Cory Bernardi’s departure from the Liberal Party has provoked inevitable condemnation from his erstwhile colleagues. Typically and predictably, he has been described as a rat — a theme the front page in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph encapsulated with its PhotoShopped image of the rogue senator, complete with ears, teeth and whiskers.
Yet, however one assesses Bernardi’s political judgement, the rat image is entirely wrong. In the metaphorical sense, a “rat” is a contemptible person, characterised by lack of principle, opportunism and cowardice. Who has not heard the expression, “rats deserting a sinking ship”. Well, the Liberal Party is certainly foundering, but Bernardi is hardly jumping ship for a safe haven.
Let us be objective. Cory Bernardi is taking a huge political risk. True, he has a six-year term in front of him, but after that he risks political extinction. By contrast, he had a relatively secure political base within the South Australian division of the Liberal Party which would ensure either the number one or number two position on his party’s Senate ticket into the indefinite future. Were he a careerist and opportunist, defecting to the lonely isolation of the crossbench would be the last thing he would do.
I question his political judgement not his courage or devotion to conservative principles. My first reaction to the news of his defection was to describe him as a “crazy brave”. Perhaps, far more opportunistically, he could have stayed in the Liberal tent, but functioned as a quasi-independent, feeling free to support conservative independent challengers to sitting Liberal Party “moderate” — ie., left wing, — MPs. The onus would have been on the Liberal Party to throw him out.
There is historic precedent for this more opportunist stance. Back in 1938, Harold Macmillan, then a Conservative backbencher in the British House of Commons, openly campaigned for A. D. Lindsay, an anti-appeasement independent, standing in the Oxford by-election in the aftermath of the Munich agreement, against the official Conservative candidate, Quintin Hogg, later the second Lord Hailsham.
Bernardi chose the clean and more honest break and attracted such vicious opprobrium, one suspects, largely and simply because he is a conservative. Would a Coalition defection to the Greens, the Labor Party, let alone as a left wing defector on the crossbenches, attract condemnation from the ABC or Fairfax Media? What if a Liberal senator chose to defect because, say, he opposed the withdrawal of taxpayer subsidies to the renewable energy sector? Would the usual suspects describe him as a rat or as a hero? There is no prize for the right answer. As Andrew Bolt so often reiterates, for the Left, it is side, never principle, which counts. This also explains why, when brothel-creeping union corruptocrat Craig Thomson left the Labor Party, he was able to remain in the House without adverse comment from the Left’s media cheer squad.
Bernardi is vulnerable to the argument that, having been elected on the Liberal Party ticket only last July for a six-year term, he had duty to either remain a member of the parliamentary party or to resign so that the next on the Liberal ticket could take his place. In answer to a good conservative-minded friend who raised these points, I replied that it was not as if Cory Bernardi was defecting to the “other side”. Those Liberal voters who were seeking to elect conservatives to the Senate would be wrong to discern any betrayal of principle.
Remaining Coalition voters will need to face whether their primary loyalties are to principles or party. For a growing number of voters, the notion that the Coalition can get by, can still garner their votes, by presenting itself as no better than the lesser evil no longer cuts it. As the perceived gap between traditional party allegiance and principles widens, the opportunities for Bernardi and the likeminded can only grow.