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