Is Cory Bernardi Australia’s Trump?


Cory Bernardi sounded excited when he said: ‘You’ll hear more from me in 2017.’

The Liberal Party Senator for South Australia has been publicly musing about his political future since May. In his last email to supporters in 2016, Bernardi made a particularly prescient comment: ‘In my youth I was told that the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’

Well – 2017 is here, and it is definitely different.

At 12.30pm on the February 7, Bernardi put an end to the speculation: ‘For many years, I have warned of the consequences of ignoring the clear signs. I have spoken of the need to restore faith in our political system and to put principle back into politics. I regret that too often these warnings have been ignored by those who perhaps needed to hear them most… So today I begin something new, built on enduring values and principles that have served our nation so well for so long. It is a political movement of Australian Conservatives.’

In the 24-hours following, senior party figures such as Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton criticised Bernardi. It was clear he wasn’t taking any other parliamentarians with him. He previously held one of the safest seats in the Australian Senate, but now finds himself stuck between two parties with long-established support.

We shouldn’t, however, dismiss Senator Bernardi’s intentions or capacity. After all, 2016 caught us all by surprise with a shock Brexit and a surprise Trump. The right in Australia remains disjointed – could Bernardi be the one to bring the movement together?

It wouldn’t be the wildest political event of recent times. He is a charismatic and capable leader; his weekly blog posts are wildly popular with far-right sympathisers; he is a key factional powerbroker that rallies support of the likes from George Christensen and even Tony Abbott. Plus, he’s already been creating campaign infrastructure. ‘Australian Conservatives’ – with its 50,000 members – has been established for months, and boasts the financial backing of Gina Rinehart with whom Bernardi travelled to New York with recently to meet key Trump campaign staff. Far-right strongmen in other countries have certainly done more with less.

And this political tremor comes at a time when Australians – particularly young Australians – are quick to disengage with politics. A recent ANU survey found that 40 percent of Australians are not satisfied with our democracy: the highest recorded levels since the 1970s. For younger people, like myself, the levels of satisfaction aren’t just historically low, but they are much lower than the current satisfaction levels of our parents and grandparents.

Much of our insecurities are founded in the inaction and uncertainty that have come to represent Australian politics. I have grown up in a political landscape that has switched leaders five times in six years, and with a parliament where the two leading parties have similar policy stances on too many issues. It’s an environment where common young progressive causes – same-sex marriage, action on climate change, Closing the Gap – have seen little to no progress in recent years.

It’s no wonder that in the last election more people voted for independents and minor parties than ever before. It’s no wonder that more people voted in Triple J’s Hottest 100 than there are 18-24-year olds enrolled with the Australian Electoral Commission. If the political class aren’t willing to engage with us about the issues we care about, then we’re unlikely to engage with them.

Many of my peers don’t know whether they will be able to get a job, because youth unemployment is above 13 percent: almost double what it was in 2008. They don’t know whether they should go to university, because the revolving door of Australian politics might deliver them unaffordable degrees. And they don’t know what to study, because they aren’t sure what industries will be next in line on globalisation’s conveyor belt of economic change.

This uncertainty isn’t due to the composition of this new generation of young people, but because of the new generation of politicians. I’m excited to leave school, to participate, and to vote, but the vicissitudes of Australian politics – the ones that have buoyed Bernardi into such a high political position – makes this attitude less and less common amongst young Australians.

But while Hanson has used this brand of conservatism to bark now and then, Senator Bernardi will use them to bite. He carries with him a leader’s legitimacy that Hanson can only wish for. He articulates similar views to Hanson, but with tangible effect – whether that be more discursive, through his popular books such as The Conservative Revolution, or legislative, by forcing the LNP’s hand on the Safe Schools program and marriage equality. It’s still to be tried and tested, but Cory Bernardi has the political and economic footing necessary to run a hell of an election campaign.

Quietly, a couple of days ago, One Nation registered the highest support it has ever had in NSW, with a ReachTEL poll pinning them at 16.3 percent of total preferences. In Western Australia their poll numbers have jumped to 11 percent according to The Weekend West, which could see them hold the balance of power in the state’s parliament. A recent Galaxy poll saw Hanson’s support at 16 percent in Queensland. And this was despite the month’s bluff and blunder surrounding former Senator Rod Culleton.

One Nation’s history of ceaseless infighting has marred its own legitimacy. Senator Bernardi, however, would be a fresh figurehead for Australia’s far-right and a rallying point for the invigorated tensions that 2016 revealed. Remember, Turnbull’s government holds a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. It wouldn’t take much for Bernardi to hold immense political sway until the next federal election.

This new conservative movement doesn’t just represent a continuation of Hanson and One Nation, it represents a betterment of the political right. The dangerous reality is that the senator from South Australia who promised an exciting 2017 could be the newest tally mark to add to the far-right’s recent global headway.

So who else is excited for 2017?