Bernardi’s Conservatives Will Only Work If Mass-Based

WITH Malcolm Turnbull moving the Liberal Party to the political dead centre there is, at face value, room for a conservative party; even so, reports Senator Cory Bernardi will leave the Liberals to create one must be treated warily. A new party will fail unless it eschews messiah cults and is mass-based: if Bernardi’s Conservatives are an abortion-fixated, gun-toting mob of xenophobic Cory acolytes, they will amount to no more than a protest front.

As a Liberal Party member for 26 years — save for a bit of a gap after moving to Melbourne almost 20 years ago — and an openly conservative one at that, I should be just the kind of person who should be embracing Cory Bernardi and his Australian Conservatives with open arms: politically literate, located squarely on the mainstream Right, unsupportive of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and frustrated in the extreme about the soft-moderate, progressive, namby-pamby allegedly “liberal” direction the party, at both state and federal levels, appears determined to pursue.

But reports in today’s press (see here the Murdoch or Fairfax version) that suggest the South Australian Senator will break with the Liberals next year to turn his “Australian Conservatives” into a new party make me wary and skeptical, not excited; I retain an open mind, of course, but this path has been traversed too many times before, and too many times — improperly executed — the resulting parties have become personality cults, a la the Palmer United Party, or incoherent pedlars of extremist fringe complaint politics, a la Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

(And of course, there have been idiotic examples of the phenomenon that deservedly polled 57 votes nationwide, such as this one).

There is much that is wrong with the Liberal Party today, and with the government led by Malcolm Turnbull in particular; not only is it not conservative, but it is difficult to describe it as “liberal” too: either way, it stands for very little other than the turgid miasma of left-leaning mediocrity that is the inevitable, execrable by-product of a government gripped by the balls by risk-averse advisors that is utterly incapable of (or willing to) stand up to the onslaught of socialism and the big government, high tax, high spending, incentive-crippling agenda of its opponents.

When it comes to the purported breakaway party being schemed up by Bernardi, there is a hat-trick of names being bandied about: Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, and maverick Queensland MP George Christensen. Some, all or none of these gentlemen may or may not break bread with Bernardi’s putative party; whether they do or not, the three between them — plus Bernardi himself — advocate ultra-hardline positions on Muslim immigration, the prohibition of abortion and the complete liberalisation of gun laws.

Is this a mainstream conservative agenda? I think not.

It does, however, sound an awful lot like One Nation.

In fact, the insult of choice among Labor and Communist Greens types, when it comes to anything to the Right of Lenin and Stalin, is to label it “far Right,” or to talk of “RWNJs;” an agenda composed of those three issues is not mainstream at all, but it certainly qualifies as “far Right:” a label the rest of us are heartily sick of having to fend off for the rather dubious crime of simply refusing to kowtow to socialists and their agenda of political correctness.

I believe the Liberal Party has indeed lost the commitment of a large portion of what has traditionally been its base, and I know for a fact that on the conservative wing of the party (which also accounts for a majority of its rank and file members) there is great disillusionment with Malcolm Turnbull, his government, the performance of the Baird government in NSW, and the disparate condition in which the various state divisions of the party are gearing up to fight elections over the coming 18 months in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, and South Australia.

(Over in the moderate faction, the feeling is that Turnbull is just wonderful, with Baird and his counterparts in most of the other states similarly primed for great success in their view: they don’t like Tim Nicholls in Queensland, and they can’t see that the quality of state MPs across the country, by and large, is abysmal — and this head-wedged-in-backside perspective is a clue as to why I have little time for moderate Liberals, much less their tepid, me-too approach to the ALP, and refuse now to vote for them at preselections under any circumstances).

But there are those who profess outrage over the dumping of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott — the “give us our elected PM back” brigade — whose degree of political insight and sense of the public mood is so defective as to prevent the realisation Abbott had, by his actions (or in the case of retaining Peta Credlin at the head of his office, lack of actions) rendered his own position terminal; that is in no way, shape or form an endorsement of Turnbull of any kind. But the issuance of political pronouncements in such idiot-simple terms is no less puerile than the taunts of being “far Right” and “RWNJs” that are levelled at them by the Left.

Does the fact Abbott was replaced (and by as unsuitable a candidate for the Prime Ministership as Turnbull) directly warrant the formation of a new party? I doubt it. In fact, there is no suggestion Abbott would defect to a new conservative party at all, let alone lead it.

That honour, it seems, belongs to Cory Bernardi — seated in the wrong chamber of Parliament for a start, if he is to ever amount to anything more than just the figurehead of just another Senate-based protest rabble which dwells in the upper house on account of its lack of adequate appeal to put a majority together anywhere.

And if Bernardi isn’t the chosen leader, then who?

The press reports today have noted mining baroness Gina Rinehart is on board with the project, meaning — like Clive Palmer’s Titanic-like eponymous party before it — Bernardi’s crowd won’t be wanting for cash.

But money isn’t everything in politics; just as those with the most of it often have the least political acumen of all (certain Western suburbs Brisbane Liberals take note), the parties who have the most of it don’t necessarily win (as the huge union war chest that bankrolled a losing ALP campaign this year is but one example).

