In securing a merger between his own Australian Conservatives party and Family First, it appears that Cory Bernardi has — if only inadvertently — finally gotten it right.
The South Australian senator’s departure from the Liberal Party in February was anticipated well in advance, and an arrangement with Family First had long seemed the logical way forward, given their shared religious orientation and the party’s strength in his home state.
However, events abroad appeared to instil in Bernardi the curious notion that he stood poised to spearhead what the title of his book identified as The Conservative Revolution — an event commensurate with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
No doubt he sees today’s developments as a further step along that path, but the more modest reality is that he now stands a much better chance of extending his political career beyond the next election.
Bernardi’s expansive view of his own prospects has been encouraged by the view of friendly media pundits that the Liberals made a fatal error in turning to the conservative-in-name-only Malcolm Turnbull, supposedly creating a yawning market gap to his right.
But as any serious student of the subject could have told him, that’s not how electoral behaviour works.
Rarely are voters motivated by broadly conceived ideological abstractions like conservatism — as Republican voters demonstrated last year when they junked the philosophy their party had paid so much lip service to over the years to embrace the most radical presidential election candidate of modern times.
Most voters form at least some sort of loyalty to an established party through a socialisation process that starts in childhood, which in the Australian context has traditionally centred around class identity.
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However, they are more than capable of breaking free from the straitjacket when there is particular disaffection with their natural party, which these days seems to be a more-or-less permanent state of affairs.
The emergence of a genuinely disruptive third-party force usually involves a specific hot-button issue that the established parties are perceived as failing to address — environmental protection and immigration being locally relevant examples — and a particularly charismatic or popular leader to champion the cause.
On the first count, Cory Bernardi had little to offer that wasn’t already being provided in the crowded minor party market, apart from radically right-wing economic prescriptions with little if any electoral appeal.
On the second, Bernardi’s chiselled good looks did not appear to have translated into popularity, if findings from last week’s Essential Research poll are any guide.
It found just 10% of respondents had a favourable view of Bernardi, with 34% registering disapproval — strong disapproval in the case of 19%.
Nor did it appear that Bernardi was held in especially higher regard among his prospective target market of non-major party voters, in stark contrast to Pauline Hanson.
With all that taken into account, Bernardi appeared set on a path to see out the six-year Senate term he had gained for himself under false pretences as a Liberal candidate, and then to join Clive Palmer, Ricky Muir and Glenn Lazarus on the micro-party scrapheap.
But now, at one stroke, Bernardi has plugged into the substantial organisational network of Family First, which emerged early last decade out of Adelaide’s vigorous Pentecostal community.
Family First’s South Australian branch has proved consistently successful in parlaying its modest electoral base into seats in parliament, having twice won seats in the Senate and presently holding two seats in the state upper house.
Leaving aside the not inconsiderable complication of Lucy Gichuhi — granted second position on the party’s South Australian ticket in the interests of window dressing, unexpectedly elevated to the Senate just last fortnight in the wake of Bob Day’s disqualification, and apparently now frozen out of the new arrangement — the merger would also seem to have been well timed.
It gives the party a year to promote its new brand ahead of a South Australian state election that offers ideal circumstances for minor parties, in pitting a tired 15-year-old Labor government crippled by the state’s power crisis against a Liberal opposition weighed down by the pronounced local unpopularity of the federal government.
A strong performance at the state election would give the party cause for optimism of gaining a second Senate seat when the next federal election rolls around, despite the stiff competition it will face for the minor party vote from the still more formidable Nick Xenophon Team.