... There were children crying and colors flyingThere was a time when a substantial proportion of the population was a member of a political party, when local branches actually were a representative sample of the community in a way that focus groups attempt but never quite succeed at recapturing. In such an environment, Cory Bernardi would have been an impossible candidate for office at the branch level, let alone state or federal. The creatures that live and thrive in a free-flowing river are different to those in a series of stagnant, shallow ponds.
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
They were flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home in the sun
- Neil Young After the gold rush
Inspired by the Tea Party and its Christianist forebears in US politics, Cory Bernardi is on a death-or-glory mission to do one of two things:
- drag the hollowed-out Liberal Party to the far right and bend it to his will, or
- (more likely) create such friction that he leaves with a name, a follower-base and a war-chest that will survive his ultimately being cast out of a major party, like Brian Harradine and Don Chipp did.
The Tea Party is not only notable for its ability to draw out idiots. It is notable for its ability to act as cover for large donors seeking to push legislation to advance their interests. This is what Hanson, Katter, and populists other than Palmer lacked: the ability to rabble-rouse and stay in the game.
Idiots tend not to have money and can't keep you going if you stumble; there is no positive narrative for simply doing what you're told by wealthy people. The Tea Party makes up for that, and the fact that it hasn't run out of puff yet inspires Bernardi. The fact that the Tea Party helped lose the Republicans the last two Presidential elections is neither here nor there - Bernardi has never been about advancing the Liberals over Labor. He is ambivalent about who's in government so long as he retains his own bully pulpit by whatever means.
Matthias Cormann visited the US and flirted with the Tea Party, but chose to get with the strength and is now in Cabinet. Over the next year or two Cormann will face a perfect storm politically - architect of unpopular cuts in Canberra, and in his home base in WA he will face the implosion of the Barnett government. Alex Hawke could have fulfilled the role that Bernardi is playing now, having been the heir to David Clarke's Christianist rabble, but by turning his back on Clarke he is playing a longer game even though Abbott doesn't trust him (Abbott's elevation of the equally distrusted Steve Ciobo offers hope to someone like Hawke). Bernardi has the field to himself, and there are political advantages and disadvantages in that.
Bernardi is a clever man who can rouse a rabble but who cannot persuade other equally clever people who take different views to himself. The reason why his travel entitlements claim is so extraordinarily high is because he has to travel far and wide to reach those who constitute his base, and who will sustain him once the Liberals grow weary of him. Let's hope he's not travelling on public expenses to promote a book whose proceeds will not go toward Liberal funds, or even Bernardi's pocket, but toward more rabble-rousing.
This profile usefully captures the embarrassment most Liberals feel toward Bernardi, but so long as he's inside the tent and bringing fringe preferences, he'll be tolerated. The bemusement that comes from Bernardi baiting easily-riled opponents of the government will evaporate once it becomes clear he is shaping perceptions by swinging voters, who were never fully convinced by this government anyway and whose support is desperately needed for it to stay in office.
Conservatives claim that centrist Liberals have a role in securing preferences from centrist parties but that they have an equally important role in securing preferences from Christianists, gunlosers, and racist anti-migrant groups. The election result put the lie to that, and conservatives bellyached that their people lost their places at the top table as a result of being passengers rather than drivers of victory. Less than a quarter of the swing away from Labor last September went to the Coalition - do you even know what Ricky Muir, Clive Palmer or Wayne Dropulich think about abortion?
Right now most conservatives are willing to place their faith on Abbott. The sheer absence of any actual achievements for conservatives will be noted by even the dumber ones at some point, and the hollowness of rhetoric from Maurice Newman and Bernardi. Conservatives were shafted when Abbott was handing out ministerial roles because they contributed nothing to the election result for the Coalition.
When Bernardi says he wants an "exchange of ideas", he means that he wants his opponents to exchange their ideas for his, no questions asked. In an exchange of ideas you take the chance that your own position may have to change in order to secure a result - this is the 'liberal' aspect of 'liberal democracy', and it's what clowns like this don't understand - if give-and-take only ever represents capitulation and loss, you're doing it wrong. His book contains no honest research, unlike other pro-family groups genuinely wrestling with issues like marital breakdown.
