(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

A lot of the commentary on Scott Morrison’s address to the Australian Christian Churches Conference focused on its religious dimensions. There’s been less focus on the ideological nature of the speech, which was delivered without being circulated by his office, as his other speeches are, and which was ostensibly, according to Morrison, unrelated to politics.

But while we shouldn’t pretend it provides some kind of unguarded moment of prime ministerial candour, it provides perhaps the best insight into Morrison’s core ideology, and in that sense is one of his most important speeches. It deserves to be taken seriously and engaged with.

That core ideology is deep confusion. This is one of the most incoherent speeches delivered by an Australian leader since John Kerr at the Melbourne Cup. Morrison rambles, goes off on tangents, leaves sentences unfinished. But that might just be down to its relative off-the-cuff nature — at one stage he has to stop because he can’t find the right Bible passage to quote.

But the more fundamental confusion is a tension between his conceptions of individualism and communities.

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Morrison was there, he said, to ask for help from his assembled Pentecostalist brethren. “I need your help,” he said repeatedly. To do what? Many things, seemingly — “Keep doing the things that you do which allows Australians both here and” [unfinished — something unintelligible about Papua New Guinea]; “Reach out and let every Australian know that they are important created in the image of God and raise up spiritual weapons against social media.”

But most of all: “Keep building communities.”

Morrison’s concept of a community isn’t merely, or particularly, about a religious community, even though he professes a preference for “community churches”. He’s not on about that so much. His concept of community is one of a polity that meets the needs of its members in a way that he thinks has been usurped by the state and by markets. He quotes the late British fundamentalist rabbi and marriage equality opponent Jonathan Sacks extensively:

Our rights used to be how we were protected from the state. And now, it’s what we expect from it. What we once expected from family and community, now we contract this to the state and to the market.

The logical extension of this argument is that there is something unnatural, artificial, about expecting the state to provide positive rights, to provide the kind of support that families and communities used to provide. “You can’t replace the family, you can’t replace marriage, you can’t replace the things that are so personal with systems of power and systems of capital,” Morrison says. Does the prime minister believe that people who need support from the state — healthcare, education, welfare — should instead be getting those from family and community?

But that’s not what preoccupies Morrison. Instead he wants to link his concept of community with morality and individualism. Sacks was keen on linking rights to morality, though you have to read a bit more on Sacks to see how. He described rights as “noble things” but “undeliverable” without “the widespread diffusion of responsibility”. Rights are inherently linked to duties — duties are “rights translated from the passive to the active mode”. You can’t deliver on rights without being obliged to perform duties.

But Morrison then uses arch-neoliberal Friedrich Hayek to transition from the limited idea of duties to a broader idea of morality. Hayek says, according to Morrison, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs. “You lose your morality and you’re in danger of losing your freedom,” Morrison says.

That provides a notional springboard to connecting individuals, morality and communities. Morality isn’t about social or sexual issues, he says, but about “the dignity of every human being and their responsibilities. Morality is about focusing on the person next to you. That is the essence of community.”

The idea that Morrison is some glib proponent of the Pentecostalist doctrine of prosperity theology thus needs correcting. That doctrine suggests believers will be rewarded materially by God if they have enough faith and demonstrate that faith by giving to churches — a dramatic reversal of Max Weber’s linking of Protestantism with capitalism through Protestants’ desire to demonstrate their state of grace through charitable acts, investment and hard work.

Instead, Morrison offers a complex linking of individualism, personal morality, and community spiritedness via duties acting as the flip side of rights.

It’s here that confusion overtakes Morrison’s view of the world. He seems to want to short-circuit criticism of prosperity theology as a religion of greed and material wealth through the invocation of morality and community. But you can’t be a Hayekian champion of unique individuality and personal freedom and then lock individuals into Sacks’ communitarian framework where even basic rights equal duties to others.

While there have been attempts to position Hayek as some sort of crypto-communitarian, his concept of community was as an emergent property of social interactions between individuals, not a willed entity, and in an “open society” individuals had the freedom to experiment with different forms of interaction and expression. Above all, the free market — which we shouldn’t be relying on, according to Morrison — was a foundational mechanism of a civilised community for Hayek.

So which are we? Unique, free individuals or community members obligated to one another to provide support? You can be both in practice, but it’s hard to articulate an ideology that links both in theory, especially when you’re trying to base it in moral reason.

Morrison’s confusion trips him up when he turns from lauding communities to attacking “identity politics”: “There is a tendency for people to see themselves not as individuals but only defined by some group, and get lost in group, and lose your humanity and lose your connection and you’re defined by your group not by God.”

Identity politics, Morrison thinks, undermine community and self-worth.

So having lauded the idea of individuals forming communities and reaching out to others, Morrison turns on a dime to attack those who form communities. The very problem with identity politics for Morrison is that people do what he wants — “keep building communities” — but not communities he likes (Pentecostalist communities). Or, for that matter, communities like the shire, which he pauses his critique of identity politics to jokingly laud as a form of identity politics he can endorse. It’s funny because it’s true, Scott, but not in the way you mean.

Much of the criticism of Morrison’s actions as a political leader is that, ultimately, he believes in nothing; that he is merely a marketing man who can announce and present and spin, but not actually achieve. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he does believe in some kind of ideology, but it’s so self-contradictory that it offers no guide for anything — and thus, inevitably, a justification for everything.