News National Cory Bernardi’s waves prompt tsunami warning for Turnbull government
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Cory Bernardi’s waves prompt tsunami warning for Turnbull government

Cory Bernardi
South Australian Liberal dissident Corey Bernardi spell continuing big trouble for Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AAP
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He may be a delusional conservative, but South Australian Liberal dissident Cory Bernardi spells continuing big trouble for Malcolm Turnbull.

Bernardi is widely expected to quit the party that endorsed him for its winnable second Senate spot last July.

Scott Morrison, along with other senior Liberals, will demand that the rebel follows the principled example of Cheryl Kernot when she quit the Australian Democrats to join the Labor Party. She also resigned from the Senate.

With five years of his term to go, Bernardi is well-placed to thumb his nose at such niceties.

Bolstering his defiance is the firm belief that his ultra-conservative agenda is the only one that can best serve the nation and save it from moral decay. He believes his Australian Conservatives movement, with its mailout list of 50,000, can be the basis for a new political party.

Not content to “reform” the Liberal Party from within, he wants to build a new edifice from the rubble of the old.

The online advocacy group GetUp, with its one million members that he both envies and condemns, says his ambitions for a mass grassroots movement are doomed.

It says Bernardi will need to pursue more popular issues than homophobia, racism and the denial of global warning. He is on the wrong side of majority opinion according to consistent recent polling.

His pushing these causes has done more to damage Mr Turnbull than anything else. It creates the perception that the Prime Minister has been handcuffed to an agenda he doesn’t believe in. The very one that saw support for Tony Abbott’s prime ministership crumble.

A recent example was Mr Turnbull’s conversion to “clean coal”. Having ridiculed the notion in the past, he now embraces it. His credibility has gone up in smoke.

The Prime Minister’s appeasement of Mr Bernardi and his hard-line colleagues in the Liberal and National parties has done nothing to consolidate his or the government’s position.

The latest Newspoll is testament to that. The Coalition is now trailing Labor as badly as it did under Mr Abbott.

Prime Minister Turnbull: even genuine reform seems to send opinion polls south.
The PM’s appeasement of Cory Bernardi and his hard-line Coalition colleagues has done nothing to help his position. Photo: AAP

Some Liberals fear a tsunami is about to hit the major parties but none more severely than the Coalition.

The Newspoll has support for the Greens, One Nation, Nick Xenophon and others at 29 per cent. Federally, the Nationals’ George Christensen believes echoing Pauline Hanson’s views is his best defence.

But as veteran Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent told Parliament last year, in the “long run those propositions and policies will only hurt the Coalition parties”.

History supports him. The Newspoll shows the support draining away from the Coalition is heading for Ms Hanson’s One Nation and the other minors. In our preferential system that leaves Labor handsomely in front.

According to political scientist Dr Nick Economou, the right is fracturing. At the last election there were 50 parties on the right of the political spectrum scrambling for votes. Many inspired by Donald Trump.

Mr Trump, they forget, actually was a major party candidate for the presidency.

A Bernardi defection may not in the immediate future bring down the government. He is in the Senate and he would join the unwieldy crossbench at the same end of the spectrum as the Hanson bunch. But it certainly feeds the perception of a government at war with itself. A perception Mr Abbott is doing his best to keep alive.

Ominously, Queensland Nationals whip Mr Christensen is serving notice that the junior Coalition partner is very restive: “I’m here in the government as long as the government holds true to the values of the people who put us there.”

Turnbull Christensen
George Christensen believes echoing Pauline Hanson is his best defence. Photo: AAP

And he nominates same-sex marriage as a line in the sand.

“You know the show’s over,” he says, if the Prime Minister allows a free vote on the issue.

What is clear is that Mr Turnbull’s appeasement of these conservatives hasn’t worked. Some moderates believe his only hope of recovery is to now stand up to them.

“That would be the end of his leadership,” is the view of one backbencher. But where would they go? Tony Abbott? Peter Dutton? Labor would love to see that.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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