When maverick Liberal National Party backbencher George Christensen opens his mouth it’s usually bad news for the government. But on Monday, his comments were a relief to it.
Christensen said he would not be following Liberal senator Cory Bernardi out of the government ranks. This is despite his “sympathy” for Bernardi.
“I’m loyal to Barnaby Joyce, I’m loyal to the National Party and the LNP, I have been a member of that party now for over two decades, and I’m loyal to the rank-and-file members who preselected me to be the candidate that got elected to come down here to Canberra.
"So … I’m here in the government, as long as the government holds true to the values of the people that put us there,” said the man who combines the position of Nationals’ whip with chief troublemaker. He urged that “we need to re-engage with our conservative base”.
Apart from anything else, the loss of Christensen would wipe out the government’s one-seat majority and make its management of the House of Representatives more difficult.
Conservative senator Eric Abetz was also quick to rule out jumping ship. “Whilst there is some speculation about the possibility of the formation of another conservative party I remain committed to the Liberal Party and its founding principles,” the former minister said in a statement.
Bernardi, who has kept a low profile for weeks and went into virtual hiding on Monday – although he put up stories on his website about his coming defection – will make the announcement on Tuesday.
His departure to the crossbench is not a surprise. He has been working up to it for a long time, ever since he set up his own conservative movement last year, although he often said he wanted to stay within the Liberal Party.
Colleagues on Monday noted pointedly that it was only last July that he was re-elected as a Liberal, for a six-year term. Treasurer Scott Morrison said: “At the last election he was elected as a Liberal senator by Liberal voters to support the Liberal Party in this parliament and be part of our team.”
Some will be glad to see the back of him. “It’s like having a baby – the sooner he’s out the better,” as one put it rather graphically.
On the other hand, Victorian Liberal Tim Wilson – whose views on same-sex marriage are totally at odds with those of Bernardi – tweeted:
Bernardi is not expected to take any parliamentarians with him – and probably has not expected to do so.
While obviously this reduces his potential power as a crossbencher, it is also in character with his lone-wolf personality, and the nature of what he is doing.
Bernardi is about setting himself up as an intellectual leader of conservatism in Australia. His is very much an ideological quest.
His exit is part of the fragmentation of the right, of which the re-rise of Pauline Hanson is the most spectacular manifestation. But while Bernardi has policy positions in common with Hanson, there are big differences between them in ideas and as political phenomena.
One Nation is populist and Hanson is pragmatic, with her hodge-podge party. She is protectionist and happy with big government when it suits her cause.
Bernardi is the economic rationalist and the policy purist, with stances that would be in line with those of the conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs.
Hanson is on an electoral surge, that seems set to get a further boost in the Western Australian election in March.
The appeal of Bernardi’s new party, Australian Conservatives, to the electorate is likely to be quite limited. He is not a big name outside his home state of South Australia, where the “disgruntlement” vote is already tied up in the hands of Nick Xenophon, a populist and more centrist brand.
He’ll have appeal to some in the Coalition conservative base, but only a narrow band is likely to be attracted. One important (so say nothing of super wealthy) fan, incidentally, is Gina Rinehart.
ABC electoral analyst Antony Green predicts that Bernardi “is not going to have a significant electoral impact on the Coalition. The electoral problem for the Coalition is the re-emergence of the populist right in Pauline Hanson.”
But the big danger for the Turnbull government, apart from the appearance of disorder, is that Bernardi will turn up the volume of the hard ideological line coming from the right, including its commentators in the media, who will ensure he receives plenty of publicity.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra