QED

Why Cory Bernardi Went Nowhere

There were actually three losers at the recent national election. The biggest was, obviously, Billary Shorten.  The theories are already numerous and growing as to what happened to Labor and they need not be repeated here. John Howard’s “whiff” of 1993 proved to be the case, and just how badly the ALP did, with what seemed a winning base and cheer squad of pundits and professors, could be seen on the disappointed faces of the ABC television team. Greg Norman’s 1996 implosion at Augusta National has nothing on Labor.

The second loser, equally obvious and much sadder for conservatives, was the loss of Warringah.  I said to someone last week that this seat was the only one I really cared about.  But, on reflection, and with GetUp!’s other targets safely returned to Canberra along with a centre-right government, the loss of Warringah seems not so hurtful.  More than this, and barring some government appointment, Abbott, the doughty warrior from Forestville, will now be free to roam the political stage and use his peerless talents to further various causes close to all our hearts.

The third and less heralded loser from Saturday is Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives.  Following the non-gains in the NSW elections in either house, last weekend’s’s results – no senators elected at all – will likely bring the curtain down on a brief, fitful and ill-fated experiment in Australian conservative politics. This is despite having outstanding candidates, like Sophie York and Lyle Shelton, and good policies on all the issues important to the DisCon base.

Broadly, I believe there are two reasons why the Australian Conservatives failed to gain traction and votes in the Senate.  One, in the end the ACs did not have a real reason for being.  And two, the ACs failed to develop a coherent and compelling narrative, even a “label”, that aligned with a discreet block of voters.

The ACs began as a “movement” and initially there was no political party.  Cory Bernardi grasped the highly understandable disillusionment with the Liberal Party was based initially on the then Abbott-led government’s failure to rein in Section 18c of the Anti Discrimination Act and so buffer Australia’s wobbling commitment to freedom of speech. Indeed, the Liberals’ failure on this issue caused much of the angst among libertarians and conservatives that led to a falling out with Abbott. With certain libertarians, Abbott was a major disappointment, decidedly on the nose.

For Bernardi, though, things got much worse after the Turnbull coup.  Bernardi and Turnbull loathed one another. Turnbull was aided and abetted by the (now mercifully) departed Black Hander Christopher Pyne, a sworn and longstanding factional enemy of Bernardi’s in his home state of South Australia.

And so a movement was born.  In the era of Turnbull, embracer of climate change, same-sex marriage, Big Government and renewable energy, conservatives need somewhere to go, even if only to let off steam.  After Turnbull “won” the 2016 election and conservatives recoiled at the wet faction that now controlled the Liberals, Bernardi was moved to turn his movement into a party.  The ACs’ apotheosis occurred following the unsuccessful conservative bid to prevent same-sex marriage through the plebiscite campaign, and the subsequent galling scenes of the parliamentary rainbow brigade’s hubristic prancing on the very floor of the House of Representatives.  At this point, conservative spirits were especially low, as the people’s house was turned by the likes of Tim Wilson, Warren Entsch and Cathy McGowan into a sort of parliamentary version of Taylor Square.

But the unsuccessful bid to defeat the plebiscite’s Yes vote did provide a database of conservative warriors and fired up supporters looking for an outlet.  It came with the Bennelong byelection after former journeyman tennis player and local member John Alexander was found to have breached the Constitution on citizenship matters.  Bennelong, along with New England where the now much compromised Barnaby Joyce was facing a similar crisis, provided a testing ground for the ACs to assess their appeal to voters and, as then seemed likely, longer term success in the Senate as a counterweight to the social liberalism of the government.

The result in Bennelong – between five and  six per cent of the primary vote – was disappointing, to say the least.  But it provided the ACs with something of a base on which to build for creating opportunities in Senate and half Senate elections.  Following successful negotiations with Family First and the awful disappointment of Bob Day’s fall from political grace, it seemed likely the ACs could build a new home for the broad group of DisCons not prepared simply to wait out Turnbull’s hopefully short reign.  Then new recruit Rachel Carling-Jenkins in Victorian walked and the whole movement stalled.  Last Saturday’s non-outcome was the final point after such a promising start.

So what happened? 

My first point relates to reason for being.  Two things happened: once Turnbull was thrown out and Scott Morrison installed, much of the of the DisCons’ sheer anger dissipated.

The second development was that Labor decided to go big on leftist agenda items – really big.  This, in effect, re-widened the gap between the ideologies of the major parties following Turnbull’s narrowing of it. 

A slim gap between the majors means DisCons need a new home.  The gap re-widens and they don’t.  It is that simple.

Morrison didn’t need in the end to throw red meat to the base by muscling up to Labor on climate change, renewables and the like.  Shorten did all the work for him, alienating so many voters that the DisCons became numerically inconsequential and, in a way redolent with irony, confirming Mark Textor’s theory that Coalition voters “had nowhere else to go”.  Shorten simply did Morrison’s heavy lifting.

