PM Scott Morrison meets Christian Community leaders

Get behind I4give day says PM

It felt just like a bunch of people enjoying coffee after church, when the Prime Minister Scott Morrison met Christian community group leaders in Canberra this week to offer support for post COVID recovery.

The leaders included James Toomey, head of Mission Australia; Grant Thomson, CEO of Bible Society Austraila; Stephen Fogarty, President, Alphacrucis College; and Ursula Stephens, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. (Full list of leaders and the letter they sent the PM is here)

But there actually was no coffee, just chat.

“I really like the idea of what you are doing,” said the PM. “The whole country is trying to rebuild. And there are so many things we have to rebuild. People’s worlds have been turned completely upside down. Everything they knew to be certain became uncertain. ‘Will I have a job on Monday,’ ‘How will I feed my family?’ ‘Will my mother die?’

“It was a shock to the nation like I have not experienced in my lifetime. Jane [who got Australia’s first vaccine jab] who had her COVID shot yesterday might have remembered a few worse things during the Second World War. But I think it has really shaken peoples lives. It has made people re-evaluate things …”

“I want to thank the church groups all around the country for the role they have played in holding things together.”

The PM wryly pointed out that COVID and the rise of online church – in his case, Horizon Church’s e-church – has meant he’s got to church more often. “It’s been a blessing because of my program. It’s opened up a whole new world of faith and interaction. I think it’s great it’s providing church groups with new opportunities to provide counselling and support.”

“In my own faith journey, I have always loved being involved in a community-based church.”

He pointed out that the Government, for its part, had surged mental health services: “And it worked. We did not have a high rate of suicide.”

“We have always appreciated community, but we probably appreciate it a bit more now. In my own faith journey, I have always loved being involved in a community-based church. I have been in churches of many different denominations, and that’s mattered less to Jenny and I than being in a community based church. thats where I think the faith-based community provides so much strength.”

The PM urged the group to get behind I4give Day. “Leila and Danny Abdallah are extraordinary people,” said Morrison about the Sydney couple who forgave the drunk driver who killed three of their children last year, and founded I4give day.

“When Leila came out, when she was at the site where her children had been killed,  she felt so compelled to forgive, instantly … And then Danny doing it similarly, but in his way – and his struggle with that.

“And they have continued on with [I4give Day]. This powerful nature of forgiveness I think is something that can continue to change communities and society. Because people, as Jen said, need to get rid of baggage. And that affects people’s mental health, their ability to function and the community’s ability to function.

“A secular leader with an open faith”

“If we are talking about rebuilding communities, we have to get rid of some baggage.”

Describing himself as “a secular leader with an open faith” the PM called for the Christian leaders to help the nation pursue forgiveness, and healing.

James Toomey asked the PM how his faith had affected the decisions made around COVID.

“For me, the faith was a source of strength to get through each day,” Morrison responded. He noted that the measures the Government introduced could have been arrived at “from many different perspectives”, making it clear he was not claiming a special Christian COVID response.

“There was a very human dimension to this. I had a great sense of the potential for human frailty and collapse. The job goes, the health goes and then everything falls in a heap.

“It’s different talking about it – it was more than a year ago, but at the time – I have talked often about looking into the abyss. And we were.

“We had every fear that the worst outcomes could be realised here in Australia. Large numbers of deaths, complete collapse of the economy, social unrest, civil disobedience, none of which happened. Praise God.”

“That is one answer to your question. the other one is ‘I wore the carpet out in my room.'”

Citizens don’t contract away their social responsibility to governments.

Chris Watkin, a philosopher and lecturer in modern French thought from Monash University, asked whether COVID has strengthened our ‘social contract’. “I think Australia has one of the best social contracts of any country in the world,” the PM replied. “And our safety net speaks to that.

“What I am pleased about is that in the course of cover, under extreme circumstances, there is also an appreciation that the social safety net sometimes needs to expand to deal with something like that. Quickly. And effectively.

“We did that – with no pushback …

“The social contract also understands that as emergencies pass, the social contract finds its new equilibrium. As a former social services minister, I have a pretty good appreciation of working with someone in that role. There is a good understanding in Australia of the need for the services that are provided, and that they are done in a highly efficient and caring level whether it is aged care or mission work or alcohol abuse or whatever.

“I think there is a great spirit in Australia to support that quite enthusiastically. Particularly in the not for profit sector or, as someone said to me today, the ‘not for loss’ sector. I think there is resilience in the support for these institutions.

“I think our systems reflect that. We sit between the United Kingdom and the United States when it comes to our health system, our education system and our delivery of social services, our social safety net for income support and so on. I think Australia has a good balance of these things, and I think we have to keep working on the balance.

“The bit we can’t ignore is that, yes, governments have a role in this contract. But so do citizens. Citizens don’t contract away their social responsibility to governments. Jonathan Sacks [the late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain] talks a lot about this. I have read a lot of his work, particularly recently his ‘covenant thinking’. His series on the BBC and his recent book on morality sets that out in a really positive way. It’s certainly given me a greater guide on some of those issues.

“But if we allow, through politics, Australians to think that ‘I pay my taxes, I vote and that’s all I have to do’, then that’s not a place where the covenant is working. And I prefer that word ‘covenant’ in Sack’s terms rather than ‘contract’. It is richer, it is deeper, it has greater responsibilities attached. And you are involved in enlivening people’s understanding of that.

“Without that, I think we have a fairly shallow state.”

“The reason we have been so effective is, principally, because of the Australian people.”

Penny Mulvey from Bible Society Australia remarked on the great lessons of COVID, of community caring during the Melbourne lockdown, of looking out for neighbours and for singing in the streets. What we can do in a crisis is remarkable, she said.

“That is true – I say it almost every time I step up to a microphone,” the PM replied. “The reason we have been so effective is, principally, because of the Australian people. We have done things – the state governments have done an enormous amount of things – but without that good faith of people in the community, there is no reason to think that we would not have gone down a similar track that many others did.”

“I tell you one thing. There is no ideology in a pandemic. It’s just not relevant. It’s sort of like having an ideological debate when my brother, who is a paramedic, is there treating a patient. No. For him – he says to me – its just plumbing. And he’s very focussed on stopping the bleeding and dealing with the needs of the patient. And in the early months it was very much like that.

“What I think is very good about our polity here in Australia is that ideology was completely suspended. I read all the stuff about the libertarians and the others – honestly, who cares?

“People were hurting. We needed to put stability into the economy, we needed to get the [hospital] ICUs up to standard, we needed to get testing kits; there was just too much to do.”