When political parties splinter, the consequences can linger for generations. Consider the Labor “split” of the 1950’s between the Catholic right and the Labor centre and centre-left.
In those days, the word “progressive” to describe a political tendency was not in general use, but those who remained in Labor’s ranks were forerunners of today’s “progressives”.
The Labor “split” kept the party out of power for a generation and reverberates in Australian politics to this day. It can be seen in elements of an old Labor working class constituency gravitating towards the populism of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and now, potentially, South Australian maverick Cory Bernardi.
It would be a stretch to compare Bernardi’s defection this week from the Liberal Party to establish his own “conservative movement” with the Labor split of the 1950’s. But combined with Hanson’s One Nation, these are perilous developments for the major parties.
Are we, as it seems, observing a further crumbling of the political centre with unpredictable consequences for the country’s direction? Or will we revert to the norm in which the major parties – aided by a voting system that favours the status quo – reassert themselves?
In the short term, I doubt that we will return to status quo politics.
If there was a detail writ large by this week’s Newspoll it was that one in three Australians were attracted to non-mainstream parties of left and right.
On top of that, a shrinking Coalition primary vote – which is down seven percent from the election to 35% – will have been especially worrying for a right-leaning alignment.
This far out from the next election due in 2019, polls are snapshots of the electorate’s mood. They are in no way prescriptive, but there is an unmistakable trend: support for the Coalition is continuing to bleed to movements of the right.
Just as Labor support has, over many years, bled to the populist Left in the form of the Greens, so is the conservative mainstream suppurating to Hanson’s One Nation and others on the right.
What makes all of this even more concerning – and less controllable – for the mainstream is that whatever is happening here is part of a global trend that is manifesting itself across Western democracies.
Donald Trump’s election on a populist anti-status quo platform in which he emphasised an inchoate antagonism towards outsiders – accompanied by nativist America First theology rooted in a need to build walls, economic and otherwise – is echoed by Hanson and now Bernardi, along with others.
Bernardi tells us he wants to “make Australia great again”.
Expectations Trumpism will crash and burn sooner rather than later may prove to be misplaced. Assumptions on which a rules-based, liberalising global order rests are being revisited, and risk being torn apart.
In France, for example, likely standard bearers in the forthcoming presidential election are espousing a form of anti-status quo populism of left and right as they compete for an army of disaffected voters across the political spectrum.
Historians and political scientists are scrambling to explain a populist phenomenon whose waves have crashed across the political landscape in the past year. It began with Brexit, followed by the Trump earthquake and accompanied now by indications German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader – in the abdication of a US president – of liberal Western democracies, is in deep trouble with elections pending.
At home, Malcolm Turnbull, who has burnished his progressive credentials over many years, is himself a victim of a global antagonism towards identity politics and progressivism.
Turnbull can seek to reinvent himself by yielding ground to the right, but in the process he is squandering a valuable commodity – authenticity. And indeed inviting questions about whether he believed in anything in the first place, separate from acquiring power.
His give ‘em hell speech in parliament this week – in which he eviscerated opposition leader Bill Shorten over contradictions inherent in Shorten’s criticism of the prime minister’s elitist pretentions – is unlikely to be the game changer his supporters crave, unless it is accompanied by a marketable political narrative, and there is not much sign of that.
So, where is all this leading?
Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at Oxford and one of this generation’s more perceptive commentators, contributed a characteristically thoughtful assessment of where we stand now in the development of populist movements.
She makes a good point about what distinguishes the present from the past when she writes:
Protest movements throughout history have furnished ideas and leaders that have eventually become part of the political mainstream. The populist campaigns that gained so much ground in 2016, most notably in the UK and the US, are different, because they categorically deny the establishment’s legitimacy.
MacMillan reminds us that populism was first described in the late 19th century by American farmers railing against banks and railroad monopolies. These days, populist movements decry an establishment represented by the media, industrialists and politicians.
When Trump talks about “draining the swamp, these are his targets, especially a media that questions his word and his integrity, since his world is built on make-believe.
As MacMillian writes:
Political orientation is unimportant in populism, because it does not deal in evidence or detailed proposals for change, but in the manipulation of feelings by charismatic leaders.
Unlike traditional conservative or socialist parties, the new populism does not appeal to a socioeconomic class, but to identity and culture. Populists’ target audience is anyone who feels economically threatened by globalisation, worries that immigrants are taking jobs and changing the composition of society, or is simply unhappy with a perceived loss of status (a sentiment reflected in hostility, especially among white men to “political correctness”).
MacMillian’s essay describes the condition, but is less sure about what might be done to counter a trend that is upending the status quo.
