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Cory Bernardi flying the coop is, for the most part, harmless. However, with the hen house door ajar, the next one to go could be the start of something serious.
Our federal parliament has just entered its first week of 2017, and is already superbly entertaining. (This is especially the case for me, considering I’ve just moved to Canberra.) Although I cannot claim to have seen the defection of Senator Cory Bernardi coming (so soon, at least), I was not overly surprised that the libertarian-conservative rift within the Coalition reached this point. Ironically, party founder Sir Robert Menzies would probably have wanted them to press on to find solidarity in old values, and to rediscover whatever it was that glued the original Coalition together all those years ago. Perhaps the ideas of the old man elude his twenty-first-century political descendants.
Few aspects of the split are predictable, I suppose, but one dynamic is perfectly clear: on his own, Senator Bernardi is more of an added irritant to the overall scheme of Senate voting (something the prime minister certainly does not need) than an immediate threat to the life of the Turnbull Government.
If others follow, however, it could quite plausibly be enough to bring the government down.
That would require the defection of some of Senator Bernardi’s ideological colleagues in the House – George Christensen, for example. Additionally, the most prized trophy for the newly-formed Australian Conservatives would of course be the defection of Tony Abbott. He is certainly able to make it happen, by no means having to go it alone (Bernardi took that critical first step). Whether he is willing is another matter. What it would to do his legacy within LNP circles as a former prime minister, and indeed his chances of one day becoming prime minister again, are two significant questions that he cannot go without asking. It seems likely that he would want to hang on to influence within the LNP for whatever good it might do to his comeback chances.
The electoral position of the Turnbull Government is worse than ever, especially if it escalates beyond Bernardi himself… there is surely no circumstance under which second chances would be dealt at polling booths.
Such defections have so far been denied, with both Christensen and another conservative colleague, Eric Abetz, pledging their support for the Coalition, albeit with the condition that it moves further to the Right almost immediately.
Abbott’s role is much more complicated and the temptation for speculation is great. His involvement in the planning of Bernardi’s break-off movement by sleight-of-hand is unproven. What is proven is the weakness of Turnbull’s leadership, so are we to rule Abbott out of any manoeuvres that might bring him closer to a return to the Lodge? I do not think so.
My proposal that the government could fall in the right circumstances might seem, prima facie, to be somewhat dramatic – however, it is not. As I alluded to above, it is not the Senate but the House that the government should be worried about. The negotiations required of the government to pass legislation through the Senate will always be difficult, especially now, but they are not impossible obstacles to overcome. What would be impossible is governing should there be defections from either the Nationals or the Liberal Party in the House. A further extended Coalition, which would include the Australian Conservatives, would be the only option for continued government under those circumstances in the current term without going to an election, and it would effectively void any future chances of having worthwhile reforms passed under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
Lastly, this defection split means that the electoral position of the Turnbull Government is worse than ever, especially if it escalates beyond Bernardi himself. I have long thought and argued that a Bill Shorten-led Australian Labor Party is unelectable, but it could now very well be the case that I am wrong – not only has the public warmed to Shorten, but there is surely no circumstance under which second chances would be dealt at polling booths. And if all of this pressure becomes too much, perhaps it would not even take a Liberal coup – Turnbull might very well resign.