Conservative Aussie lawmaker likely to form own party

South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi has reportedly been emboldened by the rise of populist movements in Britain and the United States.
South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi has reportedly been emboldened by the rise of populist movements in Britain and the United States.

Bernardi's defection will further weaken PM Turnbull: Analysts

A right-wing politician in Australia, Mr Cory Bernardi, is expected to split from the ruling Liberal-National Coalition today to form a new "Australian Conservatives" anti-migrant party, in a move that could further weaken Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's ailing leadership.

According to reports yesterday, Mr Bernardi had informed his staff in recent days that he will quit the Liberal party to form his own party.

The move would be a heavy blow to Mr Turnbull, who has long faced dissent from right-wing members of the ruling conservative Liberal-National Coalition.

Adding to his woes, Mr Turnbull yesterday suffered his worst opinion poll result since he ousted former prime minister Tony Abbott, a staunch conservative, in 2015. The Newspoll survey found support for the Coalition at 46 per cent, trailing support for the opposition Australian Labor Party at 54 per cent, on a two-party preferred basis.

Just 33 per cent of voters were satisfied with Mr Turnbull's performance, while 54 per cent were dissatisfied and 13 per cent uncommitted.

The Coalition's poor standing and Mr Turnbull's failure to set a clear agenda for his leadership or the economy have led to growing speculation about his future.

Political commentator Tom Switzer, a former Liberal party adviser, yesterday said that Mr Turnbull would be lucky to survive the year as leader. "He came to power on a wave of personal popularity, but has lacked political conviction or insight in office," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "It is impossible to know what he thinks other than of his personal political ambition."

But this grim prediction came even before the news emerged of Mr Bernardi's proposed defection.

Mr Bernardi did not comment on his future yesterday, but said last December on the website of his Australian Conservatives organisation that the group was planning a "massive" year in 2017.

A South Australian member of the Upper House, or Senate, he has reportedly been emboldened in recent months by the recent rise of populist movements in Britain and the United States.  He has openly supported a ban on the burqa, and opposes legalising same-sex marriage and action on climate change.

The proposed defection has raised questions about whether other disaffected Coalition MPs could join a new right-wing party. If any MPs from the Lower House were to defect, Mr Turnbull will lose his one-seat majority, and will need to rely on the support of non-government MPs.

Senior Coalition MPs were yesterday quick to call for unity and remind Mr Bernardi that he had been elected as a Liberal.

Analysts said Mr Bernardi's defection could further split the conservative vote, which is already draining support to Ms Pauline Hanson's anti-migrant One Nation party. The party recorded 8 per cent support in the latest Newspoll - enough to ensure that Ms Hanson could be a significant force at the next election.

Political commentator Mark Kenny yesterday said that Mr Bernardi's expected defection would mark a "morale blow to a beleaguered Coalition". Mr Bernardi could yet join forces with One Nation, even though his economic views are far more traditionally conservative than Ms Hanson's populist protectionism.

"By the next election, voters could face a bewildering layer cake of conservatives, all of whom depict the others as slippery appeasers and frauds," Mr Kenny wrote in Fairfax Media.

Other commentators said Mr Bernardi's defection would embolden Labor - which will be able to trumpet the government's disunity - and will in turn undermine Mr Turnbull. This could encourage the Prime Minister to move further away from his progressive views on issues such as same-sex marriage and action on climate change.

ABC political commentator Chris Uhlmann said Mr Turnbull's weakened position will leave him more vulnerable to party critics, and could make "an already risk-averse prime minister even more cautious".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Conservative Aussie lawmaker likely to form own party'. Print Edition | Subscribe