09 July 2017

Distressed assets, Part 1

Despite its both-sidesism, John Warhurst's piece on Senators Rhiannon and Bernardi is worth reading. I wish political commentary from the press gallery was half this good.

Warhurst makes some good points on Bernardi (and on Rhiannon too - balance!), and on Bernardi's wish for conservatism to become a movement that extends beyond parliament. I won't speculate on Rhiannon's wider game, but Bernardi's is interesting because it indicates a new development in Australian politics.

The pattern (from which Bernardi is departing)

The Liberal Party and the Nationals (including the Northern Territory's CLP and the LNP in Queensland) represent the enduring political institutions on the right of Australian politics. Right-wing parties operating beyond the Coalition tend to rise and fall with individuals and/or with short-term political predicaments that, when resolved, push the smaller party into oblivion.

Far-right white-supremacist parties tend to congeal around a leader: now Blair Cotrell, formerly Jim Saleam or Eric Butler or Francis de Groot. While this remains a virulent strain in Australian politics, it goes into remission without a disciplined leader, and relies heavily on the personal quirks of whomever has managed to herd those turkeys at any given time.

Slightly to the left of those guys, but mainly to the right of the Coalition, we have seen right-wing insurgencies from Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, Brian Harradine, Fred Nile, David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Rob Brokenshire, Clive Palmer, and others who slip my mind at this hour. They have all built political vehicles that got them elected and re-elected, and achieved not much else (I'm not counting pissed-off Coalition MPs who lose preselection, flounce to the cross-benches, and get flushed out of the political system at the next election).

Most were flashes in the pan. Harradine served in the Senate for a generation. Fred Nile is NSW's longest-serving MP; when he was elected in 1981, the state's current Premier and Opposition Leader were in primary school. Hanson, briefly an MP in the late 1990s, has returned after a career on life support from dying commercial media - but for how much longer?

The exception that proves the rule

The one right-wing movement that endured outside the Coalition and had a real effect on the Labor-Liberal "main game" was the Democratic Labor Party. It was formed out of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, orchestrated but not led by Bartholomew Augustine (Bob) Santamaria. It sought to represent conservative working people in line with Catholic teaching on labour representation and other social policies, including anti-communism; this placed them outside the ALP, which was not communist but also not as anti-communist as the Coalition.

The DLP held the balance of power in the Senate between 1955 and 1974, mostly passing government bills put to them with few or no modifications. They won a NSW state seat from 1973-76 because a Liberal minister forgot to lodge his nomination forms. It was considered a spent force after then, except in campus elections at Victorian universities.

The party was resurrected around the turn of the century by Archbishop George Pell, who wanted a distinctively Catholic voice within Australian conservatism.

Pell ramped up the DLP, with representatives elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council. He involved the Church in the Institute of Public Affairs, which was integrated with the Liberal Party in Victoria (and which promptly dropped libertarian positions on issues like abortion or euthanasia). Chris Berg was paid to write a book extolling the virtues of Western Civilisation, and put the Church at the heart of it; but in his hands a compelling, vibrant and eventful story became a damp grey mist. Pell wrote articles for Quadrant and served on its board. Catholic schools received more government funding than at any time in Australian history.

In 2003, Peter Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General because he had mismanaged instances of child abuse within Anglican church organisations for which he had been responsible. Howard briefly considered holding a royal commission into child sexual abuse within church institutions; Pell told him he would recreate sectarian divisions by such a move. Howard's lifelong political project was to unite conservatives across sectarian lines within the Liberal Party, so (as Pell knew) his words cut deep.

The DLP won a seat in the Senate, but John Madigan left the party before losing the seat. It may not have retained its place in Victoria's upper house at the state's next election, even had Pell not himself been charged with sexual offences against children. A subsequent royal commission, called by an atheist woman PM, showed the Catholic Church could not be trusted to run aspects of its affairs and that the application of secular law to practices within the Church would prevail over internal processes. The imbroglio over government funding of schools reached a consensus that funding Catholic schools would be reduced, and that they would not spend public money contrary to government guidelines.

In short, all that Pell hoped to achieve in Australian politics from reviving the DLP lies in ruins. He has the right to remain silent - but in politics as in law, anything he does say may be taken down and used against him.

Enter Cory Bernardi (but not in That Way)

When Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party he gave up his wish to unite broadly conservative forces within the Coalition, which had been his aim as recently as late last year. It was reasonable to assume that Bernardi would build up Australian Conservatives as just another vanity project, electing nobody but himself, and that it would die when either the voters of South Australia grew tired of him, or he of them.

Before entering parliament, Bernardi was an accountant specialising in insolvency. While standard Liberals talk about growth and opportunity, Bernardi's experience comes in once the go-getters have gotten and gone, following a very tightly regulated process. He has brought these skills to bear on distressed political assets on the right. Not since the Liberal Party was formed in 1944 has anybody bothered to do this in an ongoing, systematic way. Press gallery journalists look to shoehorn developments into clich├ęs and call it news, so it is disappointing but not surprising that they have missed this development.

Family First was the Protestants' attempt to match the DLP and get around Fred. They succeeded in electing Stephen Fielding and Bob Day to the Senate, but neither was capable of building the party beyond himself. Bernardi picked it up for a song. Having two Senators looks like momentum, like Chipp and Mason for the Democrats in 1977. It made up for his failure to secure funding from Gina Rinehart, and from the right-wing groups now reaping the billions they sowed into what is now the Trump Administration.

