Cory Bernardi and the confusion of Australian conservatives

Cory Bernardi in his office yesterday after quitting the Liberal Party. Photo: Mark Graham / AFP / Getty Images

Cory Bernardi proved this week that you can be both right and, at the same time, a complete hypocrite.

The Australian people were losing faith in the body politic, he said in his short speech confirming he was leaving the Liberal Party to start his own conservative movement.

“There are few, if any, who can claim that respect for politics and politicians is stronger now than it was a decade ago.”

Correct.

“In short, the body politic is failing the people of Australia and it’s clear we need to find a better way,” he said.

You won’t find much disagreement there.

“The level of public disenchantment with the major parties, lack of confidence in our political process and concern about the direction of our nation is very strong. This is a direct product of the political class being out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people,” he said.

Also true, and reflected in the polling that shows voters turning to alternatives beyond the two major parties in increasing numbers.

But his solution is to shaft the party that carried him into office and gave him a platform to build his own brand.

Acts of disloyalty and failing to stand by your commitments are hallmark drivers of the type of voter cynicism which Bernardi is railing against. Having been elected to the Senate on the Liberal party ticket he will now enjoy five years of using that platform against them, while sitting in the Senate trousering $200,000 a year in taxpayers’ money as salary.

Bernardi – who if nothing else clearly has some of the deepest conservative convictions in the parliament – has clearly been emboldened by the rise of the populist political ruptures around the world, most notably in the US under Donald Trump but also in Britain under Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which led the charge for Brexit.

Bernardi might not say this out loud but his actions amount to an attempt to import foreign conservative popular activism to the Australian polity.

And here’s where Bernardi appears confused.

Middle Australia may have conservative instincts, but Bernardi’s brand of conservatism is that of a dusty English country club: unwavering allegiance to the monarchy, rigid opposition to same-sex marriage on the grounds that it would be the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it.

If Bernardi is worried about politicians being out of touch with mainstream values he could start by looking in the mirror.

The populist right takes a lot from the left

Going back to his speech, Bernardi said: “The enduring beauty of the conservative tradition, is that it looks to the past, to all that is great and good, to inform the future.”

While on the one hand Bernardi professes to champion orthodox conservatism he is simultaneously energised by the Trump movement, and happy to turn a blind eye to the distinctly anti-conservative elements of its agenda: a massively expansionary fiscal plan, aggressive trade protectionism (despite free movement of products, capital, people and services being an overwhelming force for good), disdain for the separation of powers through his open contempt for court rulings, and a foreign policy which embraces Russia.

Russia!

So much for letting the past be your guide. Or even thinking things through a bit.

Then there’s the political challenge. Australia’s compulsory voting system also ensures the key to securing government lies in winning swinging voters in the middle of the spectrum. It’s fundamentally different to the US, where identifying and energising a base is essential to building support and turnout, leading to the emergence of candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Pauline Hanson. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/ Getty Images.

Australians do like a maverick, but they tend to be salt-of-the-earth straight talkers. Think Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie, Barnaby Joyce or Bob Katter – not moral crusaders from the Adelaide establishment who have been in the Senate for a decade doing, well, not very much visible apart from occasionally surfacing to say something about burqas or bestiality.

It’s little wonder Bernardi’s former Liberal colleagues are seething. This could have been a solid start to the parliamentary year for the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull’s first major act this year has been to rescind – immediately – the “gold pass” travel scheme that gives MPs business class travel for life. Politicians’ travel entitlements have been a source of tiresome stream of low-level scandals, offering wearying evidence that MPs don’t really care much about taxpayers’ money and regularly use our cash to not just do their jobs but pad their lifestyles on trips with questionable relevance to their work.

It was a good decision. Even redditors were praising it.

Turnbull was also fresh from his blow-up with Trump over refugee resettlements. The PM hasn’t given people much positive to say about him lately but at least you can be confident that if Donald Trump is going to try and intimidate the Australian government, it’s not going to work with Malcolm Turnbull on the end of the phone.

He also has found a potential path into family dinner table conversations by taking up the issue of energy bills, which he’s promising to lower. He’ll also be making announcements this week on childcare and family welfare payments.

Bernardi’s ratting on his party may be met with shrugs in the suburbs by busy families, but in Canberra’s microcosm it is damaging to Turnbull, where his MPs need confidence that their leader can command the national conversation and get people to pay attention to their work. This is a continuing weakness for Turnbull.

“A Senate movement” is how Bernardi describes his project. The objective – although it is early days – appears to be to try and win seats in the Senate and try and secure influence over the national policy agenda. This is not unachievable given how the conservative vote has been splintering. The Coalition cannot afford to dismiss him entirely.

But with the exception of the Greens, minor parties have had a tendency to come and go in Australia. This will be another lesson from the history Bernardi so treasures that he will need to find a way to defy.

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