So much hype. Such little content. Cory Bernardi’s speech in the Senate on Tuesday announcing his decision to resign from the Liberal Party and become an independent senator, representing a political movement called the Australian Conservatives, created much media attention.
In part, this reflects the fact that the Coalition does not have a majority in the Senate and has a majority of one in the House of Representatives. In part, it reminds us that splits or divisions in political parties invariably create interest. There is a lot to be said for the proposition that politicians who are elected as the candidate of a political party should remain loyal to their electors or resign from parliament and recontest under the flag of their new support group. Bernardi has rejected this option and, as a senator with a six- year term courtesy of the Liberal Party, is likely to be in the upper house until at least the end of June 2022.
For a politician who claims to be the leader of the conservative movement, and who is known to quote such conservative thinkers as Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, Bernardi’s resignation declaration lacked content. It was also rife with cliches.
Early in his speech, the South Australian senator declared: “In short, the body politic is failing the people of Australia and it’s clear we need to find a better way.” Such evocations have been around for decades. Australia’s most famous version was The Call, issued on Remembrance Day 1951. It was drafted by the Adelaide-based writer Paul McGuire and signed by religious leaders and senior members of the judiciary.
The Call commenced with the statement that “there are times in the histories of peoples when those charged with high responsibilities should plainly speak their minds”. There followed references to Australia being in danger “from moral and intellectual apathy” and so on. However, McGuire’s brief treatise did not say what should be done to “save our country and our liberties”.
It’s much the same with Bernardi’s discourse. He does not refer to economic policy, taxation, industrial relations, social policy, international relations or national security. This is all he said with respect to anything approaching content: “We will be united by a desire to create stronger families, foster free enterprise, limit the size and scope and reach of government while seeking to rebuild civil society”. That’s it. And then there are the cliches: “The journey ahead will not be for the faint of heart but worthwhile venues rarely are; and every journey begins with a first step.” Well now.
The only specific point in Bernardi’s speech occurred when he asked the president of the upper house “to consider the Senate seating arrangements”. This followed Bernardi’s decision to join the crossbench, along with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, the Nick Xenophon Team, Derryn Hinch, Jacqui Lambie and David Leyonhjelm.
As Bernardi makes clear in The Conservative Revolution (Connor Court, 2013), he is committed to the philosophical positions espoused by the likes of Burke and Oakeshott. What’s missing from the resignation speech is any analysis as to why he will be more effective leading a movement of one than remaining in the Liberal Party and fighting for his cause. This was the advice offered to Bernardi by former Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott in his article in The Australian last December. It’s possible, just possible, that the conservative movement will take off, establish itself as a political party and survive for some time. This is the story of Don Chipp’s Democrats of recent memory. Chipp held the Melbourne-based seat of Higginbotham and then Hotham until he retired from the House of Representatives in November 1977.
In March 1977, Chipp had quit the Liberal Party, primarily on account of Malcolm Fraser’s refusal to give him a cabinet position after the December 1975 election. Having formed the Democrats, Chipp won a Senate seat, which he held from mid-1978 until his resignation eight years later. The Democrats were a force in Australian politics for around two decades due to the party’s ability to win support from the far left (now the base of the Greens) and sections of the small business community. The pitch of the conservative movement, as the organisation’s name indicates, is aimed at political conservatives. Such individuals are already catered for within the Liberal Party. After all, the four politicians who led the Liberal Party to government from opposition were all in the conservative grouping at the time of their victories. Namely, Robert Menzies (1949), Malcolm Fraser (1975), John Howard (1996) and Tony Abbott (2013). Then there is the resurgence of Pauline Hanson, who managed to benefit from both the double dissolution election and the change to the Senate voting system. Hanson is more experienced and considered than she was during her brief stint in the House of Representatives two decades ago. Moreover, she possesses the valuable asset of authenticity. Bernardi’s difficult task is to win support from the Malcolm Turnbull-led Liberal Party, the Barnaby Joyce-led Nationals and Hanson’s One Nation.
In the current climate, the Prime Minister has no option but to work hard to keep conservatives within the Coalition tent, despite the fact that he holds different positions to them on such issues as climate change policy and same-sex marriage.
This is not merely the task of attempting to unite what Howard has referred to as the conservative and liberal (in the John Stuart Mill sense of the term) wings of the Liberal Party. Then there are the Nationals, whose support is essential for a viable Coalition government.
That’s why Joyce laughed so loud and for so long when Turnbull ridiculed Labor leader Bill Shorten in parliament on Wednesday. Joyce needs a successful Liberal leader for him and his colleagues to remain in office. And the success of the Liberal Party depends on the ability of the Nationals to at least retain their seats. In the main political battleground, Bernardi’s conservative movement is very much a bit player