A Breakaway Conservative Party? Perhaps, But Questions Abound

WITH THE ELECTION result remaining unclear, much of the political discussion yesterday turned to the initiative of controversial Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi to start a group — the Australian Conservatives — to “unite Australian conservatives;” the initiative, supposedly able to exist inside the Liberal Party, may have merit, but questions regarding its breadth, depth, policy objectives and personnel are all concerns that must be resolved.

We have only ever discussed controversial conservative Liberal Party Senator Cory Bernardi twice in this column; once, four years ago, when I ripped into him over comments about gay marriage leading to sex and marriage with horses and goats and so forth, and once last year, in the aftermath of the majority decision of the US Supreme Court to legalise gay marriage and following the publication of an essay (which can also be accessed through that link) in a respected political journal advocating “group marriage” (and God only knows what else at some later juncture), in which I published an unsolicited retraction of my attack on Bernardi, and an apology. He had been proven right.

I begin my remarks thus this morning because Bernardi has emerged — having correctly described the Liberal Party’s federal election campaign as “a disaster” — as the latest individual to the Right of Australian politics to set forth on some kind of adventure in creating a new conservative party; the objective is nothing new, and all too often has seen narrow, personality-based, cult-like organisations spring up that are nothing more than complaint amplification devices, vehicles for the indulgence of personal megalomania, or both.

Too often, they gravitate toward agendas based on guns and the wholesale vilification of Muslims, and whilst responsible gun ownership and the insidious rise of radical Islam are matters that concern genuine conservatives, they do not of themselves constitute an agenda for a mainstream party, or anything remotely approaching it.

Whilst the Liberal Party received votes from me in both Houses on Saturday, for the first time in my life (and this was my 10th federal election as a voter) it did not receive them by way of a primary vote; under its present leadership, the Liberal Party has come to project an image resembling an encounter group that would interact pleasantly with the Labor Right, or even some elements within the Greens, and this latte-swilling, inner-city focus on people totally into themselves simply because of who they are and where they live is a culture with which I have no truck: and the campaign which may yet cost the Coalition government was notable only for its excited screeching of empty messages that would appeal to such a trendy, with-it funky bunch. It was an exciting time, all right. The name of Tony Blair also comes involuntarily to mind.

Yet in the end, and certainly in the lower house where any vote in my local seat was ultimately a choice between the Liberal Party and Labor, the Liberals still offered the lesser of two evils; but others — those uninterested in seeing the party recover and prosper, or those who couldn’t really care less, or those who think the Liberals should be taught a lesson and who instead voted Labor to try to teach them one — deserted the Coalition in droves, balancing it finely upon the precipice of defeat as a result.

I don’t think there is any problem in having a conservative forum within the Liberal Party as a starting point; after all, the party is home to other sub-groupings based on business, women, young people, regional centres and so forth, and bringing like-minded people together within the famed “broad tent” is no bad thing: contrary to the view it can erect barriers between different elements within the party, I actually think it can break them down, as the like-minded network with each other, and people in each of the sub-groups network into other sub-groups with the effect that new and deeper connections between them can be forged.

Bernardi has set up a website for people to “register interest” in his Australian Conservatives; out of interest, I’ve registered: and a little disconcertingly, the first thing I received from it was an email thanking me for “joining.” We will see what is forthcoming as the days and weeks pass, and I will share this information with readers as it becomes available, but I haven’t “joined” anything, and the presumption I have is perhaps a sign that the Australian Conservatives are something other than what they say they are.

But it takes little insight to realise the end destination of this exercise — an attempt to form a new conservative party — and in that sense, Bernardi has some questions to answer.

A check of the website requesting registrations stated that Australian Conservatives was “an initiative of the Conservative Leadership Foundation;” a quick search revealed (surprise, surprise) that the Conservative Leadership Foundation is headed by “Chairman and Founder” Cory Bernardi, and the uneasy feeling that this might be another Clive Palmer/Jacqui Lambie/Pauline Hanson enterprise was heightened by the fact the “Conservative Shop” (accessible through another tab on the CLF website) is selling five books authored by Cory Bernardi in addition to a “Hardcore Conservative” T-Shirt range.

Readers know I have little time for the cult of personality, and it is perhaps poetic to report back today on a nauseating flower whom we noted last year was attempting to shanghai the noble principles of conservatism to legitimise an undeserving, personality-based bid for the Senate, which — in a happy takeout from Saturday’s election — received the sum total of 57 Senate votes out of more than three million cast in NSW, which is at least 56 more than it deserved.

Yet in that piece, I also set out many of the preconditions it failed to address for the establishment not just of a new conservative party, but of any new party at all.

As I opined at the time:

“Any new, mass-based party — conservative or otherwise — would need to spring from multiple figureheads spanning a raft of prominent roles in business, politics, commerce, industry, and other spheres like the armed forces and interest groups like pensioners…there is an agenda a conservative party — a proper conservative party — could easily win mass backing for: one fashioned around opportunity and reward for effort; built on the family, the business community, strong national defences and a sense of national identity; looking after the vulnerable, whilst rewarding the entrepreneurial; and modernising the entire outdated structure of the pillars of the so-called “Australian settlement” that still see unions controlling whatever they like in this country, despite less than one in six Australians belonging to a union, and which see anyone who wants to sit on their arses doing nothing protected by the populist outrage of anyone with a political point to gain from letting them do so.”

