A year on from Cory Bernardi’s de­fec­tion, his po­lit­i­cal union with Lyle Shel­ton is founded on Joh-era pop­u­lar con­ser­vatism and a shared abil­ity to at­tract at­ten­tion. By Mar­tin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

For Lyle Shel­ton, it was a home­com­ing. He had, fi­nally, es­caped the cap­i­tal – a place of empty suits and shal­low prom­ises. He told the crowd in Toowoomba, Queens­land, that “af­ter more than a decade liv­ing in Can­berra, fight­ing for truth and free­dom, I can tell you that Can­berra is bro­ken”.

For the lat­ter half of that decade, Shel­ton had been man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby, and, for much of 2017, the near-ubiq­ui­tous face of the “No” cam­paign. Now, in his home­town, he was an­nounc­ing his align­ment with Se­na­tor Cory Bernardi’s Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives party – as its new head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and, come the fed­eral elec­tion, as a can­di­date for the Se­nate.

It was the best way to re­cap­ture a lost Aus­tralia, he said. The coun­try of his child­hood – sim­ple, con­fi­dent and pi­ous – had been ceded to the “Green rain­bow left”. It was a com­mon sort of po­lit­i­cal speech, part eu­logy and part bat­tle hymn. “This is not the Aus­tralia I grew up in,” he lamented. “But I be­lieve that there are things in life worth fight­ing for.”

“We need peo­ple that are go­ing to get at the coal­face of pol­i­tics. They’re go­ing to get them­selves into par­lia­ment to make a dif­fer­ence, to fight without fear or favour for the things that mat­ter,” Se­na­tor Bernardi said of his re­cruit.

“Here is a man who lives his prin­ci­ples ev­ery sin­gle day, not only in the pub­lic sphere but in his pri­vate life as well.”

Toowoomba – and the Dar­ling Downs re­gion it helps com­prise – has long been home to Queens­land’s re­li­gious right. In the 1980s, Shel­ton’s fa­ther was sec­ond-in-charge of the

Lo­gos Foun­da­tion, a con­tro­ver­sial or­gan­i­sa­tion based in the town. Lo­gos urged Chris­tians’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics, but this mo­ti­va­tion was driven by Do­min­ion­ism – the be­lief that the Bi­ble man­dates Chris­tian oc­cu­pancy of sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tions.

Lo­gos col­lapsed in 1990 af­ter the ex­po­sure of its leader’s adul­tery, but not be­fore it had ar­dently cam­paigned for the re-elec­tion of “the godly man in gov­ern­ment”, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The Queens­land gov­ern­ment’s as­ton­ish­ing cor­rup­tion had al­ready been re­vealed in the Fitzger­ald in­quiry, but Lo­gos con­sid­ered this less im­por­tant than its po­si­tion on abor­tion and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

To­day, there is more than a whiff of Bjelke-Petersen’s rad­i­cal pop­ulism in Bernardi’s Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives. And when the self-de­scribed “benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor” of Queens­land made his dis­as­trous tilt for prime min­is­ter, he did so with the same rhetoric of Bernardi’s party. It’s a well-thumbed play­book: chan­nel pop­u­lar scorn and de­ri­sion of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and present one­self as an un­com­pro­mised and plain­spo­ken re­former. Don­ald Trump is only the most re­cent – and spec­tac­u­lar – ex­em­plar of this strat­egy.

For good parts of 2016, then Lib­eral Bernardi was in pub­lic con­test with his own party. He de­plored the gov­ern­ment’s em­brace of “new so­cial­ism” – higher taxes and gov­ern­ment spend­ing – and thought its de­fence of free­dom of speech feck­less. There was open an­tag­o­nism between the se­na­tor and his mod­er­ate col­leagues.

Sec­onded to the United Na­tions for three months, Bernardi watched with ex­cite­ment the im­plau­si­ble rise of Trump. From New York, a buoyed Bernardi told the ABC that, “The move­ment against the es­tab­lish­ment po­lit­i­cal par­ties, who have con­sis­tently and wil­fully ig­nored the main­stream ma­jor­ity in favour of their own power and self-in­ter­est, is mov­ing across the globe.”

