Current Issue #488

Cory Bernardi's conservative moment meets a quiet end

Senator Cory Bernardi

As Cory Bernardi farewells politics, how did it all go so wrong for South Australia’s warrior of the right?

This week Cory Bernardi announced his withdrawal from federal politics, resigning from the Senate just months after the dissolution of his short-lived breakaway party, Australian Conservatives.

In the 13 years since Bernardi was dropped into the Senate just before the 2007 federal election, the former hotelier turned financial advisor made a name for himself as one of the most polarising and outspoking culture warriors in Canberra. There were speedbumps, sure, such as Bernardi’s 2012 comment likening the push for marriage equality to bestiality and polygamy that proved too much even for the Liberal Party. But even these incendiary comments served a pointed purpose in the party’s Abbott-era rightward lurch: Bernardi’s rhetoric flourishes nudged the goalposts further outwards, while allowing Abbott to appear almost moderate by comparison. Well, almost.

That all changed in 2015 when Abbott’s unpopularity saw Malcolm Turnbull reclaim the Liberal leadership and become Prime Minister. As tensions broiled among the party’s right wing over Turnbull’s perceived moderating influence on issues of sexuality and climate policy – despite compromising on many of his own values to claim the top job – the prospect of a deep and irreparable split in the Liberal Party seemed plausible in 2016, when Turnbull’s muted election win failed to dampen insurrection from the south via Bernardi, and the north via Nationals MPs like George Christensen and Barnaby Joyce.

Energised by a UN secondment that saw him witness Trump’s America firsthand, Bernardi made his move in 2017, bailing on the Liberal ticket just after it gifted him another Senate term in the 2016 federal election. An early piece of political deal making saw his new Australian Conservatives party absorb South Australia’s other home grown brand of Christian conservatism, Family First. While on paper the merger had the makings of a new force in Australian politics, in execution Bernardi’s breakaway meant he was no longer an outspoken government backbencher, but just another loud character on the crossbench. And not one of those influence-wielding rogues like Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie – Bernardi’s impact was undermined by the fact he could, by and large, be relied upon to vote with his former party.

The 2018 South Australian state election proved an early challenge for the new Australian Conservatives, polling below Family First’s 2014 numbers as the state Liberals were returned to government. Attempts to branch out into the eastern states also failed to register with voters, even as Bernardi recruited former Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton, fresh from defeat during the marriage equality postal survey campaign.

But it was all rendered moot come August 2018, when the party’s remaining anti-Turnbull elements finally made their play without Bernardi. While Peter Dutton’s ill-advised bid to lead a coup against Turnbull failed, his machinations allowed Scott Morrison to leapfrog to the Prime Ministership with all the timing of a Pentecostal Steven Bradbury. Far from leading a split from the party, the Christian right had decisively reclaimed it. Bernardi had jumped too soon.

The Coalition’s unlikely turnaround at the 2019 federal election did confirm Bernardi’s hope that there is electoral power in the Australian Christian conservative vote. But, Morrison’s win demonstrated two things: that bloc lives in Queensland, and it’s best rallied by the kind of “one of us” pitch Morrison cultivated with his hopelessly contrived but exceedingly effective rebrand as daggy dad ‘Scomo’. By contrast, a southern interloper like Bernardi could not hope to compete – even with a blog titled Your Weekly Dose of Common Sense.

Despite the party’s electoral failure, gaining just 16 145 of the 156 404 votes required to gain one Senate seat, when retiring the Australian Conservatives brand in June Bernardi framed it as an overall win, telling ABC Radio Adelaide that “the Morrison Government victory and policy agenda suggests we are well on the way to restoring common sense in the Australian parliament.”

And he’s not exactly wrong: as Prime Minister Morrison has often been in step with the values Bernardi promoted, having made it a feature of his leadership to pointedly resist meaningful action on climate change even as vast tracts of the country burn, and point the finger at the wider Muslim community for acts of violence while standing by his own pastor Brian Houston long after it was revealed Houston covered up the sexual abuse of children. Having abstained from participating in the vote to legalise same sex marriage, Morrison now makes regular sport of squirming whenever trans and queer issues are raised, even leaping into action to publicly intervene when a Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet office posted a laminated sign declaring its bathrooms to be trans and non-binary friendly.

Which perhaps makes Bernardi’s political exit an ultimately hollow win for those he antagonised over 13 years. After all, with this kind of leadership, what need is there for someone like Cory Bernardi on the fringe?

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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