Cory Bernardi probably thinks he’s an Australian Ronald Reagan. With an almost messianic approach, he believes he is uniting a conservative base made up of mostly disaffected Liberals. In reality, he’s less like Reagan and more like Tom Tancredo- don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him, he’s about as relevant to Washington as Bernardi is to Canberra.
Sure he’s had a shocking start to his new party, with Senator Lucy Gichuhi defecting to the Liberals in February and last week Dennis Hood in the South Australian upper house following suit. But his problems are more deep-seated than that. For all of his talk about disillusioned Liberals, he actually doesn’t have much of a base. In his home state of South Australia he managed to get only 3.5 per cent of the vote and in December the conservative ‘no voting’ electorate of Bennelong gave him only 4.3 per cent at a by-election. So let’s not over-inflate Bernardi’s importance. He runs a micro-party about on par with the Christian Democrats or Shooters and Fishers.
So where does the silent conservative majority currently fit within the Australian political discourse? All the evidence suggests that the base is sticking with the Liberals. Liberal Party membership across all states has not declined since the formation of the Australian Conservatives. Liberal Party members inherently believe in the two-party system. They are pragmatic and want to win elections. They believe that the Liberal Party is best to defend our principles of smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise and individual liberty. Bernardi points to his growing membership numbers but these members are not coming at the expense of the Liberal Party. His figures are either overinflated or have not in any way translated into electoral success.
While Bernardi is not a Reagan he’s also not a Trump. He’s too bland, too dry and too supportive of free trade to ever be compared to the colourful Donald Trump. Those voters concerned about globalisation and our national identity are more likely to vote for One Nation than his free-market conservatives. Any quick analysis of the electoral map will show that Hanson rather than Bernardi resonates in regional and ‘rustbelt’ Australia.
It was also revealed last week that conservative Christians aren’t flocking to Bernardi in the same way they did with Family First. A further complication in NSW is that Bernardi needs to compete with Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats. Reverend Nile has a longstanding preference arrangement with the NSW Liberals and currently has two upper house seats. There’s also the Liberal Democrats, DLP, Australian Liberty Alliance and Rise Up Australia parties all challenging Bernardi for the far right vote.
Despite Bernardi’s rhetoric that the Liberals are in trouble, it is his party that has gone backwards. With only one lonely upper house Victorian and his own vote in the Senate, Liberals don’t need to take him too seriously.
But what of the supposedly larger problem of 30 consecutive Newspoll losses under Turnbull? Many in the right-wing commentariat blame these results on Turnbull losing the base. While there is an assumption that the base loves conservative Abbott and despises progressive Turnbull, this is massively overplayed. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll over the weekend showed that 74 per cent of Coalition voters want to stick with Malcolm Turnbull as leader while only 21 per cent are hankering for a change. John Howard has also recently made comments urging the Liberal Party to stick with Turnbull.
The problem is that the base is difficult to define. A young entrepreneur living in Double Bay who wants lower taxes is as much a part of the base as an elderly Australian in the outer suburbs who listens to talkback radio and dislikes Chinese foreign investment. We too often think that the base is only the latter. Almost everyone, not least Abbott, mistakenly believes that the base is more conservative than it actually is. Interestingly it was ultra-safe Liberal seats like Wentworth, Higgins, Goldstein and Warringah that voted over 75 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage. Only three Liberal electorates voted No and even then by small margins.
The last federal election was also the only election in Australia’s history where the party that formed Government won neither New South Wales nor Victoria. Cosmopolitan Turnbull only won the election because he gained supermajorities in the conservative states of Queensland and Western Australia.
It’s an incredibly lazy analysis to continually push the line that Turnbull has lost the base to Bernardi because he’s more moderate than Abbott. The mainstream media may like to run with the story because it sells papers or website clicks and the Abbott forces like pushing the line out of revenge, but it doesn’t stack up. If it’s all about that base then Turnbull certainly still has it.
Christopher Rath is on the State Executive of the NSW Liberal Party.
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