What was Prime Minister Scott Morrison thinking, if anything, when he sent a video from what appears to be his office in which he said in prayer: “Heavenly Father, we just commit our nation to you in this terrible time of great need and suffering of so many people”?
Presumably, the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god he was praying to for help is the same all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god that inflicted the pandemic on us in the first place.
It is a bit of cheek, really, for Morrison to commit the nation to his Christian god when more than a third of the nation have no religion and less than half are Christian.
God is not proving to be particularly efficacious in dealing with the virus, which incidentally does not appear to have been created along with all other life forms a few thousand years ago.
We need science, not God and religion, particularly the brand of evangelical Protestantism that comes out of the US of which Morrison’s church is affiliated.
That sort of Christianity goes in for faith healing and miracles and putting bad things down to God’s will – a view that people get what they deserve and should pray to God for help, rather than seek help from government.
In the video Morrision quotes Isaiah that the Lord “will guide you always” and “will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land”.
Fewer people are buying that drivel these days. They want practical help from government, not non-answers to prayers. Admittedly, the video was sent to a religious group, Eternity News, which has since taken it down, but it was obtained by a pro-secular group and which disseminated it through YouTube. It can be viewed here.
The Prime Minister must be Prime Minister for everyone. In the 2016 census more people (30 per cent) ticked the “no religion” box, higher than any other religion. That category had been rising by 1 percentage point a year before that, so it is probably more than a third of people now. Meanwhile, Christianity overall has been falling. It was 51% in 2016, so is likely under half now.
By and large, Morrison has been doing a reasonable job with the pandemic despite his religion, not because of it. In the video he acknowledged he had to take the best advice.
Compared with other national leaders he is doing well and perhaps the most important reason for that is that he formed the “national cabinet” of nine heads of government to deal with the pandemic.
That gave him a range of views because there are five Labor heads of government perhaps evening out the fact that the two most important heads (Federal and NSW) are Coalition and also because those nine come from a greater range of backgrounds than any government comprising members of a single party.
It has been quite some time since people turned to their churches in times of crisis, particularly as the churches have lost so much credibility recently over child abuse. These days they quite rightly turn to government. And even if they do turn to churches and religious charities, those charities are very often subsidied by government.
It may well be that one result of the pandemic will be some restoration of faith in government and more demands that it act effectively, efficiently, accountably and in the overall interest of the population, not just favoured sections of it.
Indeed, with that in mind, it is worth recounting the words in a video sent out by one of the leading personalities in the Coalition Governments since 2013, Barnaby Joyce. On Christmas Eve, last year, he argued against higher taxes: “I just don’t want the government any more in my life, I am sick of the government being in my life.”
“There’s a higher authority that’s beyond our comprehension – right up there in the sky. And unless we understand that that’s got to be respected, then we’re just fools.”
Very few people would be holding that view now. People would prefer to rely on help from the Government in Canberra and the state capitals than the “higher authority up there”.
And this week Joyce hypocritically warned that in giving help governments had to be careful because resources are finite and everything has to be repaid.
This is a man who does not seem to understand that the planet and its atmosphere are also a finite resource that you cannot keep taking from them and polluting them.
Of course, governments have to be careful. They have to ensure that those in need because of the pandemic are helped, but equally that people do not put their hands out for pandemic relief when they do not need it or use it as an excuse for a rent or mortgage holiday when they are still in work.
The ACT Government’s plan, for example, to do spot audits within its rent-relief scheme is therefore not mean, but welcome.
That said, after the crisis, we might be a bit forgiving of some over-reach after the crisis, unlike the Murdoch press’s relentless nit-picking attack on the tiniest fault in the Rudd Government’s overall effective response to the 2008 financial crisis.
But it will be time for a change of thinking about the role of government, its responsibility to all citizens and the responsibility of all citizens, particularly the better-off, to pay their fair share in ensuring government can meet those responsibilities.
And no more deflecting them to God, or suggesting that misfortune is God’s will or the fault of the unfortunate.
This pandemic has shown that ill-health and/or financial ruin can hit anyone anytime.
And after this crisis is over, the even bigger looming crisis will remain: climate change. Drastic action must be taken. And this pandemic shows we can afford to, just as it shows we cannot afford not to. Morrison has been listening and acting on scientific advice in this pandemic and, so far, it appears to be paying off.
Can we hope he learns the lesson and accepts scientific advice in the same way with climate change? Because if he and world leaders do not, the death and financial destruction of this pandemic will look paltry.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 4 April 2016.