Is an Australian PM our pastor-in-chief?

Justine Toh on why we should want our PM to be a 'pastor': someone we trust to comfort us in an era of apparently rolling crises.

The stakes are high this election.

Your vote won’t only elect an Australian prime minister, but the nation’s next pastor-in-chief – the political leader we trust to comfort us in an era of apparently rolling crisis: war, pestilence, bushfires, floods.

Yeah, I’m gagging at the phrase “pastor-in-chief” too. After all, Australians are (supposedly) an irreligious bunch. Cue declarations about the separation of church and state, about religion not belonging in politics. Or even people’s unease at anything churchy.

But however you feel about God, you want a pastoral prime minister. Six unfortunate words prove the point: “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

Sure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ill-timed family trip to Hawaii during the Black Summer bushfires – and subsequent absences on the front lines of crises since – have been read as dodging responsibility, leaving a vacuum of leadership. It’s why Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese needled the PM in the second leaders’ debate by promising to never utter four words: “That’s not my job.”

But there’s more to “the job” than being on the ground in a crisis. We need to know that our leaders have our back. The soft skills required – how to read a room and respond accordingly – are one aspect of the pastoral role.

“The pastor is the person who feels the pain and gives hope in tragic situations,” Tim Costello, prominent social justice advocate and my very pastoral colleague, told me. “The pastor is empathetic, providing love, compassion, and embrace.”

The agricultural associations of the word round out the job description, Costello added. “The word ‘pastoral’ [evokes] the shepherd who protects the sheep from danger, who feeds the sheep or leads them to where the waters are because they need refreshment or green pasture.”

Some biblical literacy is helpful here: in the Bible, that relationship between shepherd and sheep describes God’s relationship with his people. The emphasis is less on the helplessness of the sheep than the caretaking role of the one holding the crook. Jesus even described himself as “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for his sheep”.

We don’t expect such self-sacrifice from our earthly leaders. But they need the related qualities of empathy and care so they can meet the needs of those they’re responsible for – and, in the case of an electorate, accountable to. While a good bedside manner may be an unofficial part of the prime ministership, we expect our leaders to calm the community in difficult times.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has spoken of praying for people in evacuation centres after Cyclone Seroja in the Pilbara. Social media lost it on that occasion, even if locals remained unfazed. Twitter’s criticism was familiar, but on point: prayers are meaningless without action.

Which means that the pastor-in-chief role also requires a firm hand to steer the nation. For Tim Costello, former prime minister John Howard’s action on gun control after the Port Arthur massacre hit the spot.

“It communicated that these people had not died in vain and there was going to be what was radical gun reform – certainly radical for John Howard’s base, who were very angry at him,” Costello said. “I regard his courage in seeing that reform through as a pastoral act.”

Across the ditch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been a more recent – and popular – pastor-in-chief.

On the eve of COVID lockdown in 2020, she hosted a Facebook Live Q&A from her couch, dressed in sweats after putting her toddler to bed. She explained to New Zealanders the need for action, reminded people to check in on vulnerable neighbours, and rallied everyone’s efforts around a common cause.

The shine may have come off Ardern since – in New Zealand, at least – but for three years straight, Australians have nominated her the world leader they have the most confidence in, according to the annual Lowy Institute Poll. Ardern’s empathetic and inclusive response to the Christchurch massacre in 2019 probably has a lot to do with that.

We need reassurance from our leaders after all the turbulence of the past few years.

Ardern may remain our favourite world leader in 2022’s poll. Or perhaps Volodymyr Zelenskyy will knock her off that perch. In either case, it wouldn’t look good that Australia’s most trusted politician is once again one we can’t elect to public office.

Having said that, failures to pastor the nation – or even just incredibly awkward attempts to do so – are probably not punishable at the ballot box. We’re far too pragmatic for that.

But we need reassurance from our leaders after all the turbulence of the past few years. Of course, they also need a plan to navigate the challenges we face. But there’s a love language, if you like, to leadership. Whoever occupies The Lodge needs to be fluent in it.

Justine Toh is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.