As the sun rose over Canberra on Monday – the day that Australia would switch prime ministers – politicians of faith gathered in the Great Hall of Parliament House to pray for the nation.
They were there for the Australian National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the interdenominational Parliamentary Christian Fellowship.
Just a few hours later, Malcolm Turnbull would challenge Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership, and by evening, the nation would have a new PM.
An Unsettled Government In Need Of Prayer
Exactly what God was up to on Monday, only God knows, but one thing’s for sure: any government in upheaval probably needs all the divine help it can get.
Organiser of the prayer breakfast, Louise Markus MP, is a firm believer in the importance of prayer to help Parliament do its job.
Mrs Markus, who attends Hillsong Church, is the Federal Member for the north western Sydney seat of Macquarie, with its electoral office in Windsor.
She spoke to Hope Media this week after the much-reported leadership spill, describing the political scene in Canberra as a “challenging, very dynamic environment” — almost an understatement.
“What unfolded following that prayer breakfast is what people have observed on their TVs this week,” she said. “So it is challenging for those of us that are part of the processes that happen in this place.”
Tony Abbott’s Swansong A Message Of Compassion
She said that Tony Abbott (who is Catholic) normally attends the annual event, but this year he’d been booked for other duties, and instead prepared a video message.
The message centred on the role of compassion in the refugee crisis.
“It was about the importance of compassion and the challenges in Syria, and how this nation was responding,” Mrs Markus said.
“And the importance of all sectors of the community – particularly those with a faith and those that are part of our local churches – being able to contribute and share with the government and settlement services as we open our doors for the 12000 refugees that we will be accepting.
“[The video] was quite beautiful and very encouraging.”
Mr Abbott’s video message effectively became one of his last official addresses as Prime Minister – bar his exit speech – but as Mrs Markus put it, “I’m sure that’s not what he planned”.
Prayer: It’s “Absolutely Vital”
Describing Federal Parliament as “not for the faint hearted”, Mrs Markus said prayer was “absolutely vital” in helping politicians to do their jobs well.
“We prayed on Monday not understanding what was going to unfold in the coming days,” she said, “but we prayed for our nation.”
“We prayed for wisdom; we prayed for our national leaders and our international leaders as they resolve and work on challenges and issues around the globe.
“We prayed quite huge prayers, big prayers, because we do believe that God answers those prayers.
“Honestly, we do need Christians [to pray] – and many people of other faiths as well do pray genuinely – for our leaders and for our future.”
An Agenda-Free Form Of Spiritual Support
Politicians like Mrs Markus notice the difference when people are praying for them. She said she feels encouraged that believers are supporting her spiritually.
“I’ve got many friends and supporters that are also “pray-ers”, and so they send me texts,” she said. “I received many on Monday and Tuesday.”
“What is beautiful about people [who] say they just pray for you, is there’s no judgment. Often there’s no expectation or pressure on you for what you should do.
“It’s wonderful to have people that just genuinely trust you to make the best decision, and they’ll just pray for you to be able to do that.”
She said that although lobbying is a crucial part of the democratic process, it’s a breath of fresh air to receive support that is agenda-free.
“When people, [who] genuinely want your best and the best for our nation without prejudice, pray for you, it really gives us the capacity to genuinely seek what is right — without fear of judgment or favour.”
The Great Pressure On Members Of Parliament
Mrs Markus said the lightning speed of public debate, since the advent of social media, has put politicians under greater pressure than ever.
“Increasingly, with social media and the internet, people instantly tell you what they think,” she said. “And we don’t have the luxury of time for people to maybe take stock before they just “spit it out”.
“So increasingly we have to ensure that we’re very measured in responding, and at the same time understand where people are at and how we need to take up their issues.”
“The Rewards Are Greater Than The Challenges”
Despite the rough and tumble of political life, Mrs Markus – who was a social worker for 25 years before stepping into politics – speaks positively of her job.
“For me personally, and I’m sure it is for most others, I came here to serve my nation, serve my community,” she said.
“I’ve been able to speak to Prime Ministers about policy, I’ve been able to advocate and lobby ministers about the directions and the decisions that we need to take.
“Not everybody would know every fight I’ve fought for, or every fight that I’ve won, or the ones that I’ve lost. I think while it is challenging, the rewards are far greater.”
Canberra’s Long Tradition Of Prayer Gatherings
The first Australian National Prayer Breakfast was held in Canberra in 1985, inspired by the USA’s National Prayer Breakfasts held since the 1950s.
Attendees have included Kevin Rudd, Bronwyn Bishop and Bob Katter.
This year’s gathering, which began with a Sunday evening meeting, featured Bishop Ian Lambert, Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force, as the key speaker.
“We had a number of parliamentarians talk about their own faith journey,” Mrs Markus added, “and how it contributes towards who they are as individuals and how they work in this political space.”
Other similar events include the annual Sydney Prayer Breakfast, designed for Christians to pray for the city of Sydney, and the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast held for the first time on June 17 this year at Old Government House.
The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the Australian Catholic University, is for politicians of all religions.