If you’re interested in the electoral prospects of renegade Liberal senator Cory Bernardi and his new “Australian Conservatives”, you should start by reading yesterday’s assessment by my colleague, William Bowe – it’s very good. He doesn’t expect Bernardi to have much impact; as he says, “Unless he can fundamentally reinvent himself, and project the fact to a public that for the most part doesn’t know who he is, Bernardi will be left fighting for religious conservative scraps with Family First, the Christian Democratic Party and, closer to the edge, Rise Up Australia.”
But I thought it’s worth digging a little deeper to see just what Bernardi represents. In particular, to consider the question of why someone who clearly hates freedom so much – as demonstrated by his attitudes towards Muslims, immigrants and gay people, for a start – should present himself as a defender of freedom, and have that claim taken seriously.
Part of the answer is evidently that Bernardi does believe in freedom in some matters: he is mostly a free marketeer, supporting free trade and deregulation. That distinguishes him from many other components of Australia’s extreme right (more about that shortly).
But that’s only part of it. The larger truth, as I tried to set out at the time of Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to the leadership, is that the invocation of freedom in certain circles of the right, has become totemic. It doesn’t denote a policy or philosophical position, but a tribal one: hatred of the left. As I said, “when someone like Turnbull embraces free-market policies, it not only fails to mollify the hard right; it actually enrages them more. They see it as stealing their clothes, and cannot admit (even to themselves) that their real uniform is quite different.”
I don’t for a moment dispute that support for the free market is an important component of freedom. And without claiming any deep knowledge of his thought process, I don’t question the sincerity of Bernardi’s commitment to those policies. But it remains an odd combination, and we need to see behind some of the common features of Australian political discourse to see just how odd it is.
Most political groups of any sort are alliances, coalitions of more or less disparate interests. The Australian conservative movement is no exception. While Bernardi’s mix of economic liberalism and social authoritariansm is typical of the movement as a whole, it is very much not typical of most of the individuals that compose it.
The vast majority of such individuals care about one or the other. They may be free-marketeers, for whom the social issues (on which they may have varying opinions) are of secondary importance. Or they may primarily be social conservatives, largely indifferent to economic issues – some being happy to go along with free market policies, others lukewarm about them, others frankly hostile.
And some, of course, are neither – their approach to politics is tribal, not ideological, and conservatism is just their team.
“Movement” conservatism in the United States, where so many of our trends come from, has done more to make it look like a coherent package, but it has done so under the influence of a religious fundamentalism that is quite alien to Australian traditions. Nonetheless it has made some inroads among the younger generation here, and it is clearly where Bernardi is looking for his model.
Ironically enough, he is doing so just at the time when political developments in America have overtaken it. The Trump movement, with allegiance to neither side of the conservative policy combination, has stolen its ground by taking over its authoritarianism and emptying it of any other policy content. The conservative movement as a result is splitting between those who care more about policy and those who care more about tribal hatreds.
Bernardi’s enthusiasm for Trump might suggest that he belongs in the latter camp. The affinity he has expressed for One Nation – which in Australia represents the closest analogue to the Trump movement – points the same way.
But that raises the question of why Bernardi wants to start out on his own rather than just joining One Nation. And although various tactical reasons could be offered to answer that, the more likely answer seems that Bernardi really believes in (both halves of) conservative policy. He may be competing for One Nation’s electoral ground, but unlike them, he wants to anchor a Trump-like enthusiasm to the conservative policy package.
It’s that sincerity of belief that makes Bernardi unusual. If you look at most conservative groups in Australia – the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, or the right wing of the Liberal Party – you will find free marketeers and social conservatives, in varying proportions, but not much overlap between the two. Bernardi, however, has swallowed whole the idea that the two go together.
That gives him a unique opportunity: a clever, charismatic leader with Bernardi’s views could potentially unite the disparate elements into a major force. But it seems to me more likely that Bernardi, lacking both intelligence and charisma, will be distrusted by both and before long will vanish without trace. Time will tell.
For the anti-market left, of course, it’s very convenient to conflate the two. And the left has a similar contradiction on its side, supporting social freedom but opposing economic freedom. But at least the left has a theory about why the latter shouldn’t count as “real” freedom, or should have a low priority. (I don’t agree with that theory, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The right has just learned to live with the contradiction.
So by all means criticise actual free marketeers – not just Bernardi – for being enablers of authoritarianism. But it’s important nonetheless to keep the distinction clear, and to appreciate that those, like Bernardi, who can’t see it at all are a rare breed.