Public ideas

Secularism, Morrison and Pentecostalism

A reader has alerted us to an essay in the Sydney Review of Books The parable of the amen snorter and the rotten fish by James Ley.

For those not fully conversant with the richness of Australian anti-clerical slang, an “amen snorter” is a scornful epithet for a holier-than-thou religious hypocrite, and “rotten fish” is a reference to the aphorism that a fish starts to rot from its head.

The essay isn’t about snorting or fish, however. Rather it covers three themes: Scott Morrison’s misunderstanding of secularism, his political ideology and beliefs (a challenge to understand anyone so incoherent), and an insight into Pentecostalism, all neatly woven together in a literary essay style.

On secularism Ley’s reasoning is straightforward. Morrison has categorially stated that “Australia is not a secular country”, even though the Constitution specifically defines Australia as a secular country, and the diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs in our country testifies to the reality of our secularism, a basic requirement for a genuinely democratic society. In a secular society there is no coercion to hold or not to hold particular beliefs. We embody that secular spirit: in Australia even the most devout wear their religious identities lightly.

Writing about Morrison’s political morality Ley demonstrates his capacity to draw from a swagful of adjectives. Rebutting Greg Sheridan’s glowing portrayal of Morrison’s character, Ley writes “Morrison has led what may well be the most indolent, nasty, bumbling, dishonest, cynical and corrupt federal government in Australian history”.

He goes on to determine what moral principles underpin Morrison’s ideology, but he finds it hard to infer much from someone who “has never shown any interest in what words actually mean” and who has “fair claim to the most inarticulate Australian political leader since Joh Bjelke-Petersen”. Ley concludes that “his ideological stance is little better than a collection of antipathies pursued in a spirit of vindictiveness”.

Ley describes Pentecostalism as a “deeply strange religion”, and sees it as a movement – a political movement – rather than as a faith. Anyone brought up as a Catholic, Anglican or Uniting Church adherent who reads Ley’s description of the beliefs and practices of Pentecostalists would wonder if they have any connection to Christianity. Worldwide Pentecostalism is a serious force, attempting to achieve a complete transformation of society. In Australia, fortunately it’s a fringe movement. Morrison shares his religious identification as a Pentecostalist with only 1.1 percent of the population.

The voice of the moral middle class

Writing in The Conversation, Judith Brett explains How the Liberals lost the ‘moral middle class’ – and now the teal independents may well cash in.

On one level her article is about how the Liberal Party, in chasing support from less-educated suburban and rural voters, has lost support from urban professionals who were once a core part of its support base. That’s easily confirmed by any study of shifts in voting patterns.

Her article is also about the moral principles that hold together many of the ‘teal’ independents. They have borrowed campaigning techniques from successful independents such as Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie, who have stood on strong platforms of providing local representation in rural electorates that the Coalition took for granted. By contrast the independents about whom Brett writes are contesting urban electorates and are standing on issues of collective interest – climate change, integrity and the treatment of women. No car parks, local roads, change rooms – no appeals to local material interests in fact.

These independents have a political model that’s quite different from Morrison’s. His is a transactional method of administration. He has prioritised sectional interests over national interests, and has an “electoral strategy of largely ignoring the interests of those unlikely to vote Liberal in favour of men in hard hats”.

The cost of “small government”

Drawing on the economic philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, and the practices of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, the Coalition has adopted “small government” as one of its basic principles.

Terry Moran, chair of the Centre for Policy Development and a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, describes the failure of “small government” in dealing with serious problems requiring a collective response. His Canberra Times article – The notion of small government demonstratively failed through rolling crises – considers floods, aged care, employment services, child care and vaccination as cases in point, where the “small government” approach has either failed, or has been abandoned after even its most voracious advocates have had to acknowledge its failure. He writes:

We must reverse the hollowing-out of the public service and the ideal behind it. The outsourcing of core work once reserved for the bureaucracy is preserving the status quo of a public service devoid of capacity, capability, and long-term ambition.

Moran’s article is a well-crafted short read. For those interested in the economics of “small government” – an explanation of why it is a costly, inequitable and inefficient approach to meeting shared needs – there is a work Governomics: can we afford small government?