The last time The Saturday Paper editorialised against Cory Bernardi, the piece carried a Lifeline number. This is some indication of the poison in his politics.
At the time, Bernardi was campaigning against the Safe Schools program. The collateral damage in his campaign was among the most vulnerable and mentally at-risk in society: transgendered and same-sex attracted children.
Bernardi’s moral hysteria was about his own mutant ideology, but it was also about wedging Malcolm Turnbull. The pressure worked. Turnbull announced a review into the anti-bullying program. Queer children were effectively told by the parliament that their feelings were suspect and their identities dangerous. This is Bernardi’s politics.
This week, before the election result was even known, Bernardi indicated he would work towards “the formalisation of a broad conservative movement”. How he intends this to work is not entirely clear. The group is to be called Australian Conservatives, and has a website and a logo: a crayon map of Australia overlayed with the Southern Cross and Union Jack.
It is not yet a formal party. Instead, it is described as an “initiative” of The Conservative Leadership Foundation, a body Bernardi founded in 2009 to “train and develop the next generation of conservative leaders”.
Bernardi’s announcement is the kind of mischief to which he is a familiar proponent. He has not left the Liberal Party. Indeed, he used their resources and standing to have himself re-elected to the senate.
But having been elected on their platform, he now seeks to push a more radical one. Bernardi ended his announcement with a kind of threat. Australian Conservatives, he said, was “the next step in making sure our voice is never taken for granted again”.
Bernardi is part of a fringe in the Liberal Party who believe they would have performed better had they continued with Tony Abbott’s reactionary leadership. “We are right back where we were in 2010, with the party roles reversed,” he wrote this week. “We shouldn’t really be surprised when the same chain of events took place during a popularly elected first-term government.”
But the interesting thing about this election has been how right the polls were. They started neck and neck eight weeks out, and ended up the same at the ballot box. When Abbott lost the leadership, he was routinely polling eight points behind Labor in the two-party preferred. These polls, we now know, were correct. He was headed towards huge electoral defeats.
The electorate was repudiating his political agenda. Turnbull softened in the polls only as he was more closely bound to that agenda. The tightness of this election was not a cry for Bernardi’s brand of conservatism. It was the opposite.
“As of writing,” Bernardi noted, “over 1.7 million votes were cast for right-of-centre or conservative parties rather than the Liberal Party. From my perspective, that was the Liberal base expressing their unhappiness with past events.”
But this was never the base. Bernardi gives no consideration to the genuine liberals who voted for other parties because of the radical conservatism pushed by some inside the Coalition. Nor was he willing to test his own agenda at the election. He was elected on the Liberal Party platform and now threatens some kind of new conservative movement he was unwilling to take to the polls.
The fact is this: no one voted to elect Cory Bernardi. They voted to elect the Liberal Party. The mistake was not in the votes cast, it was in the party allowing him to hide out on their ticket. All of this will be compounded if, instead of expelling him for disloyalty, the party listens to his curdled view.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Cory politics". Subscribe here.