Malcolm Turnbull’s poor start to the year now threatens to become a crisis for his government with a one-two punch in the last 24 hours: a shocking Newspoll result showing his government trailing Labor by eight points on a two-party preferred basis, and then today rampant speculation that extreme right South Australian Senator Liberal Cory Bernardi will defect from his party.
Bernardi supporter Andrew Bolt broke Bernardi’s imminent defection late last night, and mainstream media sources have confirmed since then that Bernardi is likely to jump ship. The defection has long been speculated, and Bernardi — while denying any intention to leave the party just months after standing as its number two Senate candidate — has prepared the way with a new conservative website and a purging of his Twitter account. However, Bernardi will face a hostile political environment outside the Liberals, with One Nation — as demonstrated by recent polling — beginning to dominate in the far-right political space nationally and every bit as Islamophobic as Bernardi himself, while Nick Xenophon a potent electoral force in South Australia (South Australia is also the strongest state for the conservative Family First party).
While there’s never a good time for a party defection, a Bernardi departure would come at an awful moment for Turnbull, who has started the year badly thanks to a ministerial resignation, a forced reshuffle, a clumsy attempt to use “clean coal” as a political tactic against Labor, an unforced error over his own political donations and last week’s blow-up with Donald Trump. Worse, Turnbull’s attempt to set the political agenda for the return of Parliament was swamped even before the week began, despite another attempt at a reset last night with a Laurie Oakes interview (during which he admitted the Liberal Party was so broke in 2015 that its federal director had to work for free for several months).
Bernardi’s defection would also mean a tactical defeat for Turnbull’s strategy of dealing with the hard right across the Liberal Party. Turnbull, despite constant criticism about abandoning his progressive values, has worked assiduously to stay within the policy limits set by the right for him and has even promoted causes dear to right-wing hearts such as section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and while he has rejected the persistent demands of Tony Abbott and a small number of former senior ministers for a return to cabinet, he has promoted younger right-wingers as well as moderate frontbenchers like Bernardi’s fellow South Australian Simon Birmingham. While the homophobic, Islamophobic Bernardi was always going to remain on the backbench, his departure would signal that no amount of pandering to the ultra-conservatives is enough for some.
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On the positive side, however, Turnbull will be spared the distraction and embarrassment of Bernardi, who, for all his insistence he somehow represents some silent reactionary majority of Australians, is deeply, almost delusionally, out of touch with Australians on some of his obsessions — especially around LGBTI Australians. At least there’s some long-term gain for Turnbull — if he’s around long enough to benefit from it.