Bernardi’s defection from the Liberal Party this week is less important in itself than what it says about a wider trend towards a fracturing of Australian politics. We have entered a new phase in which a split in conservative ranks risks proving the harbinger of an unsettling political environment unseen since the early days of Federation, and more recently the Labor split.
After Malcolm Turnbull called Bill Shorten a “social-climbing sycophant”, a “parasite”, and a “hypocrite” in parliament on Wednesday, Liberal Party director Tony Nutt tweeted a link, so people could watch Turnbull “tell the truth” about Shorten.
The Liberals obviously think Turnbull’s extraordinary harangue will go down well with Mr and Mrs Suburbia. Victorian senator James Paterson told 2GB it was “great to see a bit of steel from the PM, I think that’s exactly what the people want”.
Maybe. But it is equally possible ordinary people might see this as another example of just what they dislike about politics. Nutt has been around long enough to recall the experience of Paul Keating. Insiders loved his colourful tirades, insulting and demolishing opponents. But the voters came to hate them.
Turnbull went boots and all for the personal onslaught after Shorten attempted to move a motion against “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, claiming he was “attacking the standard of living of over a million Australian families” with an omnibus bill which includes big savings in social security as well as reform of the childcare system.
The speech was notable for its sheer quantity of sustained abuse.
“We have just heard from that great sycophant of billionaires, the leader of the opposition,” Turnbull said. “All the lectures, trying to run a politics of envy – when he was a regular dinner guest at Raheen, always there with Dick Pratt, sucking up to Dick Pratt. Did he knock back the Cristal [champagne]? I don’t think so.
“There was never a union leader in Melbourne that tucked his knees under more billionaire’s tables than the leader of the opposition. He lapped it up!
“He was such a sycophant, a social-climbing sycophant if ever there was one. There has never been a more sycophantic leader of the Labor Party than this one and he comes here and poses as a tribune of the people.
“Harbourside mansions – he’s yearning for one! He is yearning to get into Kirribilli House. You know why? Because somebody else pays for it.
“Just like he loved knocking back Dick Pratt’s Cristal, just as he looked forward to living in luxury at the expense of the taxpayer. This man is a parasite.
“He has no respect for the taxpayer. He has no respect for the taxpayer any more than he has respect for the members of the Australian Workers Union he betrayed again and again. He sold them out.”
Quoting Shorten’s words of some years ago that lowering company tax assisted job creation, Turnbull said: “I reckon he probably talked about that with Dick Pratt and Solly Lew and Lindsay Fox and all the other billionaires he liked sucking up to in Melbourne, on their corporate jets”.
“Or did he give them the blast, the good attack on the rich, down with anyone that has got a quid. … I don’t think so.
“No, I think he just sucked up to them … I think he says one thing here and another thing in the comfortable lounge rooms of Melbourne …
“No consistency, no integrity … This simpering sycophant. Blowing hard in the House of Representatives, sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne. What a hypocrite!”
Turnbull has many faces but this is not the one most people would have expected when he overthrew that aggressive verbal boxer Tony Abbott. He stood for another political style.
So what’s made him flick the switch to nasty?
He’s been obviously stung by Shorten’s adoption of the “Mr Harbourside mansion” handle that Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief-of-staff, attached to him before the election. After Shorten again tossed the term out last week, he reacted angrily.
Also Turnbull must be seriously discombobulated by a dreadful start to the year, including this week’s bad Newspoll followed by the defection of Cory Bernardi to set up a conservative party.
Turnbull knows his followers are uneasy. Nothing like a red meat speech, delivered with his superior barrister’s skill, to provide them with a short-term adrenaline rush.
But closer to the interests of the average voters than Wednesday’s hyperbole around it will be the actual measures in the omnibus bill, which includes a reworking of certain earlier initiatives in an effort to massage them through the Senate. A lot of people stand to be affected, positively or negatively, by the content of this enormous bill.
The childcare reforms, designed to boost workforce participation, are as they were proposed previously. The government says the changes would give about 1 million families “relief from out-of-pocket child care cost pressures” and “encourage more than 230,000 families to increase their involvement in paid employment”.
Also in the bill are savings of more than A$5.5 billion, including changes to the family tax benefit (FTB) system and to paid parental leave provisions.
But the government has softened its proposals in both these areas, to accommodate crossbench senators.
Thus, while it still would phase out FTB end-of-year supplements, it would double to $20 the maximum fortnightly payment rates of FTB Part A. It has also abandoned its planned scaling back of FTB Part B for children between 13 and 16.
And it will increase from 18 to 20 the maximum number of weeks the government’s paid parental leave scheme provides.