And as I also pointed out, I’m not closed to the idea of a Conservative Party of Australia, but there is an awful lot it would have to do and get right in the formative stages that no new party, to my mind, has managed and/or even bothered to do and get right since Bob Menzies founded the Liberal Party in 1944.

Bernardi is right to note that 1.7 million Australians cast their votes for “right-of-centre or conservative parties rather than the Liberal Party” on Saturday, and probably at least substantially right to suggest a large number of these people were disaffected Liberal voters who simply felt unable, for whatever reason or reasons, to support their party this time.

But caution is also required, for that 1.7 million also includes those who voted for blatantly and unapologetically racist outfits like the Australian Liberty Alliance, and divisive troublemakers like Pauline Hanson with her One Nation party, who (and this is an old story) is just great at whipping up a furore around race-based problems, but never advocates anything rational or substantial as a solution to them: it’s just stir the punters up into a frenzy, grab their votes (and the election funding they yield), and skip off somewhere else to make more noise.

Neither of these entities could be called “conservative:” they are bastions of the far Right, and there is a distinction between mainstream conservatism and the lunatic fringe that must be drawn — just like there is a difference between the mainstream social democrats of the Left and their insidious brethren at its ultra-socialist, ultra-statist extreme.

Disturbingly, though, the “comments” section of Bernardi’s call to arms on his personal website shows an awful lot of interest from people openly identifying with the ALA, nutcase religious fringe outfit the Rise Up! Australia Party, and One Nation: and as soon as you build these types of far-Right influences into a political party, it can hardly be characterised as “mainstream.”

On the other hand, were current conservative Liberal voters to be coalesced into a single organisation with those from the National Party, Family First, the Shooters and Fishers party, perhaps the Liberal Democrats, and maybe some of the more reasonable Christian Democrat-style parties floating around the place, then a solid base from which to advocate proper conservative policies might be assembled.

It would have to be mass-based; none of the personality bullshit that every lunchtime legend seems to think Australians are desperate for a slice of.

It would have to be truly democratic; no management committees to rule by decree, or state executive-type delegates to turn up to every preselection to overturn the wishes of local members in favour of predetermined outcomes; some degree of veto is always mandatory of course, as the slew of candidates who slipped through vetting processes on both sides of the political divide showed repeatedly during the election campaign that has just concluded. But the criteria for vetoing candidates would have to be codified, and things like “pissed off such-and-such an MP x years ago” or “doesn’t belong to the right bunch of mates” simply wouldn’t cut it, and existing parties which engage in some or all of this behaviour should contemplate their actions when next the issue of permanently declining membership numbers comes up.

It would have to develop policies that cater to both urban and regional conservatives; there is no point in a new party that caters to one to the exclusion of the other, and such a suite of policies would probably take the form of a series of separate measures targeted to each constituency that are complementary rather than contradictory. But good luck getting the balance right.

And whilst small government, low tax, personal responsibility, incentive for effort, reward for success and an emphasis on family and traditional values — coupled with strong national defences, strong national identity, and a strong safety net for those genuinely in need of it — are all bedrock principles of mainstream conservative governance, great care would need to be taken to ensure the agenda of any new conservative party isn’t hijacked by the “string ’em up” anti-Muslim brigade, or by others whose voices are much further to the Right of an orthodox policy platform.

I don’t know how Bernardi proposes to reconcile and resolve these problems; it is heartening to see he is casting the net to form a movement rather than a party as a first step, and apparently sounding out significant figures of conservative inclination as to whether they might be involved.

But at some point, it seems inevitable that the bullet will have to be bitten: as I said earlier, it takes little imagination to see that what Bernardi is doing is taking the first, very tentative steps to form a new conservative party (or at least to try to facilitate the formation of one by mass participation), and it’s an endeavour I will most certainly be monitoring, if nothing else.

It is a process that is far from straightforward, and throws up far more questions than Bernardi has to date volunteered any answers to. At some point I may attempt to contact him to discuss his intentions, and if I do — subject to any strictures around confidentiality upon which he might insist — I will share this with readers as well.

But I am most interested in feedback from readers: what do you think? Is there a place for a new, mass-based conservative party in Australia? What do you think it should incorporate in its platform, and who should it — and shouldn’t it — open its doors to? Or do you think, as many do, that the Liberal Party, imperfect as it is, still represents the best ongoing vehicle for the advancement of conservatism in Australia?

As we ever do, we will wait and see, but I encourage all conservatively minded readers to share their views in the comment section today; the typical comment rate for this site is 1-2% of all readers, and this totemic issue presents one occasion when the views of all — if they describe themselves as conservative, or find they align with the values I have outlined here as conservative values — really should be shared, debated, and given further thought.