If he had any doubts about de­fec­tion, Trump’s elec­tion seemed to ban­ish them. Trump and Brexit were waves, and Bernardi would ride them. When par­lia­ment be­gan at the start of last year, Bernardi made of­fi­cial what had long been an­tic­i­pated. “The level of pub­lic dis­en­chant­ment with the ma­jor par­ties, the lack of con­fi­dence in our po­lit­i­cal process, and the con­cern about the di­rec­tion of our na­tion is very, very strong,” Bernardi said in a speech an­nounc­ing his new party. “It re­ally is time for a bet­ter way – for a con­ser­va­tive way.”

His col­leagues were al­most unan­i­mous in their de­ri­sion. Mal­colm Turn­bull said Bernardi’s ex­pla­na­tion for his de­fec­tion was “not sat­is­fac­tory”, and many pointed out that Bernardi had only re­cently been re-elected as a Lib­eral. If he were more prin­ci­pled, his col­leagues said, he would have re­signed from the Lib­eral Party prior to the elec­tion and con­tested it un­der his own ban­ner. “Break­ing faith with the electorate, break­ing faith with the peo­ple who voted for you, break­ing faith with the peo­ple who have sup­ported you through thick and thin for years, is not a con­ser­va­tive thing to do,” then at­tor­ney-gen­eral Ge­orge Bran­dis said.

This week marks a year since that faith was bro­ken.

The align­ment of Bernardi and Shel­ton sur­prised few. Both men are pug­na­cious, me­dia hun­gry and fre­quently ou­tra­geous. Shel­ton once de­clared that the Safe Schools pro­gram was akin to Nazism, and Bernardi be­lieved that le­gal­is­ing same-sex mar­riage would even­tu­ally lead to so­cial sym­pa­thy for bes­tial­ity. Both men in­sist that free­dom of speech and re­li­gion are im­per­illed, even while Bernardi con­tin­ues his long-cam­paign to out­law the burqa and re­strict Is­lamic im­mi­gra­tion. Bernardi’s con­cept of re­li­gious free­dom is an ex­clu­sive one.

But per­haps what most binds the men, be­yond their faith, is an abil­ity to gen­er­ate the ap­pear­ance of in­flated in­flu­ence. The Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby is not a peak body. Its board is un­elected and very far from be­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive. In a 2016 fea­ture I wrote on the group, it was re­peat­edly pointed out to me – by church lead­ers, aca­demics and politi­cians – that its in­flu­ence is se­ri­ally over­stated.

Sim­i­larly, Bernardi gen­er­ates dis­pro­por­tion­ate head­lines. He’s aware that stunts and of­fen­sive provo­ca­tion are cat­nip for the me­dia. But polling on his party – new as it is – is not ter­ri­bly im­pres­sive. The Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives’ can­di­date in the re­cent Ben­ne­long by­elec­tion at­tained less than 5 per cent of the pri­mary vote. In Bernardi’s home state of South Aus­tralia, polling an­tic­i­pat­ing next month’s state elec­tion sug­gests a prospec­tive 6 per cent pri­mary vote. Bernardi might find some plea­sure in know­ing that the fig­ure is equal to the Greens, but in South Aus­tralia the largest third party – by an enor­mous mar­gin – is Nick Xenophon’s SA Best. De­cem­ber polling sug­gests SA Best could at­tract a stag­ger­ing 32 per cent of the pri­mary vote – more than ei­ther of the ma­jor par­ties – and Xenophon topped the list of pre­ferred premiers. Com­pared with this, the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives are a sideshow.

For now, Bernardi and Shel­ton must hope that Tony Ab­bott is cor­rect in his be­lief – or hope – that the 40 per cent of Aus­tralians who voted “no” on same-sex mar­riage would form the base of a new, re­cast Aus­tralian con­ser­vatism. Whether bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ism and re­ac­tionary fer­vour are suf­fi­cient to har­ness the rump of that pop­u­la­tion is another mat­ter.

