Last weekend I encountered Cory Bernardi at the Bolt Report Christmas party. He’s a nice bloke: affable, serious, patriotic: a bit like his doppelganger, Sam the American Eagle from The Muppet Show. He’s the darling of many conservatives because he is intelligent and thoughtful, and there’s no doubt he’s sincere in his beliefs about his Trumpian brand of populist conservatism and its appeal to disaffected Middle Australia. That he’s articulate and telegenic is a bonus for him and his cause.
Today’s front page yarn by The Australian’s Sarah Martin, stating Bernardi is finally on the brink of leaving the Liberal party to found his own conservative alternative, is the latest round of speculation on Bernardi’s intentions that has been around since Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Tony Abbott fifteen months ago. He has become the face of disaffected Liberals unhappy with Turnbull, unhappy with the party, and frustrated with the Left’s dominance of the media and political agenda.
To be fair, Bernardi did not speak to Martin, and the Oz story essentially relies on ‘friends’ and ‘fellow Liberals’ speculating on Bernardi’s intentions to go it alone very soon. Others have commented on the similar signals from maverick North Queensland MP George Christiansen, who seems to believe that an appalling photo on the cover of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine makes him a political oracle and sex symbol. That Fairfax set him up with his eager cooperation doesn’t seem to matter to George.
The longer this sort of destructive, debilitating speculation drags on, the centre-right cause is being weakened, and the Liberal party rent by division that increasingly looks to be electorally fatal. This is no longer about Turnbull, a weak leader who, having so long coveted the top job, has shown no evidence that he ever knew what he wanted to do with it.
The stakes are now the viable future of the Liberal and Nationals as a powerful, viable centre-right force for good in Australia that balances mainstream social conservatism with economic liberalism, and deplores rank populism, intolerance and extremism in all their forms – Left and Right.
Bernardi’s ‘will I or won’t I’ game is doing nothing but giving heart to the Left and ensuring Bill Shorten and his unrepentant, unreformed Labor Party destroys the Coalition government at the next election – whoever its leader.
If you want a precedent, just think the ALP and the Split of the mid-1950s, and how that kept Labor in the wilderness for a decade and a half. The sustained Bernardi and One Nation challenge from the Right can – no, will – condemn the Liberals to a similar fate.
Bernardi would do better to stay inside the Liberal tent and continue to agitate from within to help the party rediscover what it stands for. But if he is to go, the sooner he does the better. That at least would allow the Liberals two years to regroup and try to stay competitive with Labor before the next election.
Whatever the truth of today’s latest speculation, it’s got to come to a head. The Hamlet act must end. Bernardi must either shit or get off the pot.