He did the same with the DLP, wiping both the Pell taint and the antediluvian irrelevance of Madigan. He gave Rachel Carling-Jenkins MLC with more options than a slow slide into irrelevance. He spread his wings beyond South Australia, which is more than small-l liberal Nick Xenophon could manage.

To pick Bernardi's next move, develop a nose for decay within what look like viable structures.

Bob Katter is 72 years old. Maybe he will want to keep travelling from balmy Charters Towers to chilly Canberra indefinitely, but maybe he won't; maybe the decision, one way or another, will be made for him.

Fred Nile is 83 this September. He has fought off successors within his own party, and the hacks and sycophants surrounding him now won't be able to run a chook raffle without him. If Bernardi comes calling they will hear him out at least.

Pauline Hanson won't hang around forever. For all the media opportunities created for her, she isn't exactly a media tart. She snarls at scrutiny and is awkward at stunts. These days her words are every bit as measured as the dullest major-party hack. In Parliament she does what the DLP did and basically votes with the government. One Nation's experience in WA showed she is clear about what she wants from her followers, but much less so about what she offers them in return. After all, the party is called Pauline Hanson's One Nation, not Your One Nation.

In the late 1990s she spent two-and-a-bit years as an MP. In 2004 the federal parliamentary pension scheme was closed to new entrants. Four-and-a-bit years from being elected to the Senate in 2016 she will hit the seven-year eligibility for that lucrative old-school parliamentary pension, which has always been her light-on-the-hill. On that day (in 2020/21) you won't see her for dust, gay Muslim Aboriginal wind-turbines or no. By then her boosters in commercial media will be even weaker than they are now - learning the lesson that if your product is crap, regulatory reform won't help you.

And yet, Hanson will still have a following. Bernardi will make them an offer they won't be able to refuse.

Either Danny Nalliah will give politics away, or he will sign on with Bernardi. He has no third option. Christians can't convincingly maintain the politics of turning away the stranger.

David Leyonhjelm would not give way to the slippery Helen D. His gunloser constituency in NSW overlaps with that of One Nation's Brian Burston. Either or both will give way to Bernardi when the time comes, or they will give over to Shooters & Fishers and leave Bernardi nothing to salvage.

Clive Palmer leaves no legacy, in business or politics. Jacqui Lambie was elected in her own right and works all sides of the political street, starving Hanson of oxygen in what should be a strong One Nation state. Lambie had guts and base enough to see Palmer off, and she can do the same to Bernardi.

Bernardi will be able to crystallise the supposedly large but disorganised movement of men upset with the Family Court, and against Rosie Batty's movement on domestic violence. Hanson has indicated her support for these, but as a divorced woman who had sought police protection from her exes, she is unconvincing. Were Mark Latham to throw in his lot with Bernardi (and face it, he has nowhere else to go either) it would be the biggest act of political self-abasement since Billys Hughes or Holman.


Tomorrow: will Bernardi cannibalise the Coalition? Does he have a long-term future?


  1. Bernardi threatened to leave the Coalition for so long and so many times, even you, Andrew, must have been surprised when he actually did it.

    About the IPA: I had not been aware of its changing its position. I try to avoid the IPA because it appears to be mostly composed of smarmy private school-educated twats who, despite never having known hardship in their lives, insist on pontificating about what the poor need.

    1. I certainly was! And yes, I thought it was a vanity project, but not being a press gallery journalist you have to look at what's going on rather than shoehorning the facts into a predigested narrative.

    2. James Patterson went to a state school, Mckinnon Secondary College here in Melbourne,

    3. Anonymous, McKinnon Secondary College is an ersatz 'private school', one of several dotted around the 'better' suburbs. Certain private school advantages without the fees.

    4. Postscript, his mother trolls Kelly O Dwyers page in attacking Daniel Andrews, all of the I.P.A get their families to do it..it's pretty sad and pathetic. I've noticed it on numerous occasions..hilarious.

    5. Clarification. I.P.A are far-right wing pretending to be small l liberals for the conservative morons that watch Bolt et al. No-one takes them seriously here, incidentally Alexander Downer's daughter, Georgina has joined their ranks which i find amusing to say the least. Poor daddy's gal couldn't steal the seat from Tim Wilson in Goldstein, not enough conservative old farts in Brighton to fight for her, i guess these bored housewives and older gay men find Tim more appealing and nicer on the eye...sex sells especially a gay 'power couple' with cute pugs to match...recent cover in the local paper here in Melbourne.

  2. Hey Andrew, as an ex libertarian punk, what does the future look for the i.p.a after the court case of Cardinel Pell? They're actually trying to raise funds for his legal fees..gobsmacking.

    1. The devil looks after his own, as they say

    2. They have two alumni in Tim Wilson and James Patterson, BOTH will re-invent themselves to get ministerial positions like Freedom boy is quickly doing to become a Minister.Currently Dr Chris Berg is still doing the rounds on The Drum...weirdo misfits of Melbourne. Conservatism is slowly dying a slow death...God help us all when Tim ever becomes Prime Minister one day...

  3. Andrew, your posts are like diamonds. Precious, and increasingly rare! Looking forward to part 2 :)

  4. Why wont you speculate on Rhiannon's wider game?
    Is it because you don't know or identify with the Greens, or because Rhiannon is small beer?
    I would be interested to read your take on their situation, if only because the press gallery apparently don't consider them a real party.

  5. "It made up for his failure in the to secure funding from Gina Rinehart, and from the right-wing groups now reaping the billions they sowed into what is now the Trump Administration."

    Great stuff; good to see the blog so active again... sorry to alert you to a typo - it's not really a worthy response to your efforts but at least you know you have an attentive audience