One of Australia's greatest leadership challenges, at both State and Federal levels, has emerged as the separation of Church and State.

Selecting suitable leaders is always a complex and multi-dimensional problem. When selecting a major business leader, such as a CEO, the key question should not be ‘What have they previously achieved?’, but ‘How capable are they of confronting unexpected change, detecting hidden risks and making wise choices that will stand future scrutiny?

But selecting political leaders is more difficult in our increasingly authoritarian world. Despite the spread of democracy, the great challenge has always been managing the separation of church and state. French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot wrote ‘The distance between throne and alter can never be too great’, because faith is independent of reason. 

This separation concept was first described by Saint Augustine in the fifth century as Two Cities, in his major work De Civitate Dei. It was famously enshrined in England’s Magna Carta of 1215, and described as the Social Contract by English philosopher John Locke, supported by French philosopher Pierre Bayle. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (published 1781) sets it in stone. Support also came from Voltaire, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Montesquieu.

James Locke had a major influence on Thomas Jefferson and hence the framing of the US Bill of Rights of 1791 in which the separation was solidly enshrined.The Australian constitution of 1901 follows this lead, and its strength means that no religious test is required for anyone seeking political office. However, it also has a weakness, in that it does not safeguard a State or the Nation from cults or extreme religions entering the highest office through the back door, as personal beliefs and senior membership of small but powerful and ambitious religious groups, albeit masked as popular leadership. 

This potential for conflation of church and state, or reducing the state to subservience of the values of a minor ‘church’, rose to prominence – and public concern – amid Australia’s most devastating bushfires in history, which began in June 2019 and lasted until May 2020. Called Black Summer, the fires killed 479 people and over a billion animals, scorched 46 million acres and destroyed almost 9,400 buildings. The smoke circled the planet for over three months: 90 days and nights.

It unfolded as an unprecedented disaster, yet for weeks the PM hid from media, before emerging to bizarrely engage in climate denialism. When newly elected, the PM declared his election victory to be a "miracle," told an interviewer that he saw people as "agents of God's love" and used a National Press Club address to promise voters "I will burn for you". It was a remark that confused most people, especially when the media reported that, as Australia was being destroyed by fires, he was on holiday in Hawaii. When questioned, he denied he should stop avoiding responsibility and take leadership because “I don’t hold the hose, mate”, meaning he is not a fireman so therefore it’s not his problem. 

The nation was outraged that the man in the highest office appeared to have no sense of care, empathy or responsibility, while hundreds of Australians were losing their homes and businesses, and dying from flames and smoke inhalation. By way of explanation, it was soon reported that the PM was a lifelong senior member of a small prosperity-cult ‘church’ that practices 'speaking in tongues', believes that God prefers rich people and that they alone are the only people on earth who will go to Heaven, and to get there they must first be consumed by fire. 

The editorials asked if this deeply ingrained magical thinking, and his apparent lack of personal agency, could explain how a PM could appear to be so embarrassingly caught in the headlights, or worse, to not care about his country and its people.The issue later expanded when the media reported that several senior Government officials, including Ministers, were also members of this same ‘church’, for whom consumption by fire was a central plank of their beliefs. 

So was it simply a case of appalling leadership by someone with no idea of the leader’s importance, and no concept of field leadership during the nation’s gravest emergency? Or was this the result of allowing into the nation’s highest office someone with no apparent leadership credentials whatsoever, a former tourism marketing executive, a ‘spin doctor’ whose career centred on creating zippy slogans (including the infamous message ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’) to attract international visitors?

In fact, an individual, a bureaucrat, who reportedly was only ever concerned with self-advancement and reportedly prefers to rule by edict rather than expert input and collaboration, with an acutely thin skin and hyper-vigilance for perceived criticism? In every other job, minimum skills and experience apply. Such as when the PM-to-be was Director of Tourism Australia, although his skills did not prevent him being ignominiously sacked, virtually overnight, reportedly for misappropriation of millions of dollars. 

So when the job of PM carries such high levels of responsibility, including the ability to safeguard a nation, and when the public purse is involved in not just politician’s salaries but the consequences of potential failures of leadership, then the highest standards should be applied to eligibility for the role of leader.

Furthermore, careful scrutiny should be given to any potential for the distinctions between church and state to be blurred, in order to prevent any small, unelected and unrepresentative religious organisations from leveraging disproportionate influence to bias the judgement of leaders and even sway Parliament itself. Democracy concerns real benefits for all, not just the ideology of a handful.

This is not to suggest that any leadership selection process can prevent leadership mistakes being made, as the reality of leadership is that it must face a constant stream of unexpected challenges. But it is to suggest that we should have a very good idea of the fundamental character of our leaders before we place our trust in them to navigate the great challenges. We need to ensure that, at the very least, they will place the protection of the nation above their personal magical beliefs. 

In looking for the gold standard in national leadership, we need go only to Teddy Roosevelt, who’s famous Square Deal of 1904 required "honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interests of the state at large".

Roosevelt was a man with enormous leadership experience, acquired on a number of fronts long before he entered Federal politics. He also insisted on the public responsibility of large corporations, but that is a leadership issue for another day. More than 20 years ago I realised in my coaching practise that the future performance of leaders could be reliably inferred from a close examination of a candidate’s full life history. 

This included all the cultural and familial associations, and an evaluation of the moral and ethical landscape that emerged from those foundations, as evidenced by a career history.Is it time for democratic governments, State or Federal, to demand of potential political leaders that they understand the challenges of democratic leadership, are morally and ethically aligned with the values of the State, including truthfulness, and are committed to leadership that benefits everyone equally?