When the heavens opened and the banks broke in Brisbane 10 years ago, the waters washed away lives and livelihoods, pride and prejudices.
People who had never asked for help begged for it. And they came in droves. An army of volunteers made up of those who knew what they were doing, such as the army, and everyone else who were happy to learn.
Strangers stayed in each other’s homes, children as young as five and six joined parents in making sandwiches, and employers held office collections.
When authorities wanted community leaders to run everything from food distribution to logistics, they knew to look to those who ran school tuckshops — those who routinely dealt with a rowdy chorus of hungry teens with patience and plenty of food. And they did, guiding armies of locals who brought smiles and supplies.
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Anna Bligh, then Queensland’s Labor premier, stood out as a leader for the time. With sleeves rolled up and empathy galore, she was talked about everywhere as the type of national mentor we craved.
To this day Labor strategists rue the fact that she didn’t call an election soon after. By the time the poll was held, the flood had long gone and she was out of favour.
Yet the power of her words is still in favour 10 years later — a simple call to arms for a community wrestling with rolling disasters.
A decade on and it’s a pandemic that’s stealing lives and livelihoods. But it’s created a strong craving for leadership and a new brand of civic engagement.
Daily press conferences are being heard in lounge rooms and cars without the analysis of journalists. Premiers talk directly to the voters through Facebook feeds and tweets.
Our children stay up all night watching the US Capitol being trashed, and debate whether their 16th birthday can go ahead in light of the latest round of COVID restrictions.
That public involvement, despite the adversity threatening countries beyond America, offers a way to reform how we do things.
COVID has brought a kindness to communities. In my neighbourhood people offer to collect groceries, look after children and cut hair for those who don’t want to venture out.
Frontline workers are being given free coffees, their groceries are being paid for and, as we saw on the Gold Coast at Christmas, anonymous givers were paying off lay-bys to ensure the magic of the season remained.
In times like this leadership is crucial. A daily press conference doesn’t make Scott Morrison a good prime minister. Nor Annastacia Palaszczuk a good premier. Rather, it’s how they use their position to foster support and a vision for a future — and then set about the daily grind of creating it.
No one can detract from the daily grind required to govern the country or run a major organisation through the current travails. But there will be a vaccine. There will be a life after COVID.
How will today’s leaders parlay the trust they have built through this pandemic to tackle the big challenges that haven’t gone away but have slipped into the background?
Challenges such as climate change, homelessness, caring for an ageing population, reconciliation, and the loss of jobs to technology. None of these are the clear and present danger of COVID, but nonetheless loom as disasters if we don’t deal with them through leadership that inspires and engages.
In the past few days Queensland has had a taste of what Sydney and Melbourne lived through for weeks: a COVID-induced shutdown. That gave our household a chance to introduce teenagers to leadership of a different time, courtesy of bingeing both cable reporting of the decline of Donald Trump, and The West Wing. Which prompts the thought: what would Jed Bartlet do right now?
For sure he’d attend the inauguration of his successor. But he might also offer some inspirational and meaningful words of leadership: “Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”
Yes it’s fiction, but it should still be compulsory viewing for all those who aspire to political leadership.