The concessions will reduce the savings the government would originally have got by about $2.4 billion.
But as “cameos” flew from government and opposition about how individual families would be affected, Shorten said that “the prime minister is taking $2.7 billion from Australian families and yet he proposes giving $7.4 billion to big banks in tax giveaways”.
“We draw a line in the sand on this $2.7 billion cut to family payments. We are not buying it and the Australian people are not buying it,” he told parliament.
The omnibus legislation also includes other leftovers from past attempts to tighten social security, among them various pension-related savings and the four-week waiting period for unemployed young people seeking income support payments.
The government seems confident it has a set of measures it can “land” in parliament. But there will likely be more trade-offs required for that to happen, amid a good deal of noise from those who stand to lose.
The package will need better salesmanship than on Wednesday, when the mass of detail had it struggling to be understood – and then it was overshadowed by the Turnbull rant.
Senator Cory Bernardi’s decision to quit the Liberal Party comes as no surprise to most political observers. For quite some time, and certainly since Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to the Liberal leadership, Bernardi’s resignation from the party was always a distinct possibility.
However, his decision to quit the party without resigning from the Senate has sparked (the inevitable) condemnation from his former party colleagues. While he might well be feeling “reluctant and relieved”, many Coalition MPs are savage about this decision.
Parties have little mercy for those in their ranks who quit the party but continue to occupy their seat in parliament. Such persons are often decried as “deserters” or “rats”.
In this case, the displeasure with Bernardi runs even deeper. From the Liberal Party’s perspective, it believed it had gone to some lengths to accommodate some of the senator’s policy concerns. Yet the efforts to appease Bernardi ultimately proved insufficient to prevent him from tendering his resignation only seven months after the federal election that granted him a six-year Senate term.
On a more practical level, Bernardi’s resignation makes an already complex Senate even more so for the Turnbull government. Once the vacancies triggered by Rod Culleton and Bob Day are filled, Bernardi will be among a 21-strong cross bench. The Turnbull government’s numbers have been reduced to 29 senators, 10 votes short of the 39 it needs to transact most business in the chamber.
High-profile, senior Liberal Party ministers, such as George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, have argued that Bernardi should resign as senator to give rise to a casual vacancy. This would enable the party to select a replacement senator.
The problem for the Liberals is that Bernardi does not believe he is under any particular obligation to do this. For Bernardi, the decision to resign from the Liberal Party is a matter of principle, and therefore justified and imperative.
In constitutional terms, Bernardi is not obliged to quit the Senate just because he has resigned from the Liberal Party. The party can do little to force his hand, except to hope that he might eventually fall foul of the Constitution’s various eligibility requirements to serve in the federal parliament. This would be unlikely.
While there is no constitutional basis for Bernardi to resign from the chamber, there is a compelling ethical case for him to do so.
Before I outline my reasons, I must clarify the scope of my claim. First, the argument is not directed exclusively at Bernardi. This is an argument that should apply to any senator who quits his or her party, short of reasons of their party imploding, or being fired by the party.
Secondly, this argument is not one that I would extend to members of the House of Representatives who resign from their party. It is particular only to party defections when the member was elected in a seat through proportional representation.
My argument is essentially tied to two particular features of the Senate electoral system: the statewide basis of that system and group ticket voting. In combination, these elements greatly heighten the importance of the party label to the electoral success of major party candidates.
The statewide basis of the electoral system creates a geographical obstacle for all but a rarefied group of candidates to build a sufficiently strong personal mandate to secure a Senate quota. For this reason most independent candidates choose to contest lower house electorates rather than nominate for the Senate, where campaigning is conducted over a much wider, often more diverse electoral terrain.
Group ticket voting has further elevated the importance of the party label to the election of Senate candidates. Known colloquially as “above the line” voting, it allows parties to predetermine their preferred order of election of their candidates. While voters are permitted to vote for any candidate in any order that they wish, most do not. Only a very small proportion of voters cast their vote within the party list.
The combination of these features of the Senate electoral system means that most major party senators would struggle to make a convincing case that they were elected on the basis of personal appeal and support.
If we use Bernardi as the case in point, of the 345,767 votes cast for the South Australian Liberals at the 2016 election, he attracted just 2,043 of the first preference vote. Bernardi’s re-election had almost nothing to do with his personal vote and almost everything to do with the Liberal Party label and the favourable number two Senate spot that South Australian party officials awarded him on the party’s ticket.
Established parties can legitimately claim, therefore, that the single most decisive factor that accounts for the election of their senators is the power of the party label. For this reason, senators who quit their party under the current rules should feel compelled on ethical grounds to resign their vacancy, so that the democratic will of the party’s supporters is fulfilled.