With a rabidly leftist Labor agenda and Morrison seen as a safe (if not especially conservative) pair of hands, and proving a very, very skilled election campaigner to boot, the prospects of the ACs waned dramatically. 

As well as the two political developments outlined, there is a third aspect to the reason-for-being argument:  Australia’s compulsory preferential voting makes things decidedly awkward for minor parties, including (perhaps especially) for those that are right-of-centre.  Eventually, discontented voters wishing to cast a valid vote have to decide whether to place Labor ahead of the Coalition, or vice versa.  There is no way around that. Bernardi’s Party was thus faced with a dilemma: are we merely a vehicle for voters cranky with the Liberals to express that anger and then, having made their point, return their preferences to the Coalition?  An observer might reasonably ask of such a minor party, ‘What is the point of you?’

Contrast the AC’s lack of progress with the astonishing developments in Britain, where the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage now appears a major force, at least according to the polls. Or  consider the other rightist parties making ground in countries as disparate as Argentina, Hungary, France, Brazil and Austria.  (Incidentally, Morrison’s against-the-odds victory has been bracketed with Trump and Brexit, but this is only true up to a point.  Yes, the three results were against the odds.  But only two of them were truly the result of right wing push back;  Morrison’s triumph was rooted in exposing Labor’s planned follies, not pushing back against the zeitgeist.

This brings me to the second broad reason for Bernardi’s failure – the absence of a compelling label and narrative.  The Brexit Party has a straightforward, ultimate and easily identifiable focus and goal — get out of Europe — as well as a ready constituency.  The ACs have had neither.  If you are a political party not appealing to a particular demographic (like the Shooters or, indeed, the Nationals) but rather to principles or values, then you had better have a clear and readily understood narrative to accompany your statement of principles. Given the hatred by so many of political correctness and the modern Left’s cultural fascism, there was no shortage of opportunity to build such a narrative. In the case of Bernardi, the principles were brilliant. But the compelling narrative just never arrived.

The ACs’ appeal to “bring back common sense” lacked immediate cut-through, failing to trigger in potential Bernardi voters the kind of head-nodding ‘he says what I am thinking’ reaction that Pauline Hanson has tapped.  Not even the now globally infamous Israel Folau case, which could have provided a brilliant backdrop and potential narrative for a party like the ACs, did the trick.

So, yes, there were three losers last Saturday, not just Shorten and Abbott. 

Actually, there may ultimately be four losers.  For the moment, the DisCons feel safe, if not excited. But whether ScoMo restores Australia as a haven for sanity, religious freedom, freedom of speech, traditional industries powered by fossil fuels, smaller government and the values that DisCons hold dear, remains to be seen.  We still do not know if the NSW Liberal Party especially, the ones who ditched former Senator Jim Molan for a couple of factional hacks, will make a home again for conservatives.  After all, we know that politics is, indeed, downstream from culture, and Liberal-led governments in Australia generally provide little reassurance that they even comprehend this.  We shall see if, in three years, the DisCons still feel safe.

The decline, or more accurately, the non-growth of the ACs into a political force since Cory Bernardi’s initial move in 2016 gives me no great pleasure. I stood for them at the recent NSW state election in the knife edge seat of Lismore!

17 comments
  • en passant

    Paul,
    I have only ever joined two political parties: the Liberals for 31 years (the last 12 of which were a waste of time and effort as they turned lite-Green and I remained light-Blue) & ACM for 1-year only.
    I volunteered to help organize the party, but was rejected for being rude. ‘Forthright’ was a more accurate word as pointed out their deficiencies in organisation and selection of candidates (most of whom were turncoats from other parties – never a popular idea with me).
    Cory has many good policy ideas, which I support, but they had the hitting power of a powder-puff and no ability to mobilise their base.
    They have a purpose, but they will never have the power to be a real force for the good they could do. They don’t know how.

  • whitelaughter

    Also joined AC. Two major problems:
    – Cory ignored state and local elections that could have been used as flag waving exercises, and instead focused big on the federal election…when it was too late to get to people. The common response on Voter Survey to AC was “who?” most people had never heard of the party.

    – secondly, not going for broke in policy. “Reform” the ABC? Really? As if that would ever work…or last longer than 5 minutes once Labor was back in power. It simply isn’t possible to get enthused about such a policy. *Abolish* though? That would have been something to get excited about – and the screams of pain from the trendy set would have merely been free advertising.

  • Adelagado

    Bernardi’s mob absorbed Family First and ditched that well recognised name, which was probably a mistake.

    I was going to donate to the Australian Conservatives last November until I happened to be flying from Singapore to Australia on the same plane as Mr Bernardi. I was in economy. He was travelling first class. I decided to keep my money.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Bernardi is one of those, common in most organisations, who find it difficult, even impossible, to compromise. They fail to understand that perfection is often the enemy of the good, a serious flaw in politics where compromise is the best outcome we are ever likely to see.
    While I agree with much of what he says, he is never likely to be a team player, so the Libs and the Parliament will be better off without him.

