How the pandemic is redefining leadership

Leaders are being called on to justify their mantle; some are being found wanting

In their hearts, all but the most hidebound members of Australia’s political and economic high command must know by now that the old days are gone.

After the pandemic, greed, partisanship and other bad behaviour at the top will still plague us, and the richest will remain rich because they’re best placed to look after themselves when things get ugly. But in ways we could not have imagined at the start of this year, the coronavirus has changed things, profoundly and perhaps permanently.

Early on, massive government assistance to industry and households raised the question, was the government abandoning the free market? Had it lost its marbles? Had the leopard changed its spots?

Of course not. Pandemic aid, prime minister Scott Morrison stressed, would be limited both in scope – millions of Australians were denied its benefits – and duration. This was to be a temporary solution to a temporary problem before an inevitable economic bounce.

Melbourne’s July outbreaks made clear there will be no bounce, at least not for a long time. This virus is not going to be accommodated within politics as usual. Political parties won’t win points by squabbling, only by working together for the long haul.

Partisanship has not disappeared, however. The decision of Victorian premier Dan Andrews to maintain a high level shutdown across Melbourne has been a special target of the PM, but he has also been bothered by closed state borders, especially those closed by Labor governments.

The political and financial leaders of our country and everywhere else should have worked out by now that this virus undermines a great many preconceptions about how the world works – about what is held to be important and what isn’t.

As it courses through our lives, the pandemic is stripping away the layers of meaning – or blather – that over the years we have allowed to accumulate around the notion of authority. Political and business people accustomed to having weight assigned to their words are seeing audiences turn away. They are losing relevance, and in the power game losing relevance is death.

In these difficult times we need political leadership more than ever. But this debilitating, deadly pandemic keeps pressing home the point that in a crisis, authority is less about appearances than in admitting a level of ignorance about the problem, seeking expert advice, and then acting on that advice to sort things out.

The pandemic has brought all this to the fore, but the problem of leadership disconnected from the real world has been with us a long time – perhaps for more than a lifetime, since the world was forced to confront the brutal reality of global economic depression and war.

For all its health implications, the pandemic does have a silver lining. Movers and shakers for a long time avoided hard decisions by operating within bubbles of spin. COVID-19 has forced them out of those bubbles and into the open, giving the world a chance to see what they’re made of.

Some leaders have risen to the occasion. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern decided early on to go for eliminating community transmission of the virus – and succeeded. Leaders in Tasmania, the ACT, and everywhere else except Queensland, NSW and Victoria have much the same aim. The latter states have gone for sustained daily case levels in the single digits – very close to elimination.

Closed internal borders are frustrating the hell out of the Morrison government and the captains of commerce and industry, as well they might. Closed borders are unpopular with people who need to cross them for business and personal reasons, but for those who don’t they’re security. The same goes for the national border, but the PM has no problem with that being closed.

Unlike many economic indicators, measures for dealing well with the pandemic are unambiguous. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Australia has had outstanding success compared with most comparable nations, or that leaders prioritising the economy over medical science face resurgent infection rates and demoralised populations – and even more devastated economies.

The virus is just one global crisis crying out for big-picture leaders who really get what is at stake. Think climate change, extreme weather and wildfire, environmental degradation, species and biodiversity loss, water loss and threats to food production and governance.

Polls say the public agree with harsh pandemic controls. If and when they go a step further and choose governments on the basis of their response to those other real, substantial danger signs, we’ll really be getting somewhere. But that’s a whole other story.

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