127, mostly tech, companies have signed a brief of support opposing US President Trump’s “Muslim travel ban”. The companies, that include Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Tesla have filed an “amicus brief” with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in support of US District Judge James L. Robart who ordered a stay on Trump’s executive order to ban anyone from 7 countries from entering the US for between 90 and 120 days.
The tech companies have argued that immigration is a central factor in the history and makeup of the US and has helped fuel American innovation and economic growth. Immigrants, or their children, founded more than 200 companies that are amongst the top 500 companies in the US. Between 2006 and 2010, immigrants were responsible for opening 28% of call new businesses in the US. Thirty percent of US Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics have been immigrants.
Mostly however, the brief focuses on the harm that its chaotic implementation will have on US companies. They allege:
“The Order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.
The consequences of this action will be that US companies will lose business and ultimately
“Multinational companies will have strong incentives, including from their own employees, to base operations outside the United States or to move or hire employees and make investments abroad.”
This last is no idle threat. In 2015, it was estimated that US companies have US $2.1 trillion overseas that haven’t been repatriated because of the tax implications. Apple alone has over US $230 billion held outside the US.
The idea of using this money to set up development and further manufacturing capabilities outside the US makes a great deal of sense, even without the imperative of Trump’s actions. However, there is another move that Trump is threatening that may make the decision to move operations outside the US more attractive still.
Trump’s administration is planning to target the high-skilled worker’s H-1B visa. This offers mostly tech companies the ability to recruit up to 85,000 skill developers and other staff from around the world. According to the Republicans and Trump however, tech companies should be recruiting locally.
Companies like Microsoft, where I have first hand experience of recruitment experience, did actively try and recruit within the US. Recruiting from outside is generally more expensive and time consuming and so there is no real reason why tech companies would actively ignore domestic applicants or favour foreign ones. Tech companies seek to employ the best people for the job and if the pool is global, that is how they achieve that goal.
Having offices remotely distributed can be made to work although it makes communications across teams and different product areas more challenging than if they are all in a single location. However, it already happens in most tech companies with Google and Microsoft already having research and product development occurring out of countries like Australia, India and China.
As outlined in the amicus brief, Trump is sowing uncertainty and chaos with his desire to treat policy like tweets on Twitter. That is going to provide enough incentive for companies to brave the potential disapproval from Trump and use the significant investments held outside the US to expand their capabilities.
Trump may succeed, contrary to his intentions, in catalysing a new phase in globalisation in which companies shift their centres from the US to a more distributed model. Of course, companies may still run into problems if Trump’s brand of nationalism succeeds in taking hold in other countries like Australia or Europe.
The other side-effect of the US uncertainty is the fact that increasingly businesses based outside the US will have a competitive advantage and customers may decide that it is easier to avoid doing business with the US for at least the next four years. China is rapidly becoming the technological equal of the US in many ways and so its ascendancy may also benefit.
The amicus curiae brief is the start of a long legal campaign which will aim to keep the worst of Trump’s plans in check. Depending on the outcomes, the world outside the US may actually benefit from Trump if companies are forced to look outside the walls, real and virtual, he is seeking to create.
The first Newspoll of 2017 has Labor leading by 54-46, a 2 point gain for Labor since the final 2016 Newspoll, conducted in early December. Primary votes are 36% for Labor (steady), 35% for the Coalition (down 4), 10% for the Greens (steady) and a high 19% for all Others (up 4). It is Labor’s first primary vote Newspoll lead since Abbott was PM. This poll was conducted Thursday to Sunday from a sample of 1730.
We are told that One Nation had 8%, but this is not reported in the tables. Newspoll is still asking for voter choice between Coalition, Labor, Greens and Others, and then questioning Other voters further. In the past, this method has underestimated the support of significant minor parties, and One Nation is probably in at least the double digits.
Last Friday’s WA Newspoll, on the other hand, asked about One Nation support in the initial readout, finding 13% support for One Nation.
Turnbull’s satisfied rating was up one point to 33%, and his dissatisfied rating down one point to 54%, for a net approval of -21. Shorten’s net approval was -22, down 5 points.
An additional Newspoll question asked whether Australia should adopt a similar policy to the US in “making it harder” for those in 7 Muslim countries to immigrate, finding 44% in favour and 45% opposed. This question wording is somewhat deceptive, as Trump is not “making it harder”, he is outright banning.
In the months after Turnbull deposed Abbott, the Coalition had a large lead over Labor. As Turnbull’s policies became more right wing, the Coalition’s lead diminished, and they only barely won last year’s election. Since the election, Turnbull, at the urging of the hard right of his party, has abandoned positions that once made him appealing to mainstream voters. There is no evidence from the polling under either Turnbull or Abbott that Australians want a hard right government.