In Cory Bernardi’s early years in the Se­nate, he would be proudly pho­tographed with Thatcher bi­ogra­phies and would tell peo­ple that, in idle mo­ments, he would lis­ten to Rea­gan speeches to en­liven his blood. But Thatcher both­ered to read Hayek, and Rea­gan, who didn’t, at least sur­rounded him­self with sub­stan­tial peo­ple. Nei­ther could be said of Bernardi.

Early on, Lib­eral col­leagues com­plained of Bernardi’s shal­low knowl­edge but in­fi­nite ca­pac­ity for self­pro­mo­tion. “Cory is a per­son without any in­tel­lect, without any base, and he should re­ally never have risen above the po­si­tion of branch pres­i­dent,” a Lib­eral col­league told jour­nal­ist Sally Neigh­bour in 2011. “His right-wing ma­cho-man act is just his way of look­ing as though he stands for some­thing.”

In 2018, Bernardi’s guid­ing stars have changed. Two lead­ing ones are

Milo Yiannopou­los and Trump, who are no Thatcher or Rea­gan. Yiannopou­los is a clown­ish pro­moter of white re­van­chism, an in­fer­nal en­gine of bile. The most use­ful spear­ing of the Milo myth came cour­tesy of his book’s ed­i­tor at Si­mon and Schus­ter, in doc­u­ments pub­licly re­vealed in a civil suit late last year. Milo was su­ing for wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion of his book con­tract. The an­no­tated man­u­script re­vealed an in­tel­lec­tual fraud and slovenly writer, an au­thor scolded by his own ed­i­tor for ig­no­rance and repet­i­tive self-praise.

“At best,” the edit­ing as­sess­ment reads, “a su­per­fi­cial work full of in­cen­di­ary jokes with no co­her­ent or so­phis­ti­cated anal­y­sis of po­lit­i­cal is­sues.” This was the same man in­vited, by mul­ti­ple mi­nor par­ties, to speak in Par­lia­ment House late last year.

Bernardi’s fond­ness for Yiannopou­los is symp­to­matic of what com­prises much of con­tem­po­rary con­ser­vatism in this coun­try. Self-as­sured but shal­low, both men are provo­ca­teurs who pre­fer com­bat to re­flec­tion. But it’s witless com­bat, an end­less game of bai­tand-switch. Say ou­tra­geous things, then con­demn as cen­so­ri­ous the sub­se­quent out­rage. Last month, Bernardi re­leased his own Hottest 100 – a re­buke to Triple J’s shift­ing of its fa­mous count­down from Jan­u­ary 26. Some of the artists made their dis­dain clear, as Bernardi knew they would. It reeked of cal­low cam­pus pol­i­tick­ing – en­tice your op­po­nent’s petu­lance, then mock it.

You might think a se­vere so­cial con­ser­va­tive would find lit­tle ground with a gay man who en­dorsed ped­erasty. Or with the United States pres­i­dent, a se­rial phi­lan­derer, draft-dodger and his­toric sabo­teur of his coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. But this would ig­nore their pri­mal bond: po­lit­i­cal theatre.

Pop­u­lar con­ser­vatism in this coun­try has be­come grasp­ing, ahis­tor­i­cal and the­atri­cally re­ac­tionary. Too of­ten it’s re­duced to the de­cry­ing of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and “elites”. But when the cen­tral mo­ti­va­tion, and the pre­vail­ing plea­sure, is sopho­moric provo­ca­tion – well, I can think of few things more sug­ges­tive of “elite” in­dul­gence.

We will wait and see how suc­cess­ful Shel­ton and Bernardi are in re­viv­ing the legacy of Sir Joh – and how many Aus­tralians share their yearn­ing for those

• sim­pler times.

Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives Cory Bernardi (left) and Lyle Shel­ton in Toowoomba at the week­end.

MAR­TIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Paper’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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