As the mar­riage de­bate evolves into a bat­tle be­tween equal­ity and free­dom, Cory Bernardi shapes the fight from the right.



The same-sex mar­riage de­bate has evolved into a bat­tle of ideas. The bat­tle is new, but the war is old. By ex­clud­ing ro­bust pro­tec­tions for free­dom in the draft same-sex mar­riage bill, the Lib­eral Party sur­ren­dered its chance to lead the de­bate from the cen­tre-right.

The val­ues deficit that char­ac­terises the rise of cen­trism in the body politic threat­ens the fu­ture of the Lib­er­als as a party of ideas. As the same-sex mar­riage de­bate evolves into a bat­tle be­tween the ideals of equal­ity and free­dom, Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives leader and Lib­eral de­fec­tor Cory Bernardi is shap­ing the fight from the right. The re­sult of the plebiscite will give some in­di­ca­tion of whether the new-right val­ues adopted by Bernardi will de­velop into a more main­stream po­lit­i­cal agenda em­braced by the elec­torate.

On the eve of the US elec­tion, few be­lieved Don­ald Trump would win of­fice. His vic­tory ex­cited hopes for a re­nais­sance of the new-right in the US, Europe and Aus­tralia. From the re­cesses of the Lib­eral Party, Bernardi cheered for Trump. In the fash­ion of the Don, he vowed to “make Aus­tralia great again”.

Early this year, Bernardi de­fected from the Lib­eral Party to cre­ate the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives with a de­cid­edly new-right agenda for change. Yet less than a year af­ter Trump rode into of­fice on the back of Brexit, hopes for a new-right re­nais­sance are fad­ing. The tran­sat­lantic Trump ef­fect failed to ma­te­ri­alise. The val­ues that dis­tin­guish the new-right from cen­trism are not ac­cepted by the main­stream. The prospects for en­light­ened con­ser­vatism ap­pear dim.

Is the new-right dead? The ques­tion be­ing asked today was posed 40 years ago. Af­ter the Democrats won the 1976 elec­tion, Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tu­als an­swered in the af­fir­ma­tive. Ret­ro­spec­tives on the still­born movement to res­ur­rect Western so­ci­ety from the rav­ages of left coun­ter­cul­ture flour­ished. In 1977, Jeane Kirk­patrick penned a fine anal­y­sis for Com­men­tary. She ex­plained the key dif­fer­ences be­tween newright and main­stream Repub­li­can thought. New-right ad­vo­cates be­lieved in the po­lit­i­cal idea of a “hid­den con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity”. They un­der­stood in­equal­ity not as an eco­nomic is­sue pri­mar­ily, but as a di­vide be­tween a “lib­eral elite and every­one else”. They sought to cre­ate a clear ide­o­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two ma­jor par­ties. They tar­geted lib­eral me­dia mo­nop­o­lies for dis­tort­ing in­for­ma­tion about gov­ern­ment, poli­cies and pro­grams. They be­lieved a new party might be needed to up­hold a gen­uinely con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics be­cause the Repub­li­cans had em­braced big gov­ern­ment, and shifted to the left on do­mes­tic and so­cial pol­icy.

In some im­por­tant ways, the new-right was to the 1970s what Trump’s Make Amer­ica Great Again cam­paign was to 2016.

De­spite her reser­va­tions about the new-right, Kirk­patrick was pre­scient in pre­dict­ing it would rise again be­cause many of its philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples were fun­da­men­tal to the for­ma­tion of Amer­i­can iden­tity. How­ever, she erred in con­tend­ing the new-right was in­com­pat­i­ble with main­stream party pol­i­tics by virtue of be­ing too con­ser­va­tive in prin­ci­ple.

Kirk­patrick crit­i­cised a failed Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for his sug­ges­tion that the party could be re­vi­talised only as its lead­ers com- mit­ted to a “clear-cut con­ser­va­tive po­si­tion”. The failed nom­i­nee ar­gued that a hid­den con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity could be mo­bilised for elec­toral vic­tory by “lead­er­ship that ar­tic­u­lates the ba­sic dis­agree­ments sep­a­rat­ing lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives in our time”. Less than a decade later, Kirk­patrick was serv­ing un­der the failed Repub­li­can nom­i­nee she had crit­i­cised for be­ing too con­ser­va­tive: the newright ad­vo­cate who be­came US pres­i­dent, Ron­ald Rea­gan.

In the 80s, Rea­gan re­vi­talised the Repub­li­cans in new-right fash­ion. Af­ter the years of bi­par­ti­san cen­trism that fol­lowed, many hoped Trump would usher in a new con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics. Buoyed by Brexit and the US elec­tion out­come, Europe’s new-right hope­fuls bet on the Trump ef­fect go­ing tran­sat­lantic. Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban de­clared 2017 the year of re­bel­lion. The key themes of the re­volt would be sovereignty, im­mi­gra­tion, bor­der in­tegrity and the pri­macy of Western civil­i­sa­tion as na­tional cul­ture. The proxy mea­sure of pop­u­lar sup­port for the new-right in Europe would be a se­ries of gen­eral elec­tions. By midyear, it had be­come clear the Trump ef­fect was not go­ing tran­sat­lantic. The Dutch and French elec­tions re­warded can­di­dates who cam­paigned as cen­trists. Tory cen­trist Theresa May won the Bri­tish elec­tion. Speak­ing from Lon­don in July, Aus­tralian PM Mal­colm Turn­bull found com­mon cause with cen­trists May and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and re­jected con­ser­vatism as the ba­sis of cen­tre-right pol­i­tics. In tri­umphal­ist tones last week, Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker de­clared a “United States of Europe” and warned Bri­tain would soon re­gret its de­ci­sion to leave the EU. The fi­nal elec­toral test of pop­u­lar sup­port for new-right pol­i­tics in Europe is the Ger­man elec­tion to be held on Septem­ber 24. Polling sug­gests that once again, it will be a tri­umph of cen­trist pol­i­tics.

The great hope for a new-right re­nais­sance in the West has given way to pop­u­lar af­fir­ma­tion of cen­trist politi­cians and an end­less pa­rade of PC cul­ture rev­o­lu­tions. Turn­bull de­fended democ­racy in prin­ci­ple against the Lib­eral left’s push to en­force same-sex mar- riage with­out a peo­ple’s vote. How­ever, in the weeks since sen­a­tor Dean Smith pre­sented the draft same-sex mar­riage bill, Lib­eral back­ers of mar­riage re­form have ig­nored calls to strengthen pro­vi­sions for free­dom of speech and re­li­gious free­dom. The cam­paign for free­dom has been rel­e­gated largely to the Lib­eral back­bench. Once again, cen­trist gov­ern­ment has proven im­po­tent in the face of PC cul­ture.

Bernardi has seized on the Lib­eral val­ues vacuum. Like Rea­gan, he is fash­ion­ing the cause of free­dom as a cen­tral con­ser­va­tive value.

On Saturday, he re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion at the na­tional launch of the Coali­tion for Mar­riage cam­paign af­ter de­fend­ing free speech and re­li­gious free­dom.

Bernardi seems to re­alise what the Lib­eral lead­er­ship does not. The same-sex mar­riage de­bate has evolved into a bat­tle of ideas be­tween equal­ity and free­dom. In a time of cul­tural cri­sis, val­ues mat­ter greatly. The fi­nal re­sult of the same-sex mar­riage cam­paign will re­veal what val­ues mat­ter most to Aus­tralians.

Lib­eral de­fec­tor Cory Bernardi is shap­ing the fight from the right

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