In this week’s Essential, primary votes were 37% Labor, 36% Coalition, 10% One Nation, 8% Greens and 3% Nick Xenophon Team. Voting intentions used a two-week sample of 1785, with other questions using one week’s sample.
49% disapproved of Trump’s immigrant ban, with 36% approving; the strongest support came from Other voters (mainly One Nation), who approved 66-25. When asked whether Australia should institute a similar ban to the US, 46% were opposed, and 41% in favour. 53% agreed with Turnbull’s response to the US ban, while 36% disagreed.
50% thought technological change was making people’s lives better, and 25% thought it was making people’s lives worse; in November 2015, it was 56-22 in favour of better.
Cory Bernardi has left the Liberals, and will form an Australian Conservative party. Bernardi was No. 2 on the Liberals’ SA Senate ticket, and thus received a six year term. His term will not expire until June 2022, barring a double dissolution.
Bernardi’s exit will not change the Senate situation much, as he will seldom vote with Labor against the Coalition. I do not expect Bernardi to perform well, as he does not have a high profile with the general public, and will be competing in much the same ideological space as One Nation.
According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, 42% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance as President, and 52% disapprove. Trump has made no effect to be bipartisan, and so those who voted against him disapprove, while the 46% who voted for him are satisfied with his performance.
Those who voted for Trump mostly did so because they approved of his efforts to shake up the system, including his 90-day ban on immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries. Unless Trump does something that angers his support base, his ratings are likely to remain roughly where they are. Much will depend on whether Trump’s economic policies displease the white working class voters.
Impeachment of a President requires a majority of the House and a 2/3 majority of the Senate. The Republicans hold a 241-194 majority in the House, and a 52-48 Senate majority. Assuming all Democrats voted for impeachment, 24 House Republicans and 19 Republican Senators would need to vote for impeachment.
Most of Trump’s policies, such as anti-abortion measures and removing regulations on big business, are strongly supported by establishment Republicans. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, satisfies the conservative base of his party. The Senate confirmed Trump’s controversial Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, by a 56-43 margin, indicating that Republicans are in no mood to impeach Trump.
Impeachment is a drawn-out process where the Senate effectively tries the President with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. Trump would rally his fervent supporters against any serious move to impeach him, putting pressure on Republicans that supported impeachment.
Midterm elections will be held in November 2018, and these give the Democrats a chance to take control of the House and Senate. However, the Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats in 2018, while Republicans defend just 8, so the Democrats appear likely to go backwards.
Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution allows a majority of the Cabinet and the Vice President to remove the President. If the President protests, a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate is required to remove him. This runs into the same problem as impeachment: Republicans generally will not remove Trump, and his hand-picked Cabinet is even less likely to remove him.
If Trump does something so dreadful that even Republicans rush to impeach him, it may already be too late.
Cory Bernardi, who formally defected from the Liberal Party on Tuesday, says he aims to provide the many disillusioned conservative voters with “a principled, credible and stable alternative in which they can vest their vote”.
As some ministers lashed out bitterly at him, accusing him of betraying those who had voted for him, Bernardi said the July election had seen one million votes leave the Liberal Party for alternatives.
“My ambition was always to bring those people back into the tent. I regret over the last seven months or so we see more of them leaving the tent. That says to me there is a serious problem,” he told a news conference.
Earlier, in a speech lasting less than five minutes, he told the Senate: “The body politic is failing the people of Australia”.
“When as a younger man I joined the ship of state, I was in awe of its traditions and the great captains that it guided us on our way. But now, as the seas through which we sail become ever more challenging, the respect for the values and principles that have served us well seem to have been set aside for expedient, self-serving, short-term ends. That approach has not served our nation well.
“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. This is a direct product of us, the political class, being out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people.”
Before his announcement, Bernardi rang Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but he did not attend the Coalition parties meeting to inform it of his decision. He justified this later by saying he had already resigned from the party and so was not eligible to attend.
Turnbull told Coalition MPs the honourable course would be for Bernardi, having been elected as a Liberal, to resign from the Senate – a line reflected in sometimes bitter comments from other Liberals, including South Australian Liberal cabinet minister Christopher Pyne, who tweeted that Bernardi should quit and recontest as an independent.
Tony Abbott, in a post on Facebook which appeared to indirectly criticise Turnbull, said he was “disappointed that more effort has not been made to keep our party united”.
“No government entirely satisfies all of its supporters. This is not an argument to leave; it’s a reason to stay in and fight more effectively for the things we believe in,” Abbott said.
Although critics such as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the defection “dilutes our efforts to defeat the Labor Party”, Bernardi claimed it could “strengthen the ideological grounding of a centre-right government and that is my wish”.
His Australian Conservatives party will run Senate candidates, he said.
Asked whether as a crossbencher he would still vote for Coalition policies, Bernardi said: “My heart, my ethos is steeped in the Liberal Party. … If they put forward good policy, I will support them. If they err, I will tell them and try to amend it.”
On whether billionaire Gina Rinehart, an admirer and friend of Bernardi, would be a big funder of the Australian Conservatives, he said: “I have no idea. That conversation has not taken place.”
Bernardi rejected allegations that he had betrayed the South Australians who had supported him as a Liberal at the election.
“Every single Liberal Party voter and those party members knew exactly what they were supporting. My principles have not changed. My advocacy has not changed. I am seeking to do it in the most effective way.”
He said that going into the last election he had not intended to break away. He had said the election result was not good but “none of the people who said the base doesn’t matter, the conservatives have got nowhere to go, have been held to account for that result”.
He couldn’t say there was one straw that broke the camel’s back for him but “an amalgam of circumstances”.
He did highlight one policy matter for particular criticism. Late last year cabinet had authorised the investigation of what was in effect an emissions trading scheme, he said. “We fought that battle in 2009. It came at a huge personal cost. … I thought, why do I need to continually fight within my own party? I can’t struggle within the tent all by myself.”
The government’s leader in the Senate, George Brandis, said Bernardi had done the “wrong thing”.
“Seven months ago senator Bernardi was happy to stand before the people of South Australia to say he sought their endorsement to serve for a six-year term as a Liberal senator.
“In the seven months since the federal election, nothing has changed. There is no policy for which the Liberal Party and the government stands today, which is not the same as the platform on which senator Bernardi sought election.”
Brandis said the government would deal with Bernardi “as we deal with all members of the crossbench, in a professionally courteous and respectful way”.
“But we do not condone what he has done. Might I say, that if one seeks to restore confidence in the political class, it is a poor way to begin by breaking the promise one makes to one’s electors to serve for the political party on whose platform and whose ticket one stood.
“What senator Bernardi has done today is not a conservative thing to do, because 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 and, indeed, decades is not a conservative thing to do.”
Former minister and a strong conservative Eric Abetz took a softer line than many of his colleagues: “There is no doubt that he is sincerely motivated. For the Senate, one it assumes it won’t make much difference in relation to the votes.”
Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong said: “We know senator Bernardi’s view is far from an isolated one in this government. Because we know that amongst those opposite he is one of many, one of many, who believe that this government stands for nothing.”
Whether it be due to hubris, courage or vanity, South Australian senator Cory Bernardi has decided to forsake the Liberal Party under whose auspices his political career had been nourished.
He will instead seek to create his own political party, Australian Conservatives. According to the conventions of Australian political science, Bernardi’s new party will be categorised as a “minor” party. This means it will be expected to win a minute share of the vote at the next election, that its only prospect for representational success will be in the Senate, and that it will be expected to last no longer than one turn of the Senate electoral cycle.
The current excitement surrounding Bernardi’s defection from the Liberal Party arises because of the deleterious impact it has on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. It also adds to the complex situation in the Senate that is already under the influence of a diverse and often erratic crossbench.
This is a situation that could last for some time. Bernardi, who was the second-placed candidate on the South Australian Liberal ticket in the 2016 double-dissolution election, is what the Constitution defines as a “first-class” senator, and thus entitled to a six-year term.
Even though he was elected as a Liberal candidate, Bernardi is under no constitutional obligation to relinquish his seat, so he will now doubtlessly start work on forming his new party. Somewhat ironically, he will be doing that under elections laws recently changed by the Turnbull government designed to make it harder for new parties to be formed, and restricting their ability to trade preferences with each other in future Senate contests.
If Bernardi does succeed in finding the requisite number of at least 500 bona-fide financial members in each state, and is able to put a national party organisation together, he will find himself in a crowded field.
Much has been made of the extent to which voters have been aligning their support away from the major political parties as a sign of drift to the right in Australian politics. This is true. But right-of-centre politics in Australia is a lot more complicated than the opinion polls indicate.
Most significantly, the rise in the total vote for right-of-centre candidates in the 2013 and 2016 Senate contests occurred alongside an exponential increase in the number of political parties being created.
In 2010, there were 13 parties advocating socially conservative and/or economic nationalist and/or anti-climate change sentiments, and who cross-preferenced each other in the half-Senate election held that year. This collection of parties won a national Senate vote of 3.8%.
In 2013, the number of right-of-centre minor parties had grown to 34, and the vote had increased to 15.7%. In 2016 the number of parties fell to 33, but the total national Senate vote rose to 16.9%.
This national figure includes some major state variations. It does not, though, include the impact of Nick Xenophon in South Australia which, by the 2016 election, had become very significant. In both the 2013 and 2016 elections, only a handful of the many right-of-centre parties won a primary vote above 4% – at which a political party becomes entitled to receive public election funding.
These parties included the Palmer United Party in 2013 (which imploded soon after the election), the Liberal Democratic Party in New South Wales again in 2013 but not 2016. In the 2016 election, there was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Jacqui Lambie Network, and the Derryn Hinch Justice Party. Everyone else polled 3.9% or less.
In other words, the right-of-centre minor party vote is very thinly spread across a large number of competitors. Bernardi’s party would just be another one of these minor players.
Presumably, South Australia would be the organisational focal point for any party Bernardi would seek to create. The problem with that, however, is that Bernardi’s fellow South Australian, Nick Xenophon, has something of a monopoly over voters disillusioned with the major parties in that state.
South Australia is also the home base for the Family First Party. Its vote might not be great, but it seems to do well out of preference flows and usually manages to secure a Senate position. It might be six years before it happens, but Bernardi himself will struggle to hold on to his Senate seat.
The 2013 and 2016 election data do sustain the claim that there has been a swing to the right in the Australian electorate. But they also show that this has caused by a proliferation of right-wing parties, the vast bulk of whom secure a very small share of the primary vote (somewhere around 1%, on average).
The dominant players in the phalanx of right-wing minor parties have been those with high profile leaders or candidates (such as Clive Palmer, Jacquie Lambie, Derryn Hinch and Pauline Hanson). Bernardi may hope that his infamy could match the profile of these leading lights of populist anti-establishment politics.
But the reality is that a new conservative minor party headed by Bernardi would simply be adding to a political arena already saturated with conservative, populist, nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-environmental parties.
Bernardi’s actions do have some short- to medium-term implications, especially for the operation of the parliament, and the standing of the Liberal Party and its current leader. But the prospect of him being an influence beyond his current Senate term is very remote indeed.
This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Just weeks after his inauguration as US president, it is clear that Donald Trump is making a further bold claim on power, one that goes beyond the executive orders that are rightly drawing so much attention. He is reinventing the royal fiat by novel means: the rule-by-tweet, or “twiat”. This move is not an extension of popular democracy, but its enemy, and it needs to be resisted.
We are becoming used to Trump’s new way not just of sustaining a political campaign, but of making policy. We wake up to news of another state, corporation, institution or individual caught in the crossfire of his tweets. Corporations and investors are setting up “Twitter Response Units” and “Trump Triggers” in case the next tweet is aimed at them.
The process is so alien to the ways of making policy that have evolved over decades in complex democracies that it is tempting to dismiss it as just funny or naive. But that would be a huge mistake.
A tweet of Trump’s opinion at any moment on a particular issue is just that: an expression of the temporary opinion of one person, albeit one with his hands on more power-levers than almost any other person in the world.
Such expressions matter, for sure, to Trump’s Twitter followers. But, although one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, they do not (at 23 million) constitute a significant proportion of the world’s population, or even a large proportion of the US population.
A Trump tweet only becomes news if it is reported as news. And it only starts to become policy if those who interpret policy, including the media, start to treat this news as policy. Until then, the Trump tweet remains at most a claim on power.
But once key institutions treat it as if were already an enactment of power, it quickly becomes one. Worse, it inaugurates a whole new way of doing power whose compatibility with democracy and global peace is questionable.
Imagine you are a diplomat, trying to schedule a meeting for yourself, or your political master, with Trump in a few weeks’ time. Is it sensible for you to rely on the confidentiality of the meeting? Could a poorly chosen phrase or look – or indeed your most carefully argued reasoning – provoke a tweet that publicly mocks your whole strategy?
How do you deal with a figure who claims the power to broadcast on his own terms his gut reactions to whatever you say or propose? Yes, you can tweet back, but that is already to give up on the quiet space of discussion that was once diplomacy’s refuge.
The impact of rule-by-tweet is potentially profound: above all, on policy, whether global or domestic, legal or commercial. A new type of power is being claimed and, it seems, recognised: the power, by an individual’s say-so, to make things happen, the twiat. Just the sort of power that revolutions were fought to abolish.
If Trump is the putative Tweet King, who are his courtiers? Surely they’re the mainstream media institutions that regularly report Trump’s tweets as if they were policy.
If a medieval king’s courtiers refused to pass on his word to the wider world, its impact changed. While courtiers could be replaced overnight, contemporary media corporations cannot (for now at least). So why should the media act as if they were Trump’s courtiers?
We must not underestimate the short-term pressure on media corporations to conform to Trump’s claim on power. For sure, there will be an audience if they report Trump’s tweets, and their financial need to grab audiences wherever they can has never been greater.
But, if news values still mean something, they refer not only to financial imperatives, but to what should count as news. And norms about news must have some relation to what passes for acceptable in a democracy rather than an autocracy.
Some might say: Trump’s tweets are just the new way of doing democracy, “get with the program” (in the words of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer). But, as the grim history of mid-20th-century Europe shows, authoritarian grabs on power only ever worked because their anti-democratic means were accepted by those around them as a novel way of “doing democracy”.
The “twiat” is anti-democratic for two reasons. First, it claims a power (to name individuals, pronounce policy, and condemn actions) against which there is no redress. Its work is done once uttered from the mouth of the “king”.
Second, and more subtly, allowing such power back into political decision-making undermines the slower, more inclusive forms of discussion and reflection that gives modern political democratic institutions their purpose and purchase in the first place.
Trump’s claim to a new form of charismatic power through Twitter is, in part, the flip-side of the damaged legitimacy of today’s democratic process. But, instead of curing that problem, it closes the door on it. The presidential tweeting ushers us into a new space that is no longer recognisable as democratic: a space where complex policy becomes not just too difficult but unnecessary, although its substitutes can still be tweeted.
Can anything be done to stop this? A good start would be to stop reporting the tweets of our would-be Twitter king as if they were news, let alone policy.
Let Trump’s tweets have no more claim on democracy’s attention than the changing opinions of any other powerful figure. Refuse the additional claim to power that Trump’s Twitter stream represents.
Fail to refuse that claim, and all of us risk accepting by default a new form of rule that undermines the restraints on power on which both democracy and media freedoms, in the long term, depend.
When former prime minister Paul Keating said last year it was time to “cut the tag” and loosen the bonds of the Australia’s alliance with the US, who would have thought the man wielding the knife would be Donald Trump?
The public disagreement between the Trump White House and the Turnbull government over the deal to send asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru to the US is unprecedented. At no previous time in the history of the Australia-US alliance have things seemed so dire – and got there so quickly.
Australian and American leaders over the years have, from time to time, disagreed or said things to cause embarrassment. But for the most part, such disagreements have been kept out of the limelight.
John Howard and Bill Clinton did not like one another. Their discomfort did not, however, seriously affect the alliance. But sometimes discomfort breaks into something stronger.
Blanche D’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s then-biographer (and later his wife), recounts that Australia’s former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, and US Secretary of State George Shultz loathed one another. Hayden referred to Shultz as “the German pork butcher”, while Shultz called Hayden “stupid” to his face.
But, unlike the current saga, the Hayden-Shultz spat did not become public until after D’Alpuget published her Hawke biography.
In 2008, the content of another phone conversation between Australian and US leaders became pubic. A brief row broke out when reports emerged of a leaked conversation between Kevin Rudd and George Bush.
As the 2008 financial crisis erupted, Rudd had suggested using the G20 as a way of handling things to Bush in a phone conversation. Bush allegedly replied:
What’s the G20?
The White House angrily rejected the public version of events.
Members of the US Congress have made a rare intervention in the latest spat in an attempt to counter Trump’s amateurish handling of the issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said:
Australia is a very important and central ally and it’s going to continue to be.
Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: there is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia.
Trump has handled this situation very badly. In a very short space of time he has undone decades of work in building trans-Pacific security ties between Australia and the US. Other American allies – Japan and South Korea in particular – must look on, aghast at what has transpired.
But the Australia-US alliance was already under pressure before the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull went awry. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vital element in the Obama pivot to Asia, was headed for the dustbin even before the US election. Within hours of being sworn in, Trump cancelled US involvement in the trade deal.
More ominously, other US security partnerships in the region exhibit severe strain. In an eerie and intemperate foreshadowing of Trump’s outburst, Philippine President Duterte in 2016 called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then denounced his country’s security alliance with the US and embraced the Chinese.
While many aspects of the US-Philippine relationship are still in place, it is nonetheless showing signs of strain.
The Australia-US relationship has suffered numerous knocks over the past year. The greatest threat to it has not come from China, the Philippines or Australia, but from the US. Trump’s misguided handling of the refugee issue and his withdrawal from the TPP has combined with external events to place real pressure on the alliance.
Trump has cut the tag. Now Australia must think differently about its relationship with the US.