So he’s only gone and bloody done it, hasn’t he? Cory Bernardi, the conservative senator who most looks like a conservative — tall, aquiline, perpetually unhappy — has had his moment of conscience around, erm, whatever and left the Liberal Party. One can only applaud this act of sacrifice and call to principle, and ignore the fact that it comes at the beginning of the year’s news cycle, with five years of Senate time, and staffers, and support on the clock, to basically build a conservative movement top-down from out of his office.
People are saying he will struggle. His defection, and his intention to establish an explicit conservative brand, are being treated in the same manner as every other flaking away from the three-party system (two in coalition), which dominated when most senior journalists were in school and coincided with the last time many read a book. Remember the days when the Greens were presented as the unstable, provision group who would soon be absorbed back into Labor when Bob Brown, no Christine Milne no Richard di Natale quit? When Adam Bandt was turfed out as a one-term member?
Ha! Given the current set-up, the Greens look like the Hapsburgs now, multi-branching, lauding many fiefdoms, in it for the centuries. The left of centre parties have fractured evenly along class lines, with the progressive/knowledge classes mostly going to the Greens, and Labor keeping the ‘burbs (and trying to hold on to the inner cities, because most Labor MPs frikkin’ hate the ‘burbs).
It’s the right that, up till now, has fractured and flaked away in a process based largely around those hard-right passions: resentment, myth and personality cults. You could blame the successively remodeled rules of the Senate for their rise, but you’d be wrong; had the right vote in 2016 been a product of Senate rules, it would have fractured evenly across half-a-dozen right-wing outfits. As it was, groups like the Australian Liberty Alliance were left out, and Hanson’s One Nation got the clear expression of will of a section of the electorate.
Labor apologists groused about this result; actually, it was a windfall for the left and centre. Though Hanson’s political skills appear to have improved, she’s still a cracked and narcissistic figure, who can’t distinguish her own obsessions from wider political causes. Witness the idea of compulsory prenups around child custody after marriage breakdown. Could it be that this idea is the personal passion of someone serially separated? Would it be anathema to some of the anti-statist types who would vote for her? It would. Hanson’s appeal to her passionate fan base also describes the limits of her political potential. The One Nation slate proved to be the same bunch of crackpots they’ve always been. Hanson, having suffered grievously at the hands of David Oldfield, has now become a political unit with James Ashby. The woman’s not a political movement, she’s a minor Tennessee Williams play.
That, and the similarly shambolic nature of other right groups, is why you shouldn’t underestimate Bernardi. For though, compared to your bog-standard mainstream senator, Bernardi is a towering toga-wrapped-plaster-statue-in-a-Roman-themed-pizza-restaurant of pomposity, false self-estimation and historical delusion, compared to the rest of the right rabble, he is rationality itself. He knows how to get the numbers, build a movement, rope in a fundraising base. He’s a decent enough speaker, competent enough at TV interviews, and I’m guessing, a little more capable of strategic thinking than, say, Angry Anderson. With five years, and an office on the hill, if he can’t organise a multi-state movement and a South Australian base, I will be surprised.
Should he be able to, everyone else, it seems, will be surprised. Tony Wright in the SMH speaks for many with a generally sceptical piece that wonders, sarcastically, I think:
“Could there be a constituency there, waiting to be swept up in Cory’s Australian Majority?”
Nuh-uh, appears to be the implication. I cite Tony because he’s the best writer Fairfax has, and in being so, speaks for a certain view of Australia that held when Fairfax was king: that we’re not really conservative, we’re a liberal-minded bunch of folks who aren’t prey to the ideological currents that move across the face of the world. Well, Australia’s changed, and Bernardi has rich hunting fields on the other side of the class division I’ve sketched previously, as running between the progressive-knowledge class and everyone else. He, and the rest of the right, will find many people who feel that large-scale immigration has gone far enough; that the obsessions of the progressive-knowledge class are being imposed through their outsize power and presence in media and policy organs; and that they are being relentlessly targeted with statist behavioural engineering around smoking, fast food and a range of other causes.
Wright and others haven’t twigged as to how much dissatisfaction and class conflict there is in the land, because for a very long time — from the Whitlam rise to the end of Howard, and even of Rudd — cultural power was in some sort of balance. The progressive classes were still, to some degree, outside the mainstream, acting as insurgents, demanding change. Now the economy has shifted, they pretty much run the joint, and they’re still acting and talking like insurgents, intent on completely transforming the culture in their image. The pose — powerful people still claiming to be oppressed — drives people both up the wall and into the arms of the right.*
So the problem for Bernardi isn’t finding a catchment area. The problem for him is what economic message he will spruik. Despite the pathetic spiritual tongue-bath he’s eager to give Donald Trump, his message is nothing like Trump’s — or Steve Bannon’s, the fusion of right-wing ethnonationalism, nationalist Keynesianism, and a tilt towards anti-trade autarchy. Bernardi has for years positioned himself in the midst of old-skool Thatcherite social conservatism, fusing free trade and small government economics with state-enforced traditional values (or now, simply resolute opposition to progressivist social values).
This is a real problem for him, as the audience for that particular fiction is small indeed these days. For Thatcher et al, and for Bernardi, those values were mutually reinforcing, the traditional cultural structures of family and nation providing the solid frame within which the animal spirits of capitalism could be let loose, and a certain type of person – self-reliant, but also capable of connection, belief, self-sacrifice – would emerge. Most people who cleave to the new conservatism now see global capitalism as a nihilistic casino run by psychopaths that devastates whole nations. Hence, the ease with which the right in the US, UK and Europe has junked free-market solutions, and the whole Thatcherite formula.
What’s a Cory to do? South Australia is the most statist, protectionist state by far. But the political market for that is crowded out by Nick Xenophon, who has simply secularised the Catholic centre-right tradition, and come up with a new and compelling centrist formula.** Will Cory change his story? It would be a hard sell, but he might be able to cobble together some formula of fiscal restraint — crack down on the bludgers — with industry support for the hard-working souls in South Australia’s world-class penny-farthing industry etc, etc. With the right settings, Bernardi can grab conservatives who vote Liberal, the Family First movement, and some of Xenophon’s supporters. I think his prospects are bright, his talents are obvious, and he represents the possibility that a unified and purposeful Australian conservative political movement will develop.
*Peter Van Onselen is another figure who seems incapable of the most basic class/political analysis, even though he teaches the stuff. Writing on the Bernardi break, he cites Don Chipp’s breakaway from the Libs in 1975-76 to form the Democrats. But he fails to mention that Chipp didn’t “form” the Democrats; he took no one with him from Parliament. He simply grafted himself onto the head of the Australia Party, an early political expression of the progressivist grouping (too small at that time to be considered a class), a fusion that was useful to both. Part of the remnants of the SA-based Liberal Movement also came to the new party. The failure to mention this — and to see the parallels in Bernardi’s move — is PVO at his most Van Asinine. How much are they charging for a UWA degree in govt these days?
**to an astonishing degree. My favourite bit was Xenophon’s suggestion of bringing free school milk of the ’60s and ’70s, back to help the dairy industry. That’s fine in an Anglo-Celtic society where lactose intolerance runs at around 5%. In a multiethnic society it runs at around 40-60% — most of the world doesn’t drink milk straight. Xeno’s solution for Australian dairy is to have primary schools full of kids swelled up like gas balloons, farting their way from morning recess to lunch. That, I will concede to m’colleague Keane, is as able an expression of the pitfalls of sector support as you are likely to get. I now expect arguments from t.e.h left that lactose intolerance is a social construction, has no basis in biology, which does not exist in any case, and is a subaltern legacy of imperialism.