The prevailing wisdom about the possibility of a conservative breakaway from the Liberal Party — with Cory Bernardi again being touted as the leader — is that this would stand a strong chance of being successful, and would be disastrous for Malcolm Turnbull. After all, more than 40% of Coalition voters have said they would vote for a conservative party. Only problem is, Bernardi would be hanging his shingle out in a very crowded market.
Competition for the right-wing populist vote — broadly defined as socially reactionary and economically interventionist — is already intense. The Nationals already notionally occupy that space, although they are hampered by their ties with the economically and, usually, socially more liberal Liberal Party. And One Nation has a first mover advantage in this exact area, with a solid foundation in Queensland, where it is currently the third political force ahead of the Greens, but a presence in NSW and Western Australia (mouthbreather George Christensen, who is also signalling he may split from the LNP, could seamlessly switch to One Nation).
In individual states, the challenge for a new conservative party is even more complex: there’s not merely One Nation in Queensland but Bob Katter, who has been wooing renegade ex-One Nation senator Rod Culleton. In Tasmania there’s Jacqui Lambie, while One Nation narrowly missed out on snagging a fifth Senate spot there to the Greens. In NSW, the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party is also taking advantage of the Nationals’ difficulties. In South Australia, Bernardi’s home state, Nick Xenophon — socially far more liberal than the right-wing populists, but even more economically interventionist — has three Senate spots and a House of Representatives seat, while Family First managed to do well enough to return the ill-fated Bob Day to the Senate. And that’s before you note the various rats and mice far-right parties like the ADL and the Australian Conservative Party that failed to trouble the scorers during the election and which shade off into the absolute lunatics of the violent right. And let’s not forget that Peter Dutton has ambitions of his own to become a local, poorer version of Donald Trump within the LNP.
In short, any Bernardi-led party would be fighting against a host of established political alternatives, most with equal or better name recognition than his own. Without the Liberal Party behind him, there’s a real question about whether Bernardi would be able to keep his Senate spot — although he has just won a six-year term, giving him a buffer against immediate challenge.
Nor would a Bernardi-led separatist movement necessarily be a disaster for Turnbull — although the media and Labor would happily paint it that way. A breakaway movement would demonstrate — perhaps to Turnbull as much as to the Liberals — that there’s no appeasing the far right, that however far backwards Turnbull has bent to accommodate their homophobia, their climate denialism, their indulgence of the wealthy, it will never be enough for them. The reward for compromising with the far right would be shown to be a split in the party, not unity, the “broad church” rent asunder by ego and a delusion that the majority of Australians support the weird views of the Cory Bernardis of the world. Let’s consider some issues: on same sex marriage, 60% voters, and majority of Coalition voters, support it. More than half of voters believe in anthropogenic climate change. And 60% of voters believe renewable energy is the solution to our future energy needs, not a threat. Far from being in touch with some mysterious silent majority of voters, Bernardi is at odds with the electorate and much of his own party’s base on those issues.
For a Prime Minister whose captivity to the right wing of his party has helped cruelled his once-potent political appeal, a party split might be the final straw that enables him to free himself of the shackles of out-of-touch hardliners. Bernardi can join a crowded crossbench, albeit as an independent less likely to vote against the government than most of the rest, with less of a voice outside his party than he had within. And the Prime Minister might find that, forced to finally confront the lunatic fringe, he’s all the better for it.