What becomes of the broken-hearted
Bernardi has some capacity to make inroads into the Coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, but only after the Turnbull government has gone. Nobody, not even George Christensen, wants to do to the extant government what Jack Beasley or Vince Gair did to Labor back in the day. Bernardi may be able to lord it over the churchmice who run Family First, but there are limits to his political reach and skill.
In South Australia, losses at state and federal level will see out the Liberals. Pyne and Marshall are not strong enough to hold out for long against a concerted movement by both Bernardi and Xenophon, not even if Pyne shakes down defence contractors for campaign funds. Say what you will about Xenophon, but he's tougher, smarter, and more deft at both policy and tactics than Pyne. Every step Pyne took to the right to maintain his place under Abbott and survive all that sniping from Minchin is erased by Bernardi.
The Liberals in WA (the most right-wing division of the party) are in disarray, discredited after so long in state government and little to show for the boom but debt. WA's normally strident business community is weakened and cannot afford to antagonise the new state Labor government, nor discount the prospect of a federal one. Once Cormann is gone, and Dame Rachel Cleland dies, who will block Liberal ears to the siren call of AusCons?
Michael Kroger has almost succeeded in his life's work of ridding the Victorian Liberals of Hamerite moderates. Liberal preselections are beset by such dire candidates they make Sophie's Choice look straighforward. Whatever doubts Daniel Andrews may have are surely allayed by the unshakeable commitment by Kroger, Matthew Guy and Inga Peulich to douse their party in voter repellent. Once they lose three or four federal seats and get belted on Spring Street, they will embrace Bernardi like the old VFL used to snaffle Magarey Medallists - especially if Bernardi gets Bolt on board.
The ACT Liberals are pretty much Bernardi people anyway. Zed is one good lunch away from throwing in his lot with Bernardi, or he'll lose to the Greens and the party structure will switch to AusCons bag and baggage. The NT's CLP might take a detour via Hanson but they will end up in his camp sooner or later.
All of the above scenarios, and the ones in the preceding post, show the one thing required for Bernardi to succeed politically: a vacuum.
In Tasmania, Abetz and Lambie will see off Bernardi. As the Hodgman government fades, a conservative may appear who doesn't like Abetz and won't play second-fiddle to Lambie, and may turn to Bernardi: there are too many variables for that to even postulate now.
The Queensland LNP was formed to secure state government, keeping control in gnarled rustic hands while presenting a civil face to the urban south-east. They only succeeded once. Once. What happens if they get smashed, not just by a Labor government but one led by women! Two of them! Re-establishing the Liberal Party's Qld division and the non-national Nationals won't be an option.
Queensland is a long way from South Australia, but Bernardi can speak slowly and it isn't like he's from Sydney or Melbourne. Some LNPers may drift to AusCons if the scenarios with Katter and Hanson come off, but again there are too many variables.
This leaves NSW.
There are two factors operating in NSW. First, the Coalition is running a functioning, popular government, that is getting stuff done and solving problems. There are some right-wingers, but not enough to destroy the government with dogmatic focus on issues that don't matter and neglect of those that do. Right-wingers like Dominic Perrottet and Anthony Roberts are on a sweet wicket, and nothing Bernardi says or does will entice them away from their current roles.
The second is the current federal member for Warringah. Abbott was never a factional leader, but he's had to become a figurehead because the Liberal right in NSW are such monkeys. He can't sit around Canberra or go jogging or do whatever else he does with any confidence that his homeboys are minding the shop.
Whenever you see the press gallery insisting that Abbott is lunging for his old job, know that he's flat out securing his own preselection. Preselection (the process by which a party endorses a candidate to run for a parliamentary seat) is basic political competence, one of those fundamental skills upon which higher-order operations depend. Even the newest, lowliest backbencher has won preselection.
Murdoch TV personality Ross Cameron was the little brother Abbott never had. He spent eight years as MP for Parramatta on Abbott, like those betas who trail around behind school bullies. Cameron should be one of Abbott's chief lieutenants within the NSW Liberals, but instead he has fallen foul of a basic rule that has seen him suspended from the party for five years. Quite why Murdoch TV regard him as some sort of sage is unclear to me. Another of Abbott's posse, Jokus Ludicrous, is facing similar disciplinary action because of similarly basic stupidity. Abbott's bestie, David Gillespie, is under threat of losing his seat over yet another basic act of dumbness.
Those guys should be supporting Abbott, not putting themselves in need of support. After 23 years in Parliament, he should have a tight-knit band of professionals who head off any threat to his political survival and keep the home fires burning. Abbott fans will tell you what a great guy he is, and how his staff love him, but if the guy can't keep preselection in Warringah then he's fundamentally weak and probably even more of a prick than I think he is. Canberra is brutal at exposing and homing in on political weakness, and no weakness is more fundamental than preselection: the result of building a team in your local branches that is both loyal and effective.
