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A year on from Cory Bernardi’s defection, his political union with Lyle Shelton is founded on Joh-era popular conservatism and a shared ability to attract attention. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Bernardi and Shelton’s perfect match

Australian Conservatives Cory Bernardi (left) and Lyle Shelton in Toowoomba at the weekend.
Credit: AAP Image / Regi Varghese

For Lyle Shelton, it was a homecoming. He had, finally, escaped the capital – a place of empty suits and shallow promises. He told the crowd in Toowoomba, Queensland, that “after more than a decade living in Canberra, fighting for truth and freedom, I can tell you that Canberra is broken”.

For the latter half of that decade, Shelton had been managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, and, for much of 2017, the near-ubiquitous face of the “No” campaign. Now, in his hometown, he was announcing his alignment with Senator Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives party – as its new head of communications and, come the federal election, as a candidate for the Senate.

It was the best way to recapture a lost Australia, he said. The country of his childhood – simple, confident and pious – had been ceded to the “Green rainbow left”. It was a common sort of political speech, part eulogy and part battle hymn. “This is not the Australia I grew up in,” he lamented. “But I believe that there are things in life worth fighting for.”

“We need people that are going to get at the coalface of politics. They’re going to get themselves into parliament to make a difference, to fight without fear or favour for the things that matter,” Senator Bernardi said of his recruit.

“Here is a man who lives his principles every single day, not only in the public sphere but in his private life as well.”

Toowoomba – and the Darling Downs region it helps comprise – has long been home to Queensland’s religious right. In the 1980s, Shelton’s father was second-in-charge of the Logos Foundation, a controversial organisation based in the town. Logos urged Christians’ participation in politics, but this motivation was driven by Dominionism – the belief that the Bible mandates Christian occupancy of secular institutions.

Logos collapsed in 1990 after the exposure of its leader’s adultery, but not before it had ardently campaigned for the re-election of “the godly man in government”, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The Queensland government’s astonishing corruption had already been revealed in the Fitzgerald inquiry, but Logos considered this less important than its position on abortion and homosexuality.

Today, there is more than a whiff of Bjelke-Petersen’s radical populism in Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. And when the self-described “benevolent dictator” of Queensland made his disastrous tilt for prime minister, he did so with the same rhetoric of Bernardi’s party. It’s a well-thumbed playbook: channel popular scorn and derision of major political parties, and present oneself as an uncompromised and plainspoken reformer. Donald Trump is only the most recent – and spectacular – exemplar of this strategy.    

 

For good parts of 2016, then Liberal Bernardi was in public contest with his own party. He deplored the government’s embrace of “new socialism” – higher taxes and government spending – and thought its defence of freedom of speech feckless. There was open antagonism between the senator and his moderate colleagues.

Seconded to the United Nations for three months, Bernardi watched with excitement the implausible rise of Trump. From New York, a buoyed Bernardi told the ABC that, “The movement against the establishment political parties, who have consistently and wilfully ignored the mainstream majority in favour of their own power and self-interest, is moving across the globe.”

If he had any doubts about defection, Trump’s election seemed to banish them. Trump and Brexit were waves, and Bernardi would ride them. When parliament began at the start of last year, Bernardi made official what had long been anticipated. “The level of public disenchantment with the major parties, the lack of confidence in our political process, and the concern about the direction of our nation is very, very strong,” Bernardi said in a speech announcing his new party. “It really is time for a better way – for a conservative way.”

His colleagues were almost unanimous in their derision. Malcolm Turnbull said Bernardi’s explanation for his defection was “not satisfactory”, and many pointed out that Bernardi had only recently been re-elected as a Liberal. If he were more principled, his colleagues said, he would have resigned from the Liberal Party prior to the election and contested it under his own banner. “Breaking faith with the electorate, breaking faith with the people who voted for you, breaking faith with the people who have supported you through thick and thin for years, is not a conservative thing to do,” then attorney-general George Brandis said.  

This week marks a year since that faith was broken.

 

The alignment of Bernardi and Shelton surprised few. Both men are pugnacious, media hungry and frequently outrageous. Shelton once declared that the Safe Schools program was akin to Nazism, and Bernardi believed that legalising same-sex marriage would eventually lead to social sympathy for bestiality. Both men insist that freedom of speech and religion are imperilled, even while Bernardi continues his long-campaign to outlaw the burqa and restrict Islamic immigration. Bernardi’s concept of religious freedom is an exclusive one.

