Two weeks ago, Cory Bernardi visited Brisbane. The function he held was not advertised widely. Bernardi’s new party, the Australian Conservatives, did not plug it and nor did Cory’s regular weekly email.
Yet the event organised by Liberty Works quickly sold out and it was standing room only. A number of prominent Queensland conservatives from a spectrum of political and community groups attended.
This demonstrates the South Australian Senator’s unique position in conservative politics. Unlike any other politician, Bernardi has the potential to unite conservative Australians.
This is one key factor that will assist Bernardi as the Australian Conservatives begin the process of registering for state and federal elections. The other is time.
Firstly to his support. Bernardi is highly regarded across conservative groups. He still has links and influence with the conservatives left inside the Liberal Party. And he is well supported by those who make up the membership of the large number of minor conservative parties.
This has already seen the Australian Conservatives assemble talent from across conservative politics. Kirralie Smith, formerly the Australian Liberty Alliance Senate candidate for New South Wales, has joined forces with Bernardi. Meanwhile, Bernardi’s Chief of Staff since March has been Rikki Lambert. He comes from a high profile background with Family First.
The crowd at Bernardi’s Brisbane function told a similar story. There were increasingly unhappy Liberals, a large number of people heavily involved with the Australian Liberty Alliance campaign in Queensland and members of Family First and other conservative minor parties.
One Nation Senator, Malcolm Roberts, was also in attendance.
This all speaks to Bernardi’s unique ability to bring conservative Australians together. We may well see this result in some form of unification of the minor conservative vote – a vote that exceeds that of the Greens but has not been able to exert anywhere near their level of influence.
But this will take time and brings us to the second factor favouring Bernardi. He does have time and it will take time for any mergers to play out.
Family First may be considering one given that its South Australian leader, Dennis Hood, went on the public record in February to state that his party would aim to support Bernardi. Furthermore, it is reported that Bernardi reached an agreement with Rikki Lambert to allow him to quit to take Bob Day’s Senate seat if the opportunity arose. However, the recent appointment of Lucy Gichuhi to that seat is likely to change the dynamics of any potential merger discussions.
The Australian Liberty Alliance did begin discussions to merge with the Australian Conservatives but that has since been ruled out.
However, regardless of whether the Australian Conservatives and other parties agree to formal mergers, the result is likely to be the same: the membership base will move to Bernardi anyway. We have seen that with Kirralie Smith and it is the common story that I have heard over and again in Queensland.
Another possibility is some kind of coalition. This may occur with One Nation especially as both Cory Bernardi and Malcolm Roberts made it clear to the crowd in Brisbane that they are already cooperating in some form of loose alliance on many issues.
However, Cory does not need to rush into any agreements.
He needs to build slowly, strongly and credibly. If he is to be successful, he will need to build a party that is more than a fan club. He will also need to replicate what has worked well in the major parties and that is their organisational strength and structure. It is only this structure that has kept them together even as their leaders and elected representatives pursue agendas that are loathed by a growing number of voters.
Furthermore, if the Australian Conservatives can build credibly it will position the party well if either the Liberals or One Nation self-detonates.
The Liberals appear increasingly likely to lose the next election. As time runs out for the Turnbull government the pressure inside the party room will only increase. It is only a bunfight away from civil war over an issue like homosexual marriage, Islam or free speech. Cory might appear to be alone now but that could quickly change.
Similarly, there is a widely-help perception that One Nation is a headline away from implosion. Pauline Hanson might have a great deal of support for her tenacity and strength of character. The same cannot be said for her ability to build and maintain a team. Further, with James Ashby at the centre of One Nation there are real question marks about the party’s position on social policies and the principles behind them. If the issue of homosexual marriage is a hand grenade for the Liberals, it could be a minefield for One Nation. It was the issue that tore apart Katter’s Australian Party after Bob Katter promoted candidates who held views that did not align with the party base and Pauline could easily find herself in the same position.
Only time will tell if there are any eruptions. But politics is increasingly volatile and one cannot be ruled out. Any friction on the conservative side of politics is likely to increase Bernardi’s strength.
And then there’s the upcoming budget and yet another year of massive deficits from a ‘conservative’ government. It will mean that Bernardi has a target-rich environment and can focus on economic issues as well as conservative concerns about social policies.
All of this means that Cory Bernardi and the Australian Conservatives should not be dismissed.
Polling out earlier this week found that only about two percent of Australians strongly support Cory Bernardi. I suspect that this polling is probably correct. If there was an election tomorrow, it is hard to see a successful outcome for the Australian Conservatives. However, there is no election tomorrow. Furthermore, Pauline Hanson had similar numbers in the lead up to the last election and we all saw how rapidly her support increased.
At the moment many conservative Australians are behind Pauline Hanson because she has had the courage to point out that we are headed down the wrong road. However, this is not the same thing as leading Australians on the path to success. That requires an entirely different type of leadership. If Cory Bernardi can provide it his numbers will only increase. And they won’t just come from One Nation and the other minor conservative parties. There are still many Liberal voters looking for something better as well. They will move to Cory too if he can provide a home. His response to the upcoming budget will provide him an opportunity to lay the foundation to that home.