Here is where the idea that Turnbull is worse than Abbott falls down. For all his limitations, Turnbull can hold his preselection against all comers. He has a loyal and effective base within his local branches. Whatever travails he may have with Dutton or Shorten or Trump, his base is sufficiently solid so that he can act on the national stage.
The idea that the government are going to elect a leader who can't be sure his own branches are behind him is stupid, an idea advanced only by people who don't understand politics and have no business reporting on it. Abbott might feel more at home in a party that consisted only of conservatives - but it wouldn't be a governing party. He fancies his chances at winning a wider constituency, and to do that you need to be in an established party with a track record of being in government - like, say, the Liberal Party as it is currently constituted.
If Bernardi offered Abbott a role within AusCons it would be a comedown for both men. Bernardi can lord it over Gichuhi or Carling-Jenkins, but Abbott is a different beast. Would Abbott be a net gain to the AusCons?
If Turnbull and Berejiklian lost office then the right would be out for revenge - but they are so stupid they would fuck that up too, and activate the party's "let's not be hasty" mindset that saw them lose state government for 16 years. There might be a few individuals and even a few Liberal branches that might defect to AusCons, but so what? The defection of, say, Walter Villatora might not be the coup Bernardi's people might want the press gallery to believe.
Follow the money
Bernardi was unsuccessful in securing money from the US right, such as the Koch brothers (the real reason for his trip to New York last year, to the point where questions should be asked about his publicly-funded trip and its impact on Australia's representation at the UN). He might be more successful if the Republicans lose Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, and those donors spread more of their funding internationally.
Bernardi won't be able to conduct fundraising and parliamentary business simultaneously, but who would he trust to raise the money? Where is his Santamaria? Where, apart from his wife is his sounding board?
Any liquidator will want to make sure his party's financial management is even tighter than his message discipline. Even the whiff of impropriety will repel potential and current members, and will invalidate any of the prospects described here for Bernardi's and AusCons' future. The Liberal Party will not take kindly to having its money switch with members to AusCons.
Why Bernardi can't win in the long term
When you're a liquidator/administrator, you don't have a long-term stake in the business you're taking over. The dream that inspired the business and motivated those within it is over: those people may weep as you take their security passes and send them home. You stop the bleeding and focus on the short-to-medium term interests of the stakeholders, who all have unequal importance when dividing what's left of the loot.
Bernardi's wish for an equal-but-opposite broad social base for conservatism is doomed:
- Workers join unions to secure better wages and working conditions; there is no countervailing broad movement for less and worse, especially as the Reserve Bank and the Business Council realise the economic impacts of consumers withholding spending.
- Progressive social movements seek to force change on politicians often unwilling to grant it; few will work as hard or as long to retain stasis.
- Even conservative women bristle at being patronised, denied opportunities open to male counterparts, and/or subjected to violence. Countervailing forces to feminism are weak and yield when pushed or even exposed.
- And while there is countervailing force to same-sex marriage, there appears to be no fallback option should it ever come to a vote and pass the parliament. It's hard enough to maintain one's own marriage let alone interfere in those of others.
- Centrist stasis, moderate liberals in ever more pointless set-piece quadrilles with Centre Unity Labor, achieving little of real import; or
- A hopelessly riven polity that talks past one another, as we see in the US; or
- There is no third option. Conservatives do black/white only. As Tony Abbott shows us, nuance is for sissies and losers.
We live in an age of great upheaval, and conservatives are people looking for timeless continuities when everything seems nasty, brutish, and short. Bernardi says he's a conservative, and for all I know he may live a traditional life in Adelaide's more sylvan glades, but it isn't enough. As per the dot-points above, he doesn't have a long-term agenda. Where are the institutions that might buttress enduring human interests: the church? Government? Western Civ expressed through arts institutions?
Thanks to publicly-subsidised education at Sydney and Oxford, Tony Abbott can drop Western Civ references from Augustine to Zwingli - but he doesn't live those values. He can't show conservative voters how to do so, nor persuade non-conservatives why it's desirable (remember his proposal for hard-to-dissolve covenant marriages?). Bernardi can't just do old-school scolding, hoping tradition will back him up. If he gets Abbott in the tent, he cedes control, but without Abbott he runs a boutique operation beneath his ambition.
Once he assembles a ramshackle gang (with or without Abbott), Bernardi will have to keep them together and focused on some long-term goal that's bigger than all of them. There is no proof Bernardi has leadership skills. There is no proof he has a strong team outside parliament offering depth of perspective and a sounding board, as the major parties do with their executives. I've explained his lack of a long-term agenda. What he's doing is clearly working for some in the current, transitory environment; but to use a phrase much used by hippies, it's just not sustainable.