But perhaps what most binds the men, beyond their faith, is an ability to generate the appearance of inflated influence. The Australian Christian Lobby is not a peak body. Its board is unelected and very far from being representative. In a 2016 feature I wrote on the group, it was repeatedly pointed out to me – by church leaders, academics and politicians – that its influence is serially overstated.

Similarly, Bernardi generates disproportionate headlines. He’s aware that stunts and offensive provocation are catnip for the media. But polling on his party – new as it is – is not terribly impressive. The Australian Conservatives’ candidate in the recent Bennelong byelection attained less than 5 per cent of the primary vote. In Bernardi’s home state of South Australia, polling anticipating next month’s state election suggests a prospective 6 per cent primary vote. Bernardi might find some pleasure in knowing that the figure is equal to the Greens, but in South Australia the largest third party – by an enormous margin – is Nick Xenophon’s SA Best. December polling suggests SA Best could attract a staggering 32 per cent of the primary vote – more than either of the major parties – and Xenophon topped the list of preferred premiers. Compared with this, the Australian Conservatives are a sideshow.       

For now, Bernardi and Shelton must hope that Tony Abbott is correct in his belief – or hope – that the 40 per cent of Australians who voted “no” on same-sex marriage would form the base of a new, recast Australian conservatism. Whether biblical literalism and reactionary fervour are sufficient to harness the rump of that population is another matter.  

 

In Cory Bernardi’s early years in the Senate, he would be proudly photographed with Thatcher biographies and would tell people that, in idle moments, he would listen to Reagan speeches to enliven his blood. But Thatcher bothered to read Hayek, and Reagan, who didn’t, at least surrounded himself with substantial people. Neither could be said of Bernardi.

Early on, Liberal colleagues complained of Bernardi’s shallow knowledge but infinite capacity for self-promotion. “Cory is a person without any intellect, without any base, and he should really never have risen above the position of branch president,” a Liberal colleague told journalist Sally Neighbour in 2011. “His right-wing macho-man act is just his way of looking as though he stands for something.”

In 2018, Bernardi’s guiding stars have changed. Two leading ones are Milo Yiannopoulos and Trump, who are no Thatcher or Reagan. Yiannopoulos is a clownish promoter of white revanchism, an infernal engine of bile. The most useful spearing of the Milo myth came courtesy of his book’s editor at Simon and Schuster, in documents publicly revealed in a civil suit late last year. Milo was suing for wrongful termination of his book contract. The annotated manuscript revealed an intellectual fraud and slovenly writer, an author scolded by his own editor for ignorance and repetitive self-praise. “At best,” the editing assessment reads, “a superficial work full of incendiary jokes with no coherent or sophisticated analysis of political issues.” This was the same man invited, by multiple minor parties, to speak in Parliament House late last year.

Bernardi’s fondness for Yiannopoulos is symptomatic of what comprises much of contemporary conservatism in this country. Self-assured but shallow, both men are provocateurs who prefer combat to reflection. But it’s witless combat, an endless game of bait-and-switch. Say outrageous things, then condemn as censorious the subsequent outrage. Last month, Bernardi released his own Hottest 100 – a rebuke to Triple J’s shifting of its famous countdown from January 26. Some of the artists made their disdain clear, as Bernardi knew they would. It reeked of callow campus politicking – entice your opponent’s petulance, then mock it.

You might think a severe social conservative would find little ground with a gay man who endorsed pederasty. Or with the United States president, a serial philanderer, draft-dodger and historic saboteur of his country’s intelligence services. But this would ignore their primal bond: political theatre.

Popular conservatism in this country has become grasping, ahistorical and theatrically reactionary. Too often it’s reduced to the decrying of political correctness and “elites”. But when the central motivation, and the prevailing pleasure, is sophomoric provocation – well, I can think of few things more suggestive of “elite” indulgence.

We will wait and see how successful Shelton and Bernardi are in reviving the legacy of Sir Joh – and how many Australians share their yearning for those simpler times.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Perfect match". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.