I have not met Senator Bernardi, but I’ve read some of his writing. From what I have read in the media and on line, it might surprise some people to learn that in fact he is a published author. His seven books include two for children, the rest being about politics, collections of his own opinion pieces, and a book that did well in the review sections, The Conservative Revolution. Thus far the talk has all been about how his defection from the Liberal Party is another destabilising factor for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Since Bernardi is unlikely to vote for anything that Labor or the Greens would put up, there’s no likely loss of support for the Government on the floor of the Senate. There may be trouble in the next South Australian elections, and more widely, if Senator Bernardi manages to arouse people like him around the country to form another party of the Right. The Australian Conservatives movement he set up is said (by Wikipedia) to have 50,000 members. We will have to wait to see.
I think his departure is important because it demonstrates further the weakness in the current alignments in Australian politics, about which I have written a few times. All political parties are coalitions, really, united on not much more than the importance of their forming the next government. Labor is the best example, as we see again and again when the factions clash, or when high-flyers like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard injure each other. So who is Senator Bernardi, and where does he sit in it all?
Since most of us don’t come from South Australia, here is a potted biography. Bernardi is 47, his father an Italian immigrant. Bernardi was a rower of real class, having been an AIS graduate, the member of a winning crew at Henley, and a member of an Australian representative eight. He did his back in, and that ended his rowing career. He’s worked as a labourer, a finance person and probably in his family’s pub. He’s been a Liberal Senator from SA since 2006, and was the youngest ever Federal Vice-President of the Liberal Party, as well as State President in South Australia. What has got under his skin? His short speech to the Senate, with a full attendance and press gallery, presented a man who spoke simply and well. He thinks the political class has failed Australia, that the tone of politics is much worse than it was ten years ago, and that Australians everywhere deserve better than this. His Australian Conservatives show the way, he thinks, and he hopes those who agree with him will join them. He didn’t raise his voice once. It was courteous and cool. Its was the first time I had seen or heard him, and I was impressed.
What is he about? He doesn’t like 18c, he thinks Islam is a threat, he is opposed to abortion, and strongly dislikes the Safe Schools Program. And, unsurprisingly, he is a sceptic about the imagined threats from global warming. What is he for? His website says that As a member of the Liberal Party of Australia for over 30 years, Cory fought to support Sir Robert Menzies’ vision of stronger families, fostering free enterprise, limited government and supporting civil society of the ‘forgotten people’. How does that make different from a lot of other Liberals? It doesn’t. Why then is he leaving? Is he disgruntled because he’s not part of the ministerial team? I don’t know. But he may not have been considered for the ministerial team because he is seen as a person of views that are out of the current Liberal mainstream. Then he has been writing unpopular pieces for a long time. He wrote a sceptical piece about ‘climate change’ in 2007 — that’s ten years ago. And Malcolm Turnbull distanced himself from it at once. If you want more about him, Michelle Grattan has a thirty minute podcast where he answers her questions. Again, he comes across well, thoughtful, quiet, reflective.
In that podcast he pointed to the revolving door for prime ministers over the past decade, and argued that the tendency of both political parties to shiver about the polls and go for short-term engineering solutions (replace the bloke in charge) is indicative of a lack of real purpose in Australian politics. I tend to agree. It was much easier in the 1950s and 1960s, when the economy was growing, there was a lot of infrastructure to create, and governments (both Federal and State) had jobs to do, for parties to look and stay united. Today things are very different. Australia is a lot wealthier, and in all sorts of respects it is a better society to live in than was the case half a century ago.
But the parties are baffled by contemporary circumstances. There is a half-trillion national debt for the parties to deal with. The economy is not growing in a steady way. Industries are dying, jobs are changing, the population is growing, houses are unaffordable for young people, there are insistent demands from every side for measures to deal with this or that problem, and there are no quick fixes for any of this. Indeed, there are no slow fixes, either, that would have long-term support.
And to adapt some themes from my last essay, Australian political discussion is now a mixture of two rather incompatible perspectives on the good society and how to attain it. People want to hang on to what they have, and what they have earned, and they also want governments to solve problems, but without increases in taxation. The old-fashioned British preference for limited government, and the Continental elevation of principles above practice, are mixed up in an awkward way.
I think that Senator Bernardi has found that mixture less and less to his taste. He sees (this is my view) the Turnbull Government is trying to occupy the middle ground in Australian politics, to be a sort of better, more experienced and more sensible Labor Party, and he thinks that is both wrong and unsuccessful. It is certainly the latter at least at the moment, with a large gap between the Government and the Opposition in the opinion polls. There must be many in the Coalition today who see the rejection of Tony Abbott by the Liberals, in retrospect, as a disastrous move. Bernardi is probably one of them. Why did he leave now? Well, there is always a last straw, but I don’t know what it was.
I am not going further down the leadership path, other than to suggest that Mr Abbott had the same kind of problem Julia Gillard had earlier. If you set out to be different from your opponents, you have to be extremely persuasive at selling the difference. Neither leader was. Senator Bernardi believes that he will get significant support in building his Australian Conservatives, and that he and they will offer a different way of painting the future from Pauline Hanson and One Nation. All that is ahead of us. Mr Turnbull is not very effective in persuading us that his ‘we can do it better than Labor’ position is a real winner.
What we may be getting to, I think, is a state of politics in which the major parties cannot govern by themselves. They will in time need the support of minor parties simply to form a government, just as they now need minor party and cross-bench support in the Senate to get legislation through. Julia Gillard’s Government followed negotiation with the Greens. Maybe our two-party system, which started in 1910, is reaching its use-by date.That wouldn’t worry me, as many other countries have multi-party systems where coalitions and compromises are required before anyone can form a government.
Senator Bernardi is at the beginning of a six-year term, and he is most experienced, not simply in the Senate but also in the grassroots business of gaining and keeping support. So I wouldn’t write him off at all. Yet I do wonder how many ‘real’ Conservatives there are out there, and how many of them will support a new party.