When former South Australian Liberal Cory Bernardi launched his far-right party in late 2016, some of us thought he’d struggle in what was already a crowded marketplace for the reactionary vote. One Nation was riding high, especially in Queensland, after its resurrection at the 2016 election. In NSW, the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party were exploiting the weaknesses of the Nationals.
Bernardi was little known outside his home state or Canberra, despite assiduously using homophobic abuse and climate denialism to garner media attention (Bernardi was the target of a rare genuine Bill Shorten zinger, when he interrupted a media conference to tell Bernardi “at least I’m not a homophobe mate”). And South Australia already had potent third-party force in Nick Xenophon, at that stage polling well enough to seriously threaten the major parties.
As it turned out, Bernardi more than struggled. His Australian Conservatives Party polled just 1.47%, or just 16,000 votes, in South Australia. Bernardi, who might have dragged the vote up several per cent through name recognition, wasn’t on the ballot, having, inconveniently, secured a six-year term in 2016 on the Liberal ticket.
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In the aftermath of the election, Bernardi declared, with admirable bluntness “the inescapable conclusion from our lack of political success, our financial position and the re-election of a Morrison-led government is that the rationale for the creation of the Australian Conservatives is no longer valid.” The party was deregistered, and in November Bernardi announced he was quitting politics altogether.
As his statement last year suggested, Bernardi wasn’t accepting that his party had failed because it didn’t resonate with voters, but because Scott Morrison did a better job of resonating than he did. And in any event, Bernardi’s defection and attempt to create yet another right-wing party was aimed as much at Malcolm Turnbull, whom Bernardi regarded as more or less the incarnation of Satan himself, and long-time South Australian rival Christopher Pyne.
For years Bernardi claimed that Pyne had told him, in effect, he didn’t believe in much at all and would have stood for Labor if it had secured him a political career. For Bernardi this was, perhaps, the worst political sin of all: not believing in anything. But Pyne and Bernardi did share one intense ideology — themselves. Politics is peopled almost exclusively with raging egotists but Bernardi was unusual even by Canberra standards in being convinced of his own brilliance.
His wife Sinead told Sally Neighbour in 2011 “they have the perfect marriage because they’re “both in love with the same man”. “Cory obviously has this huge belief in himself … If you didn’t love a guy who was so in love with himself you’d have a lot of trouble living with Cory. Life — I don’t think he’d mind me saying this — it’s all about Cory. I am all about Cory, and he is all about Cory, so it makes it easy.”
He may have smeared LGBTIQ people, and derided advocates of climate action, peddled conspiracy theories about Muslims, tried to regulate the clothing of Muslim women, and attacked reproductive choice so much even Tony Abbott distanced himself from him, but Bernardi’s overarching ideology was his own ego.
Despite that, he was a long-term underachiever, 14 years in the Senate and never managing more than a parliament secretaryship, a position that tended to be interim before his next intemperate remark or attack on Pyne saw him demoted.
Bernardi was less than the sum of his parts, a man symbolising even less than he actually was, at home with a tiny rump of the electorate that hates LGBTIQ Australians, think climate change is a conspiracy, and wants to deport all Muslims.
He was only ever significant when he could magnify that tiny rump within a major political party, which he did, mostly, while the Coalition was in opposition in the Rudd and Gillard years. Outside it, he was just a rump himself.
He was correct, however, in flagging that the ultimate cause of his political demise was Scott Morrison, another ardently religious man with hang-ups about LGBTIQ people and an obstinate refusal to accept climate science. Morrison is smarter and more moderate than Bernardi could ever be, but the difference between total success and abject failure in politics is often small indeed.