In less exciting times, many in the Liberal Party – probably most – would have viewed the defection of Cory Bernardi with more relief than dismay. Understandably, they regard the South Australian senator as a royal (or at least monarchist) pain in the arse.
Apart from the nuttiness of his ideas, the man has been serially disruptive and distracting, regularly undermining and sniping at his leader, constantly demanding, hectoring and threatening to leave if he is not to be appeased (which, under the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull, has been the invarying response).
Bernardi is not, to put it mildly, a team player. Few will regret the fact that he has jumped off the boat. Good riddance.
And in practical terms, it will make little difference to the tangled web of government. Another maverick in the senate is several more than Turnbull would like, but as long as Bernardi does what he has always done – support the government on everything that matters, which, given Turnbull’s threadbare and increasingly conservative agenda will likely be the case – there will be no more problems than there would already be, which means plenty.
Bernardi would only become a crisis point if he is to be joined by others, but there is no sign of that: the most likely prospect in the lower house, the far north, far right populist National Queenslander George Christensen has made it clear that he is not going to play second fiddle to a South Australian ex-neo Liberal, and why would he? Christensen is comfortably ensconced in the waiting room , anticipating the next National Party ministerial vacancy. And, like Bernardi, he can apparently get just about anything he wants from the leadership anyway.
And although Bernardi has nearly five and a half years to lounge on the red leather seats of the cross bench, it is hard to see what he can do to enlarge his Australian Conservative Movement – it is not yet, and may never be, a party. South Australia is a very crowded piece of political real estate: Nick Xenophon has corralled most, if not all, of the Croweater protest vote, And if there is any room on the fringe, Pauline Hanson is pawing at the ground.
Bernardi’s brand of conservatism is not the same as either Xenophon’s nor Hanson’s. but it is, if anything, less appealing: while they espouse nationalism, including protectionism, Bernardi is a hard line free-enterpriser. He may pick up a few aliens from beyond the lunar right, but it is hard to see anything approaching serious support.
And as for his vision of turning his obesessions into a national movement – well, good luck with that. Given the grid lock of independents vying for senate positions, Bernardi’s disciples would be trampled in the crush – unless, of course, he can bite Gina Rinehart, as the rumours have suggested. As Clive Palmer and Malcolm Turnbull can attest, even if you can’t buy an election, you can pay for a sizeable chunk of votes. So although Bernardi’s crusade cannot be dismissed out of hand, it should not cause a stable government to stay awake at nights.
But, as we said at the start,, this would be the case in less exciting times. Malcolm Turnbull’s is not a stable government; it clings on to a one seat majority in the House of Representatives and a minority on the senate. This does not mean that it is in imminent danger of defeat, but it so does mean that a split, however trivial, is a real threat to its internal structure: the schism has been laid bare, the pretence of unity is shattered. And more importantly, Turnbull’s own authority, such as it is, has been weakened.
Which is, presumably, why he was desperate to build it up, if not for the public, at least for his own troops — not through bold and challenging policy prescriptions which they would have neither understood nor appreciated, but through pure theatrics.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister finally unleashed his political animal – indeed, his political wild beast. Apparently triggered by Bill Shorten’s taunts about being out of touch and the line about Mr Harbourside Mansion (the insult coined by Tony Abbott’s fierce political warrior Peta Credlin), Turnbull hit back with all guns blazing. Shorten was a parasite, a social climber, a simpering sycophant, blowing hard in the parliament and sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne.
There was none of the lethal wit of Paul Keating, the rapier thrusts of the soufflé that would not rise twice, or the sheep who attempted to maul him: it was more in the mould of Mark Latham’s conga line of suckholes. This was no holds barred stuff, kicking, biting and gouging – a parliamentary cage fight. The message was that Shorten was an upstart, a parvenu who had no business moving in the same exalted circles which Turnbull inhabited as a right.
This was a trifle confusing: wasn’t moving higher up the ladder of opportunity and ambition the highest ideal for which Australians could aspire? If not, what was the point of it all? Was Turnbull saying that Shorten and his like should stay in their places, that class and caste were divinely ordained? The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, he ordered their estate, as the old hymn reminds us?
But of course logic had as absolutely nothing to do with it; it was all about aggro, and the government troops and their media supporters roared their lusty approval. And there was no doubt that it was a memorable performance. But – and it’s a big but – it will probably not help Turnbull with the next Newspoll, where the coalition is now trailing by a dismal eight points.
All the evidence is that while parliamentary brawling may gee up the troops and can be a somewhat guilty pleasure for the masses, in the end the voters are not impressed: they would actually prefer a bit more gravitas, and (dare one say it?) a vision for the future. The great parliamentary brawlers, Keating, Latham and Abbott all gained a sugar hit in the short term, but in the end they were resented and discarded.
But perhaps Malcolm Turnbull is simply taking his cue from Cory Bernardi: who cares about the bloody voters. It’s all about me, me, me
Mungo MacCallum is a former senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery.