Cory Bernardi Hits The High Seas


So, Cory Bernardi has walked the plank. Again.

Corsairs are not renowned for their discipline, and the piratical Bernardi has made something of a career out of hijacking social issues on the high seas of public discourse. That’s made him a darling of the hardline conservative right, which has applauded his efforts to denigrate the peer-reviewed science of climate chance and publicise the creeping tide of "cultural relativism" that he claims is "being practised by too many of our opinion makers".

Part of the problem with being outspoken, however, is that every now and then someone might chance to listen in. If that’s the tinfoil hat brigade from Menzies House, so much the better. But occasionally the wider public gets to hear about Cory Bernardi’s social views. And, it turns out, most of us find views comparing gay marriage to bestiality a tad… how should we phrase this… bat-shit crazy offensive.

Those of us who’ve followed Bernardi’s quixotic career from champion rower to champion social conservative will not be surprised by the tone or wording of his remarks about gay marriage. They are completely in character with much of what he said, on the public record, for much of his career.

The problem is not so much that Bernardi speaks his mind. The problem is that when people hear what he has to say, it tends to ignite a media firestorm that makes life rather uncomfortable for the Coalition. Take this week’s comments by the good Senator from South Australia, which included this gem on ABC radio in Adelaide:

"There are even some creepy people out there, and I say creepy, who are afforded, unfortunately, a great deal more respect than I believe they should, who say that, you know, it’s OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. And, you know, is that — will that be a future step? Will that be one of the things that say, well, you know, these two creatures love each other, you know, maybe they should be able to join in a union."

Efforts like this are not calculated to smooth the way for a Liberal leader working hard to shrug off his own past as a conservative hardliner. And if there is one thing Tony Abbott admires in politics, it is discipline. So it was probably not a particularly difficult decision to cut Bernardi loose. After all, being a hardliner himself, Abbott has no need to shore up the factional support of Minchin faction from South Australia, which Bernardi took over after Nick Minchin retired.

That’s not to say Abbott hasn’t stored up some future trouble for himself with this decision. Now that Bernardi has walked the plank, he has even less reason to restrain his natural inclinations when it comes to forthright blog posts. As Jonathan Green notes perceptively today, "it seems highly unlikely that his removal from the front bench will silence Bernardi, a man with all the modern tools to easy mass communication — blog, social media network, website staffed by eager acolytes — at his fingertips." Green is surely correct: Bernardi will continue to speak out on hot-button social issues, and will continue to make life awkward for the Coalition.

After all, Bernardi has been sacked before. It was his public attack on South Australian powerbroker Christopher Pyne that led Malcolm Turnbull to sack him in 2009 (Bernardi wrote some choice words about Pyne’s early career as a "wannabe" MP.

And that’s likely to pose some ongoing problems for Tony Abbott in the run-up to the 2013 election, because the truth is that the Liberal Party has moved a long way to the right under his leadership. For the time being, the admirable discipline with which Abbott and his senior leadership team have pursued Julia Gillard and the Labor Party in opposition has meant that the focus has remained almost entirely on the government and its many unpopular policies. But as attention again focuses on the alternative government, the government will make sure it gives the remarks of people like Cory Bernardi plenty of publicity.

It’s true that Abbott handled this sacking with aplomb, neatly sidelining the offending front-bencher and sending him packing to a meeting of young British conservatives, where we will no doubt find a receptive audience. The dismissal also gives Abbott an opportunity to bring Arthur Sinodinos into the fold, where his policy nous and executive experience will clearly be helpful. Despite all this, Having said that, the Bernardi comments have undoubtedly blunted the Coalition’s attempts to get back on track after the minor controversy about Tony Abbott’s distant past as a violence-prone student politician.

Dare I say it, it’s been another good week for Labor, which is starting, ever so slowly, to win back a bit of self-belief. A run of better polls for Labor, the controversy over "the punch", and now the Bernardi sideshow have all played to the government’s advantage.

Few have picked up on it, but this week the Coalition abandoned its attack on the carbon tax, a tacit admission that this once-potent argument has run out of steam. Instead, all of the Coalition’s parliamentary questions revolved around Labor’s unfunded social policies, like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski schools funding reforms. In time, this line of argument may mature into a useful talking point. But the Coalition’s fiscal credentials are scarcely impeccable either.

Whatever the future holds, it appears the battle over the carbon tax is nearly over. That’s a far more significant development than the disciplining of a bigoted Senator.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.