If you’re still wondering exactly why Cory Bernardi split from the Liberal Party that he stood for seven months ago in South Australia, you’re not alone. In an unilluminating Senate explanation of his move yesterday — at four minutes it was brief enough to be insulting to his former colleagues — he complained that the Liberal Party’s values had been, he said “set aside for expedient, self-serving, short-term ends”. At a media conference afterward, he appeared to offer multiple explanations of his departure and of his intentions: he wanted to provide stability for the conservative side of politics (by splitting – go figure), he wanted to help the Liberal Party shift back to its core values (by leaving it), he wanted to do something about the rapid growth in minor parties (by making his own).
But the common thread was that he had not changed in his entire time in politics, with the clear implication that the Liberal Party had. However, when asked to identify exactly how the government had changed, he was unable to produce an example other than Josh Frydenberg’s ill-fated climate action review.
There are some simpler explanations: Bernardi’s massive ego, a desire for vengeance against moderates in his own party branch, and the self-delusion of an extremist that he’s somehow in touch with a silent majority rather than a vocal minority.
But does his critique — to the extent that it can be worked out — of the Liberal Party stand up? Based on the assorted tea leaves left around by Bernardi, it appears the gap between the Liberal Party’s purported values and statements and its policies and actions in government has grown too wide for his comfort.
The charge is an easy one to make: any governing party has to compromise — either it has compromise forced on it by the constitution via the electoral system, or it discovers the political cost of failing to compromise if it doesn’t, as the final term of the Howard government showed (the period that Bernardi today lionised as “the good old days” longed for by voters). A government that had followed Bernardi’s advice and shifted even further to the right than Tony Abbott did would have failed even faster. And if you’re trying to recall how much effort Bernardi put in to supporting the Abbott government at its most right wing — in the 2014 budget — good luck: instead, Bernardi criticised “the perceived sophistry of some of the positions it took to the election” in a Press Club speech in June 2014, which otherwise ignored the budget.
But there is a significant gap between the Coalition’s policies in government and the rhetoric it employs, based on its Liberal principles. The party that spent much of its time in opposition decrying the “budget emergency” increased spending and blew out the deficit in government — spending is still well above the levels inherited from Labor, even factoring in the government’s “zombie” spending cuts that the Senate has blocked. Instead of acknowledging its change of fiscal strategy — needed to protect a soft economy — the Coalition continued to pretend all was well fiscally, then took to blaming the Senate and Labor, before newly appointed Treasurer Scott Morrison actually ‘fessed up in 2015 that spending had got out of control.
But the dissonance continues: the government simultaneously talks about the threat of a credit rating downgrade because of persistent deficits, while promising significant tax cuts for big business a key part of its agenda — cuts that will increase deficits and reduce surpluses (should they ever arrive) by a total of $50 billion over the next decade. The government says it has made important emissions reduction commitments as part of the Paris climate agreement but only has one policy — the Renewable Energy Target — that will only achieve a fraction of those targets. Not to mention its focus on manufacturing protectionism in Australia while proclaiming the benefits of free trade, or its boasting of its massive infrastructure investment program while such investment fell in a heap under Abbott and has barely recovered since.
Bernardi wouldn’t even regard some of these as problems. Climate change doesn’t exist, governments should be cutting business taxes, government spending is bad. But they’re all variations of a theme of a government that isn’t really clear what it wants to be — not merely in its leadership by a man who famously believes things quite at odds with the views of the right of his party, but even in areas where there is raging unity between Turnbull and his party — even with Bernardi. Is the Coalition about cutting taxes? If so, why has the tax burden increased significantly since Labor lost office? Is the Coalition about living within its means? If so, why has it constantly pushed the return to surplus further and further away and will soon need approval to take debt beyond $500 billion?
My consistent argument for a while now has been that both sides have made politics much harder for themselves with a learned helplessness about articulating and explaining positive policy — especially the Coalition, courtesy of the relentless negativity of the Abbott years, which ensured no one ever had to make the effort to explain or defend the nuances of policy, and thus lost the capacity to do so. It’s hard to see how the Liberals’ dearth of coherent policy is disconnected from this, rather than merely being a product of the Prime Minister’s captivity by the right. Bernardi himself has suggested the problems are of much longer standing that Turnbull’s Prime Ministership — today he specifically referred to his 2014 Press Club speech as a warning.
Bernardi’s solutions make little sense — urging his party to shift far in a direction that, on many issues, would take it even further away from the political mainstream. But his identification of the problem may not be entirely astray.