Senator Cory Bernardi is blitzkrieging the east coast at the moment, holding a series of meetings and interviews. I caught him in Brisbane last Wednesday, at a meeting attended by 450 plus people. Bernardi’s speech outlined the themes common to his vision and discussed in his book, ‘The Conservative Revolution’. The fundamental beliefs would be naturally understood by most Australians as common sense and are the underlying principles of liberal western democracy; people’s personal faith, the importance of family, a government that lives within its means and free enterprise.
The speech was well received with notable applause when he spoke about the abundance of green, red and blue tape holding business back and unnecessary duplication through government levels.
The crowd was a diverse mix of ages with the many young people in attendance challenging the consistently pushed media line that Labor and the Greens own the minds of the young.
For a Senator from another state, only having started a party five months previously, it was an outstanding response. The desire in the electorate for true conservatism in the political and social sphere is as strong as ever. If the atmosphere could be summed up in a few words, it would be hope and optimism. Conservatives have been frustrated at the Liberal/National coalition like a man waiting for a date to show up that’s never coming. Its gradual drift from away from conservative values is now at the point that its leader tells everyone that it was never a conservative party. ‘Thanks, O’Brien, I thought we’d always been at war with Eurasia, my mistake.’ After years of stop-start minor parties that seem to be centred on personalities, there is a hope that a truly inclusive conservative party can start to have real numbers and influence.
The support is clearly there, capitalising on it will be the first hurdle to overcome. A person on a seat and an earnest handshake doesn’t necessarily translate into members, donations or workers on the ground.
In The Weekend Australian, Chris Kenny has a great analysis of the situation with the Greens, their diminishing vote and the alarm bells being set off in their party. Within the article is some very interesting statistics regarding the fortunes of third party political forces in Australia with spooky comparisons between the Greens, the Australian Democrats and One Nation. There seems to be a plateau of somewhere close to 10 percent of the vote with a ceiling that’s hard to break. As Kenny observed:
The Greens’ apparent federal voting ceiling of just over 10 per cent closely matches the Australian Democrats’ 12.6 per cent in 1990 and One Nation’s 9 per cent in the 1998 federal election. Reborn now as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, it is polling 11 per cent nationally… This might be as far as you can get as a loosely arranged and ill-disciplined activist group; to grow further or have more influence, perhaps the Greens would need to evolve into a more accountable, predictable, representative and professional organisation. Leadership is also a factor for minor parties relying on the cut-through of their main spokesperson rather than an organised ground game.
This is an extremely interesting insight into the psyche of the Australian voting public and represents the greatest hurdle of all for Bernardi to overcome. After years of third parties, there are still two main games in town, the Coalition and Labor and even though their primary vote has slipped in recent years, they’re not going away anytime soon. They have been around for a long time and are very good at fending off political flanking manoeuvres. They have power and are not going to give it up without a ferocious fight.
A major problem with third parties is there is only so many protest votes to go around. Once the protest has been made and the major parties shift their policies to suit, the emergency is over and people go back to their comfortable voting patterns. For any third party to succeed long term they need penetration way beyond any protest vote and Australian Conservatives will not escape this requirement.
Kenny’s point about a well-organised ground game, rather than the cut through of a main spokesperson seems to be vital to this success. In terms of cold hard arithmetic, there are simply only so many people that are willing to even contemplate getting involved in politics, let alone actually doing anything about it.
A key to Bernardi’s future success is ensuring that the members he has are engaged and meaningfully so, because they don’t grow on trees. A replication of previous political outings with closed shop decision-making will only go so far as the political graveyard testifies.
Most Australians would be hard pressed to name a leader of the Democrats and if they’re under twenty you can pretty much forget it. Bob Brown is a fading political memory only held dear by those with green blood.
To avoid the same fate, Bernardi could well take note of Kenny’s observations to bust that ceiling and propel his party to levels of significant influence.
Illustration: Australian Conservatives.
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