The resignation of South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi from the Liberal Party came at the worst possible time for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – on the day of the resumption of Federal Parliament for 2017, and just after the latest Newspoll put the Coalition 8 percentage points behind Labor.
Senator Cory Bernardi
The resignation was not unexpected. Senator Bernardi publicly criticised the Prime Minister over the political execution of Tony Abbott in 2015, and has long chafed over having to support publicly government policies he privately opposes.
Senator Bernardi is a social conservative who has been outspoken on issues such as same-sex marriage, the “Safe Schools” program, repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, global warming, immigration (particularly from Islamic countries), excessive taxation and other issues.
He spent three months last year in the United States at the time of the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, and has repeatedly spoken about the Trump victory and the Brexit vote as a revolt of the alienated middle class against the political elites and the media – the same elites who run the major parties in Australia.
Speculation had mounted for months before Senator Bernardi publicly announced to the Senate that he was resigning from the Liberal Party, and would establish a new political party, the Australian Conservatives, to contest Senate elections.
He said: “The level of public disenchantment with the major parties, lack of confidence in our political process and concern about the direction of our nation is very strong. This is a direct product of the political class being out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people …
“It really is time for a better way; a conservative way … And so today I begin something new, built on enduring values and principles that have served our nation so well for many decades.
“It is a political movement of Australian Conservatives … a community of individual Australians who will share their unique gifts and talents to chart a better way.
“We will be united by a desire to create stronger families, foster free enterprise, limit the size and scope and reach of government whilst seeking to rebuild civil society.”
While Senator Bernardi called on others to join him, he acted unilaterally – without consultation with other members of his own party who share his values. He undoubtedly was aware that none of them was willing to join him.
In fact, his resignation weakens the position of social conservatives within the parliamentary Liberal Party by removing from their ranks one of their most articulate members.
In the party room, the withdrawal of Senator Bernardi strengthens the hand of the left-liberals within the Liberal Party. Their presence has been shown in the push to have the Liberal Party reverse its policy on same-sex marriage, to support Labor’s demand for a parliamentary vote.
Fortunately, the combined strength of socially conservatives Liberals and the National Party blocked the move – assisted by the fact that Mr Turnbull has only a wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives that would be imperilled by a U-turn on a marriage plebiscite.
Senator Bernardi faces a number of problems in launching his new political party. Unlike Pauline Hanson, who has One Nation, he does not have an established party structure, which is necessary to turn aspirations into reality. He does have a reported 50,000 people on his email database, and will undoubtedly appeal to them to launch his new party, but it will not be easy.
Existing political parties already occupy much of the space which Senator Bernardi hopes to occupy: the National Party, Family First, One Nation, the Christian Democrats, the DLP and others have already marked out parts of that territory.
In his home state of South Australia, he faces the additional obstacle of the Nick Xenophon Party, which has cornered much of the protest vote against the major parties.
A curious development is the report that Senator Bernardi has engaged a leading member of Family First in South Australia, Rikki Lambert, as his chief of staff.
Mr Lambert is a long-serving and highly respected member of Family First, and served as chief of staff to Bob Day, the Family First senator who was forced to resign last year due to the collapse of his family companies.
There is a Senate vacancy for Family First, and Rikki Lambert has been expected to be the party’s candidate to fill the position.
If Senator Bernardi is unable to get a new party up and running, it is quite possible that he will join Family First, giving the party two seats in the Senate. Family First is a natural home for Senator Bernardi: conservative on social issues and libertarian on economic policy.
With 10 years’ experience in Parliament, Cory Bernardi would undoubtedly give the party considerable political clout, particularly in the Senate.