Cory Bernardi Australian Conservatives
Senator and former Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi (Image: AAP/David Mariuz)

Cory Bernardi threw a party and no one came. But just like on climate change, Bernardi is in denial.

The defected Liberal senator and leader of the Australian Conservatives announced the shuttering of his two-year-old party last week, due to “lack of political success” — a gentle euphemism for total electoral failure.

The party picked up only 0.7% of Senate first preferences in the 2019 federal election, peaking at 1.47% in Bernardi’s home state of South Australia — less, that is, than the HEMP Party. The party’s vote was so low that it will not receive any public election funding, falling well below the 4% threshold.

According to his announcement, Bernardi has been considering the party’s future in the four weeks since the election — although the party’s merchandise was advertised at 50% off within three. It was apparent from the abysmal results that the Conservatives were over. And frankly, it should have been apparent much sooner.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The party’s drawn-out demise

When Bernardi defected from the Liberal Party in February 2017, there were concerns he might take some disgruntled colleagues with him. That never occurred. Instead, the Australian Conservatives remained on the sidelines, doing poorly in every race it competed in.

It only ever elected one candidate — re-electing one of the two South Australian MLCs it gained in a merger with Family First, while losing the other. The successful candidate, Dennis Bell, immediately defected to the Liberals, presciently declaring the Conservatives would have “no impact”.

The party didn’t come close in any of the 33 Assembly seats it contested in South Australia, receiving a primary vote of 3% — a swing of 3.2% against it, if you count the Family First vote it started with, taking family values representation backwards in the state.

The party failed to elect any candidates in the NSW state election, winning 0.6% of the vote in the upper house and 0.5% in the lower. It backed out of running a campaign in Victoria following a fallout with its only MP, defected DLP crossbencher Rachel Carling-Jenkins.

Political spin

Even for a politician as self-assured as Bernardi, it’s hard to put a positive spin on this. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.

In his announcement, interviews, and “bittersweet” post-election blog, Bernardi attributed his party’s electoral failure to Morrison’s leadership. “We can make all the excuses in the world,” wrote the man about to make an excuse, “but it is clear that many of our potential voters returned to supporting the Coalition when Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison”. (In actual fact, the Coalition’s primary vote dropped this election). This “changed our political fortunes”, he wrote as if his party had been doing well before Turnbull’s removal.

Bernardi insinuated that he was responsible for bringing about the shift that supposedly made his party redundant. “Political success for the Australian Conservatives could be loosely described as being no longer necessary because the Coalition had returned to its traditional policy roots,” he wrote.

Former Australian Christian Lobby chief Lyle Shelton, who ran on the Conservatives’ Senate ticket in Queensland (where they polled at 1%) offered a similarly questionable interpretation. “The existence of Australian Conservatives played into the minds of those in the Liberal Party who were worried that they were heading to electoral oblivion,” he told Sky News. “[It] contributed to the change in direction”.

Sure Lyle, I bet that 1% had them quaking in their boots.

In reality, the party didn’t achieve anything much (“didn’t I?” Bernardi might ask). Bernardi has spoken of his intention to support the re-elected government’s agenda but he was already their most reliable crossbench vote, hardly playing into negotiations at all. It was the polls and payback, not the threat of a struggling minor party to its right, that led the Liberals to change leaders in 2018 — something Bernardi surely could have influenced more from inside the party.

Why not Bernardi?

When Bernardi established his party following the 2016 election, he noted that 1.7 million votes had been cast for right-of-centre parties other than Liberals. This year, that number increased. The Conservatives picked up few of them.

Far-right voters concentrated in Queensland and Western Australia instead favoured One Nation and the United Australia Party, which together received 10 times the vote the Conservatives did. In both these states, the Australian Conservatives were bested by the other “conservative party” — Fraser Anning’s.

These voters, many of whom came straight from Labor, were looking not for a Bernardi but a Hanson. Bernardi’s brand — small government, social conservatism — doesn’t reflect the xenophobic, anti-establishment, Australia-first sentiment sweeping the nation.

Of course, Bernardi can be plenty xenophobic; but “restoring common sense” doesn’t exactly tug at reactionary heartstrings. He lacks the populist relatability of Hanson — an “Aussie battler” with “the guts to say what people are thinking” — and despite expressing admiration for Donald Trump, Bernardi is really more of an insider. In promising to uphold traditional conservativism, he sounds more like the Republicans blindsided by Trumpism than Trump himself.

Bernardi may have his frustrations with the Liberal Party, but they are completely alien from the frustrations felt by voters toward “the big parties” that have left them behind. The growing One Nation vote isn’t particularly socially conservative: in general, the party’s supporters don’t hate unions or marijuana or euthanasia or gay people. Bernardi, like Morrison, is convinced he speaks for a traditionally conservative silent majority, but there’s no evidence this constituency is as large as they claim.

People will read anything they want into an election result, even one as “disappointing” as this. Bernardi’s claims — that he sent the Libs back to its roots, that the party won back his voters — are an attempt to convince us (and likely himself) that his experiment was anything other than a total failure. He refuses to accept the obvious: that he overestimated his popularity and drastically misread the crowded right-wing room.

When establishing the Conservatives, Bernardi wrote “the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. It only took him three embarrassing election results to accept his own advice.