Cory Bernardi is not a team player. He thinks he can have one foot in conservative Australia and the other on the further-right lunatic fringe. This is why when Muslims rioted recently, he thought his hour had come; and why when the House of Representatives voted on gay marriage, he thought he was being useful in linking gay and lesbian relationships to bestiality. Now he has slunk away to depressed Europe to meet with resurgent representatives of the lunatic fringe, hoping that they can show him where he's gone wrong in failing to get the country behind him.
Bernardi raises funds separate to the Liberal Party in order to fund activities that bring far-right activities into the mainstream, such as Menzies House, and his trips - if he had travelled under Parliamentary travel allowances, where he stayed and who he met with would all have to be disclosed. Travelling on his own slush funds, he doesn't answer to anyone.
Bernardi is stuck with the epithet "shadowy"; I can't think of a Federal Labor MP who can be described similarly, now that all the old commos and spivs have gone. Recent preselection victories have strengthened Bernardi's hand in the SA Liberals, and he is making life more difficult than it need be for SA Liberal State Leader Isobel Redmond. Even his former mentor Nick Minchin contemplates Bernardi with his face in his hands, like Dr Frankenstein helplessly watching his monster crush, kill, destroy. Abbott does not have the power to get rid of Bernardi altogether; John Howard insisted on and got the ability to punt errant Liberal MPs in the late '90s, which Abbott has never had and it's too late for him to demand it now.
The right-wing has lost a trusted number on the Coalition frontbench at a time when it should not only be vindicated, but be in the driver's seat to press the Coalition's polling advantage toward the election. It cannot afford to concede anything when their man Abbott is weakened and the only alternatives - Turnbull, Hockey, Julie Bishop - are to his left. Bernardi's replacements on the Coalition front bench, Sinodinos and Briggs, are not as committed/beholden to the right as Bernardi.
Sinodinos is not able to reorient policy toward meeting the identified future needs of this country, as I've said before, and Briggs didn't get where he is either by departing from the idea that the Howard Government did everything right and everything that's happened since has been a comedown. Sinodinos might be great in the backrooms but he has never had to do the facework that he must do now, including presenting as Abbott's reasonable alter-ego to the media and the business community. The Howard restoration narrative has been strengthened, but a fat lot of good that will do them.
Sinodinos and Abbott would have worked closely in Howard's days, but this does not mean they are close personally. Part of Sinodinos' role would have been to hose down Abbott's wilder ideas, e.g. having Howard intervene on his side in nationalising the health system or maintaining his ministerial authority over RU486. Sinodinos gives Abbott a bit of a credibility lift but also restricts his freedom of action - but without the authority of Howard directly behind him, and without a powerbase of his own in the Liberal Party, Sinodinos will have to bluff for Australia in order to rein in Abbott, particularly as he gets more and more rattled as the election approaches.
Plenty of Turnbull's constituents will be angry with him for voting against marriage equality. The vote went down 42-98; had it been closer Turnbull's position with his voters would have been difficult, if not untenable. None of the ten MPs who were absent from the vote would have made a difference, and until the vote comes up again (in the next Parliament) it is futile speculating about who else might have changed their vote had they been able to do so. The size of the defeat dissipates any anger that may be directed at any one MP. Abbott has done Turnbull a favour, however inadvertently, and for now there is nothing for Turnbull to gain by resigning from his frontbench or flouting his authority.
Advocates of gay/lesbian marriage now have the information you need in politics: who's on side, who's offside, and who you need to talk to. There was a time, not far distant, when they would not have been able to get four votes; it is likely that the next Parliament will yield the remaining 34, to secure a majority, to pass such a vote.
Abbott does not look like a tough guy in seeking and getting Bernardi's resignation. He looks like the decision has been forced upon him. Bernardi was his choice in that most personal frontbench role. Bernardi has said nothing with which Abbott fundamentally disagrees: that the Muslim riots were distasteful and that gay relationships do not deserve the public sanction of marriage are Abbott's positions too.
The bestiality stuff is no more over-the-top than the sort of thing Barnaby Joyce says in any given week. Yet again, Joyce gets away with it and Coalition-members-other-than-Joyce who speak similarly get canned. This does not endear people to the Dear Leader, but builds resentment - even for those who aren't Bernardi fans. This position can be described with a word that Bernardi, Abbott and other Liberals would bristle at: unsustainable.
The idea that Abbott looks like a sensible moderating influence by getting rid of Bernardi? Oh please, it's way too late for that. If Abbott were to win Bernardi would be back, larger than life and twice as ugly (in terms of being in charge of taxpayer-dollars and regulations and all that government stuff).
So what happens now?
- Abbott either has his wings clipped by Sinodinos, or else he asserts the authority of his office and wrecks the value proposition that those who brought Sinodinos into politics from a comfortable low-profile corporate career would seek to add;
- The arguments against Turnbull replacing Abbott as leader (e.g. too negative in attacking the government on every issue! not a team player!) have been weakened while the countervailing arguments have been strengthened;
- The Liberal right will extract some concession from Abbott that makes up for the loss of Bernardi, and it will not necessarily come at a time of Abbott's choosing or at a time when moderate and non-partisan voters prepared to consider voting Liberal are diverted away from political decision-making;
- The next generation of Liberals, wasting away on the backbench and unsure about Abbott, are neither convinced that they just have to accept the decisions that Abbott has taken about frontbench positions and nor are they formulating a detailed and attractive set of policies to govern this country. They are still in no-man's-land, but - bless 'em! - they think they are in with a chance; and
- All this leaves Abbott looking like, in e.e.cumming's deathless phrase, an arse on which everything has sat except a man; a man with many big problems and few options with which to solve them.
From the old-school perspective of managing the daily news cycle, Abbott started the day with a problem and finished it with the problem solved. The fact that both problem and resolution fed the very narratives that are eroding the Liberals' credibility and feeding longterm decline in support is a problem that old-school media management people can neither airily dismiss nor adequately solve.
Today was not a diversion for the Libs that strengthened Abbott. Today was a day that saw Labor split but the Coalition united on the floor of the House. Labor people looked committed to their position yet bemused, like people who have agreed to disagree and leave it there. Abbott showed that his actions are not decisive, an ultimately fatal position for a leader. Today showed the Liberals lack a leader with the strength and common purpose to unify them.
On a completely unrelated note, it was so nice to see so many people at Greg Jericho's Sydney promotion for his excellent book The Rise of the Fifth Estate; and later to dine with such excellent company.