It's one thing to say, as Lenore Taylor and Andrew Porter have, that Bernardi is redefining the parameters of debate and making it easier for Abbott to look reasonably centrist when he adopts a right-wing position. This is what Abbott was thinking when he appointed Bernardi as his personal parliamentary secretary when in opposition, a gaambit that failed (here's what I wrote at the time). There are three reasons why this doesn't apply to what is happening now.
Firstly, abortion - Bernardi's chosen gambit - is an open question for very few Australians. Popular opinion has been pretty much fixed since the 1970s: it should be publicly available as and when required. Those who feel otherwise are few and not increasing as a proportion of the population, no matter how fervent they may or may not be or whether their number is adequate to support the Bernardis of this world. Bernardi also overreached when he went after blended families and workplace law reforms - not just because he's offensive, but because he obviously doesn't know what he's talking about.
The most powerful advocates against publicly available abortions are the churches. The churches do not have the power they once had, not only because of an increasingly secular and multicultural Australia but also because of their own failings (about which more in a later post), not the least of which are the sordid cover-ups and evasions arising from clerical and institutional child abuse. Bernardi cannot hope to fill the vacuum of authority in public debate left by incompetent archbishops. He can, however, fill the political vacuum left by Harradine and the Victorian DLP, one which Nile and Katter and Hanson grasp at but can never fully exploit.
Bernardi, a major-party incumbent, can be an ambassador from the Liberal Party to the fringe or the reverse. He is well positioned either way (or to put it slightly differently, he's all right Jack). This is why the SA Liberals were such mugs to hoist him atop their Senate ticket. The quality candidates within that outfit are not taking their chances in the big pond of national politics by taking on Bernardi, instead taking the surer shot on state politics ahead of this year's state election.
Secondly, Abbott's inner circle could not shut Bernardi up if they tried. They have given him no ministerial responsibilities to encourage him to be quiet, or at least to keep him busy. Bernardi is not a distraction from other issues with this government, like, for example, Morrison's increasingly weird humiliations of and petty self-defeating behaviour in the face of asylum-seekers. Modern media has more than enough bandwidth for more than one story at a time: old-timey news organisations, nostalgists who disdain social media, and press secretaries who aren't very good at their jobs, miss this important point.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Bernardi's intervention comes at the wrong time for Abbott. If Abbott was firing on all pistons and fulfilling all his major promises, popular or no, he would be in a strong position to bat away Bernardi's ravings as unrepresentative of the government. We would have a clear idea of who Abbott was and what he's about, and Bernardi would be seen clearly as inconsistent with that. As it stands, people are still wondering what this government is really up to and Bernardi is providing input to that opinion-forming process. The screaming from the attic cannot be unheard and inevitably spoils one's impressions of Mr Rochester and his parlour.
Again, SA Liberals putting him ahead of all other Senate candidates make it hard for the government to distance him from them. Contrast him with SA Labor's number one candidate: the party initially elected Don Farrell, who shared a lot of Bernardi's views. Farrell was replaced by Penny Wong, a politician capable both of principled stands and the give-and-take necessary to persuade those who are not party loyalists.
Abbott will eventually have to destroy Bernardi as he did Hanson. The difference is that Bernardi is smarter than Hanson and more inextricably part of the party organisation than Hanson was. Bernardi is a former state president of the SA Liberals, and though his old mentor Nick Minchin does not back him as strongly as he once did he has an established base within the party that Abbott can't reach. By contrast, Hanson was a member of the Queensland Liberals for less than two years, and was defenceless both from being expelled and from the flies who descended on her when her political career continued regardless. This necessity will not come at a time of Abbott's choosing.
Bernardi is playing a double game with the Liberals and the sooner they wake up to this, the better off they'll be. The fact that he gets away with this is a sign of weakness, not strength and confidence, on the Liberals' part. He imposes himself upon and defines them and not the other way around. When the Abbott government passes into history Bernardi, more than any other backbencher and even most ministers, will have played a role in its downfall. His career may well continue after Abbott has gone, just as Brian Harradine outlasted the Labor split and Whitlam. This is what Bernardi means when he talks about enduring values.