most participants in this country, denigrating politicians could be said to be our national sport!

But what if the old saw is true that we get the politicians we deserve?

What does the state of political discourse in the current federal election reveal about us citizens?

We criticise our leaders for their apparent addiction to focus groups without considering that those groups are full of people with faces and names and they live next door.

But neither should we let our leaders off the hook too lightly. Good leadership does more than merely reflect the opinions and values of the community.

It calls us to attend to the core values and vision of our community.

Biblical wisdom tells us that ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’. If this aspect of leadership is neglected then leaders will inevitably seek lowest common denominator approaches which, in time, diminish any community.

From within the Jewish and Christian traditions there are many examples of courageous visionary leaders – Moses, Esther, King David, St Paul and of course Jesus himself.

We could all recall leaders in our national and local spheres who call us, often in the face of strong opposition, to the higher values of justice, peace and compassion.

Instead what appears to be happening in this election is an identification of and capitulation to our less generous, more self-centred selves.

Australians like to think of themselves as generous-hearted people, predisposed to giving people a fair-go. Why would leaders not appeal to these values?

Surely they are who we want to be.

The debate about asylum seekers is a classic example.

The policies of both major parties assume that most of us are fearful and mean-spirited, incapable of empathising with the plight of people seeking sanctuary in this land of abundance.

Jews know the biblical admonition to care for the stranger and the sojourner.

Christians will recall that Jesus himself was a refugee.

Our leaders could remind us that the vast majority of our forebears arrived here seeking new life and opportunity, fleeing famine or war.

They could remind us that at both solemn and proud civic occasions we sing our national anthem which proclaims ‘we’ve boundless plains to share’.

They could call us to be who and what we claim to be.

What is missing is a particular quality of leadership that in a former time was called ‘statesmanship’, and the Judeo-Christian tradition calls prophetic leadership – leadership that casts a vision that challenges our immediate self-interest by appealing to a sense of the common good.

The nagging worry is that Australians have lost the capacity to value the common good unless it immediately benefits them or their inner circle.

Our notions of community have collapsed, our horizons of care have closed in.

There has been a steady attrition of a shared sense, a common vocabulary, of basic human decency.

We need leaders who will appeal to our better selves, our higher ideals, to expansive goals that might only be achieved through short-term sacrifices.

The classic example here is climate change.

Why, when there is near consensus that the impacts of human life are threatening life-as-we-know-it on the planet, will no major party call us to change the way we live to ensure a life for those who come after us?

Love for thy neighbour surely extends to the generations to come and to our non-human neighbours?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if one of our leaders followed through on Kevin Rudd’s early declaration that climate change represents ‘the greatest moral challenge of our day’ and then described a sensible strategy to address it in this corner of the world?

Where are the leaders, the prophets, who will remind, or convince us, that a society that cares for its most vulnerable will be a happier, safer community for all?

The old prophets remind us that the true measure of the health of any society is how the most disadvantaged fare.

Indigenous people on almost any social indicator are significantly worse off than non-Aboriginal Australians.

Why not call for a genuine process of partnership with Aboriginal communities across the land to discern what might produce more effective outcomes in different communities, rather than seeking template solutions that ignore the diverse needs of different communities?

The greatness of this country will not be measured merely by traditional economic instruments but in terms of social cohesion and participation in all that this community has to offer.

It is depressing if the current state of politics truly reflects what most of us think and value.

Contrary to the current evidence I still believe that the right leadership might still bring forth those dimensions of our national character that will make us proud to be Australian.