Senator Cory Bernardi’s grand dream of building a new grassroots party on the right of Australian politics to take on the major parties looks decidedly shaky based on the party’s performance in recent elections.
The South Australian-based MP formed his party in February of last year, as a breakaway from the Liberals, with whom he had been periodically at war for many years.
Momentum at the start was strong, with Bernardi quickly gathering upwards of 10,000 paid-up members and merging with the socially conservative Family First party in South Australia.
With the slogan, “Common Sense Lives Here”, Bernardi was also able to capitalise on a large number of disaffected Liberal supporters who found life problematic under Malcolm Turnbull. (Although it must be remembered that Senator Bernardi also had several run-ins with Tony Abbott when Mr Abbott was prime minister.)
However, the only real test of a political party is at the ballot box. Indeed, Canberra Observed, while cautiously optimistic about Bernardi’s prospects at the start, warned as much last year.
“The rapid rise of the Australian Conservatives has been the result of it being a conduit for disaffected Coalition supporters, for conservatives who no longer feel they have a voice, and for Australian patriots who want to believe their country has a future in a globalised world,” was the view taken back in July 2017.
“Bernardi himself is keen to cast himself and his movement as ‘anti-politician’, and this has helped garner support, but in the end only the ballot box will count, and getting more members elected will be the real test.”
But so far, success at the ballot box has eluded the new party.
Competing against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, David Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats and other independents, the Australian Conservatives depends largely on Senator Bernardi’s energy and ideas for success.
Mid last year the party had four members in Australian parliaments. Since then, its representation has dropped. One of the two former Family First MPs in the South Australian Parliament, Dennis Hood, defected to the Liberal Party shortly after the recent SA election, leaving only Bernardi himself and former Democratic Labour Party MLC in the Victorian Parliament, Rachel Carling-Jenkins.
Hood fired a parting shot at Senator Bernardi, predicting that the Australian Conservatives would have “no impact” on state politics.
“They received just over 3 per cent of the first-preference votes in the lower house, which is not going to get anyone anywhere,” Hood said after the SA election result.
And the Australian Conservatives were dealt another blow when the Labor Party nudged out the party’s sole remaining MP, Robert Brokenshire, for final spot in the South Australian upper house, which means that the party’s representation has effectively been halved in its first real election campaign, and in the party’s home state.
In the SA election, the Australian Conservatives fielded 33 candidates, but afterwards there were claims that many of these were phantom candidates put forward by the Liberal Party to garner conservative preferences.
Bernardi said he felt “white-anted” by the behaviour of Australian Conservatives colleagues.
News Ltd columnist Miranda Devine described as “less than impressive” the party’s performance in both the South Australian election and the Batman and Bennelong by-elections.
Coalition Assistant Minister Michael Sukkar, a prominent Victorian Liberal, has called on Bernardi to deregister his party. Sukkar said the fledgling party should “call it a day” after its recent polling efforts.
In Batman, the Liberals did not run a candidate, yet the Australian Conservatives candidate Kevin Bailey managed just 6.37 per cent of the vote. At the 2016 federal election, the Liberals had managed 20 per cent of the vote in Batman.
In the Bennelong by-election, the Liberals obviously did run their sitting member John Alexander, who won 45 per cent of first preferences, but Australian Conservatives candidate Joram Richa secured only 4.29 per cent of first preferences.
Senator Bernardi is unique because he is a genuine social conservative, but also economically a dry.
Some would argue that this is ultimately an unworkable political philosophy in the sense that unfettered markets tend to consider individuals as economic units and overlook the contribution of families and communities to their great detriment.
In other words, no minimum wage, unregulated trading hours and labour markets, the outsourcing of child care from the family unit to the state and so on, all positions that work against the protection of the basic institutions of society that social conservatives aim to achieve.
Ironically, it is in the highly competitive political market that Senator Bernardi is aiming to compete in, that the Australian Conservatives look to be losing out.