At the risk of asking an indelicate question, precisely what does Bernardi intend his new conservative party will stand for? What will its policies be?

Will it advocate a sweeping round of tax reform — not the bullshit Turnbull tortured the country with earlier this year — involving a broadening and doubling of GST, steep cuts in PAYE and company taxes, the lifting of hundreds of thousands of taxpayers out of the PAYE system altogether, and the abolition of a raft of less efficient taxes, duties, and perhaps even the fuel excise?

Will it step up to the plate and argue cogently and persuasively for labour market reform — in the face of plummeting Australian productivity and international competitiveness — that could slash the unemployment rate and put a bomb under economic growth?

Would it — like Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson in the UK in the 1980s — cut, deregulate and simplify, slashing red tape and abolishing overheads that affect businesses and private individuals alike, driving up costs and destroying incentive?

Will it finally make the case for putting an end to what one British MP termed “all this Greens bullshit,” abolishing renewable energy targets and subsidies to commercially unviable sources of ultra-expensive energy, in favour of an expanded coal-fired electricity sector that can provide inexhaustible power to Australian homes and businesses at some of the world’s lowest prices, as opposed to some of the world’s highest today?

Will it look at Health and Education, and make the case for genuine reform in each? I have privately floated a plan that I’ve called a “grand reform bargain” which (in crude terms) cedes Health to Labor and claims Education for conservatives: in very broad terms, it acknowledges Medicare can’t be unpicked, and nationalises primary care to form a UK-style National Health Service, with private clinics and hospitals still available for those who choose them after paying the Medicare levy; in return, it acknowledges the only reason for Labor’s alleged “superiority” in Education is that it throws money at teachers, whilst curriculums and the social engineering that increasingly passes as “education” generate falling standards and outcomes — and empowers individual schools to compete for teachers, set remuneration, develop their own curriculums, be governed by local school boards, with parents able to choose a school that best fits their child.

If not in these areas, then what bold reform ideas will Bernardi’s conservatives champion? After all, the notion that conservatives are completely opposed to change is a myth, and one peddled by Labor ruthlessly; to genuine conservatives, it’s the rate and type of change that is at issue, as opposed to change itself: and in this sense, a rich menu of potential options beckon. Reforming the Senate? Abolishing the states? A national infrastructure-building program to build dams, roads, schools, hospitals and railways?

Rather than flirting with spending billions of dollars on a transition to a republic — which might make a few people feel warm and fuzzy, but which would achieve exactly nothing of practical importance — what is Bernardi’s vision for a robust national identity and the restoration of pride in Australia, as opposed to the Labor/Greens practice of cringing over it?

What is the agenda of the Bernardi forces for robust national defences, and better and expanded relationships with traditional allies such as Britain and the US?

How does Bernardi reconcile the needs of rural conservatives with the agenda of their city counterparts?

In short, what exciting, integrated national vision for Australia would a breakaway conservative movement led by Bernardi actually offer?

I fear it will be nothing more than abortion, stopping Muslim immigration, and gun liberalisation.

And just on those issues, people are entitled to their opinions; the point is that those three things are not the platform of a party of government: they are the platform of a party of protest. And if the rest of the hard policy work hasn’t been done, Bernardi’s party — if it champions those, and little else — will go the same way the rest of the protest parties that have come and gone over the years have done.

The hard reality is that even if Bernardi simply walks out on the Liberal Party and takes a few of its less trustworthy MPs with him, the Turnbull government will fall sooner rather than later; on one level, what appears to be in prospect could simply install a Labor government in power — an outcome Bernardi, and anyone who backs him, will have to wear.

Bernardi claims to have “signed up” 50,000 supporters that could be used as the basis for this likely new party: I can definitively say that this is absolute rubbish.

I signed up when Bernardi launched the website for Australian Conservatives; not because I was “on board” but to keep an eye on what it was doing. Yes, I’m curious, but highly skeptical. I daresay that everyone — from other Liberals monitoring his activities, to enemies from the ALP and the Greens, and to everyone in between — has done the same thing. Just how many of those are rusted onto the cause is unknown, but I’d bet tens it’s a hell of a lot less than 50,000.

Readers know that I believe there is a willing and receptive constituency when it comes to a comprehensive mainstream conservative agenda; properly articulated, communicated and sold to voters, such an agenda would be an election-winning manifesto.

But running off half-cocked — especially with Trump-like slogans such as “Make Australia Great Again” — is a recipe for eventual disaster, but only after irretrievable damage is inflicted upon the Liberal Party, which at some point will be left to pick up the pieces and put them (and itself) back together again.

Based on the available information and what is already publicly known about this “Australian Conservatives” project, I remain to be convinced: and if a born conservative of the drive and passion of someone like me isn’t excited by what Bernardi appears to be contemplating, then I doubt he is pitching to much more than a very narrow audience indeed.

Maybe the best option is for genuinely conservative Liberals in the Liberal Party — not the left-straining moderates, nor those who might accurately be termed “far Right” — to be more assertive about what they stand for, and to fix what remains a great political organisation whose cardinal sin has been to stray from its core beliefs, and which is fast losing both members and supporters as a consequence.