  • ianl

    Bernadi was given a 40 minute free kick at a mining presentation I went to about 12 months ago.
    His overwhelming trait was “niceness”. Policy, especially recognisable detail, was not in the room. So I agree, Paul Collits, he has no potential for spark now that Waffle is gone and so no political point.

  • Salome

    ianl is on to something–something that attracted me to the ACs is, sadly, something that hasn’t attracted other voters (anything I buy, like or join tends to go out of production or business pretty soon) and it’s the ‘niceness’. A lot of the disaffected Liberals and Nationals (a lot more than those who voted Conservative) voted for One Nation and Fraser Anning’s party. Neither Cory, nor anyone else in the party, is, it would appear, sufficiently outrageous to attract interest. Which is a worry, because I wouldn’t vote for such a party.

  • brandee

    If only the AC party had ventured with campaigning for one delineating issue; reigning in the ABC for instance with such determination as to make them scream.

    Why not use present ABC and SBS funding to include Foxtel cable subscriptions on request. Eventually ABC and SBS would be a cable subscription option along with Foxtel. As funding to the latter increased the funding to the ABC/SBS would decline according to market preference- a very good market solution.

  • en passant

    brandee,
    What a great idea!

    Let the ‘market’ kill them.

  • Ed King

    Yes, AC were too nice, too respectful and played it too safe. They lacked the spark and mongrel to cut through to voters.

    They also failed to pick hot-button issues to campaign on. Immigration is a massive sleeper issue in Australia and is ripe for the picking politically. AC talked here and there about reducing the immigration intake but they failed to make it a signature issue.

    Cory should’ve focused a little less on principles and a bit more on populism.

  • Ed King

    Interesting fact: Australian Christians outpolled Australian Conservatives over in WA.

  • oldandfeeble

    Faced with the disaster Shorten would have been and Albanese will be, ideological purity is a luxury we cannot afford.

  • whitelaughter

    So general agreement here; everybody is making good points. Would be good to know whether we’ve hit the nail on the head, or suffering from our echo chamber though.

  • Max Rawnsley

    Bernardi has been particularly coy in more recent times, likely terminal. We have seen more than a few alleged conservative groups emerge mainly in response to then Coalition policy being too catholic or uncertain etc. With Turnbull gone and an election in its favour there is some reason to assume centre right policies may prevail in a Coalition government. That sentiment brewed during the 5-week campaign, voters know policies are not always implemented but many seem to have taken a chance and returned to the Coalition whereas they were drifting to the Australian Conservatives, One Nation and even ALA in WA.
    Another factor, the long-term polling ascendancy of Coalition PMs compared to Bill Shorten was always a lever awaiting a strong hand. Morrison’s ‘presidential style campaign provided the faith needed to make the conversion from an each way, maybe even a Labor, bet.
    Bernardi and the AC’s appeal was countered by the noticeability and energy of Morrison.
    What else did Bernardi’s team not do well? In NSW senate candidate Sophie York tried very hard but just did not get the visibility needed because Bernardi showed he is not a political campaigner. A fight is not won by ducking and weaving on me too [programs, it’s the punches on an opponent that count. I suspect Bernardi is unlikely to hold his senate place in 2022.
    The takeout from the election is that there are now probably more marginal seats than for a long time. The Coalition needs to remain on election footing and at the same time implement the policies that should always characterise a liberal-conservative government.

  • David

    The other losers were the various Christian parties, who lost out because of the wide policy gap between the Coalition and Labor (O.K. Family First had already rolled into AC for reasons unfathomable to me).

    The Christian vote was very stirred up over Labor’s attack on the ability of Christian Schools to select staff who would uphold the school’s raison d’être. Morrison was reassuring on the question of religious freedom, so the Christian vote, and for that matter the traditional Labor supporting Muslim vote, went in large measure to the Coalition. Whether Morrison delivers is another question.

  • Ed King

    “Would be good to know whether we’ve hit the nail on the head, or suffering from our echo chamber though.”

    Hard to tell.

    I think AC had a great policy platform but, as Paul Collits noted, the party failed to build a narrative, failed to articulate its raison d’etre and failed to pick the right signature issues to campaign on.

    AC’s uptight “we’re a principled, thinking person’s Liberal Party” image didn’t inspire or excite either.

    In any case, I truly hope Cory Bernardi retains his Senate spot at the next election. I also think we need a genuine alternative to the Liberal Party, which is not really a conservative party by any real measure and seems to serve as little more than the political wing of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. If one could combine Bernardi’s policies and intelligence with Pauline’s populism, I think it would be a winner.

  • Julian

    Excellent analysis – too true, unfortunately.

  • Julian

    @ Ed King – “I also think we need a genuine alternative to the Liberal Party, which is not really a conservative party by any real measure and seems to serve as little more than the political wing of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. If one could combine Bernardi’s policies and intelligence with Pauline’s populism, I think it would be a winner.”

    Totally true amigo.

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