Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s year has gone from bad to worse with influential, conservative Senator Cory Bernardi reportedly set to split from the Coalition.
The senator’s decision to form his own party comes as the Turnbull Government recorded its worst poll result since Tony Abbott was prime minister.
Experts say the defection would be a big headache for the prime minister and is likely to embolden right-wing figures within the party.
It also coincides with surging popularity for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation which garnered 8 per cent of the national primary vote in the first Newspoll of the year — double its Senate vote at the July election.
“It hands Bill Shorten a rolled-gold opportunity to develop that classic thing, ‘If you can’t govern yourself, you can’t govern the country’,” said Flinders University political expert Dr Haydon Manning.
“Shorten will be able to point to really deep divisions on the conservative side of politics in Australia.”
“That’s the number one headache I see, it hands Labor a huge free kick.”
Dr Manning said conservatives close to Senator Bernardi may be holding off on defecting because they didn’t want to help Labor.
”But they may in time if Turnbull’s either irritating them on policy or the polls are flipping even further,” he said.
Monash University political expert Dr Nick Economou told The New Daily if the senator left the Liberal Party it “would not be a good look for Malcolm Turnbull”.
“You want a unified political party,” he said.
Dr Economou said a defection would complicate the government’s position in the Senate and warned it could also embolden right-wing figures still within the Liberal Party.
“They might say, ‘Listen, what kind of a leader are you? You couldn’t even keep him in the tent.’”
“It’s pretty bad for Turnbull.”
But Dr Nick Economou said it would “show an astounding lack of political judgment” if Senator Bernardi chose to leave.
“The next time he fronts the electorate [in his new party], he would disappear from view,” he said.
He said populists had gained traction in Australian on anti-globalisation issues rather than social conservatism.
Become more conservative or perish: Christensen
Nationals MP George Christensen told media on Monday that Senator Bernardi’s move was a message to the Turnbull Government that its position was “untenable” if it did not embrace conservative causes.
Look, if there’s a move away, I suppose it sends a signal to the leadership that we cannot abandon conservative causes, conservative principles and conservative policies.”
Liberal senator and fellow conservative Eric Abetz scotched suggestions he could join the new conservative party headed by Senator Bernardi.
As to his own future, Mr Christensen insisted he was loyal to Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and the party.
“So I’m here in the government so long as the government holds true to the values of the people that put us there,” he said.
Party would have ‘influential backers’
In July 2016 Mr Bernardi formed the Australian Conservatives movement which by August boasted 50,000 members, he claimed.
Then in December 2016 Mr Bernardi began a political movement called “Australian Majority” at this website.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison said he was not aware of any “announcement” regarding Mr Bernardi’s defection.
“What he chooses to do is for him to decide and for others to imply or suggest what he might or might not do or the reasons for it, only Senator Bernardi can answer those questions,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
Speaking on ABC Radio on Monday morning independent Senator Nick Xenophon said “a breakaway conservative party would have some very influential backers”, including Gina Rinehart, according to Senator Xenophon.
Mr Bernardi has previously been suspected of wanting to start a new party for voters who don’t feel represented by mainstream political organisations.
He is a self-confessed admirer of United States President Donald Trump.
Mr Bernardi won a six-year senate term at the 2015 double dissolution election. He was the first senate candidate on the Liberal Party’s South Australian ticket.
A spokesperson for Mr Bernardi told The New Daily the senator would not be making any comments on the speculation today, although he is scheduled to be interviewed on 2GB radio with Miranda Devine on Monday night.
– with reporting by Luke Henriques-Gomes and ABC