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From Split to Spill? Will Cory Bernardi’s Desertion Trigger Another Leadership Swap

Parliament resumes with chaos as conservative MP goes indie and possible leadership challenges begin to take shape.

Welcome back, Mr. 35%.

It should come as no surprise to Prime Minister Turnbull that he was greeted with a kidney-punching poll result when him and his colleagues returned to Canberra this week. It has, after all, been a shocker of a summer for the government. Centrelink debt recovery bots running rogue and MP’s expenses equally untamed, while even Turnbull’s locked-in refugee resettlement deal with the U.S. seemingly swerving off-course last week following the “worst call ever” with President Trump.

But any hopes from Turnbull that it was going to get easier once parliament resumed this week were quickly obliterated.

The long-time defection threat from right-wing Liberal member, Cory Bernardi, finally came to fruition today. Following two years of denial and domain registrations, on Tuesday morning it was confirmed that the South Australian MP would be parting ways with the Liberals to form his own independent party — the Australian Conservatives.

In addition to missing the golden opportunity to operate under the catchy label The Barnadi Party, Senator Cory also looks to be going it alone, with other party conservatives staying put, for now.

During his resignation speech to the Senate on early Tuesday afternoon, Bernardi led with a series of nautical metaphors, before steering his shiny new ship towards waters of sterner vitriol, saying “for many years, I have warned of the consequences of ignoring the clear signs.”

It was never gonna be a smooth exit for S.S. Bernardi with plenty of his swashbuckling crewmen on hand to swiftly poke holes in his hull (ok, that’s enough). Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne taking the longshot approach of calling for Banardi to stand down and force an election for his seat, saying on Twitter that “[he] was elected as a Liberal. The honourable course is for him to resign his seat and for him to recontest it as an independent.”

Attorney-General and senate leader George Brandis echoed some of this sentiment, saying Bernardi has done “the wrong thing” in switching parties, adding that “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 6-year term as a Liberal senator. Now, Senator Bernardi has been a participant in debates in the Liberal Party, as have I, but in the seven months since the federal election, nothing has changed.”

But aside from ruffling feathers within the ranks, what impact will Barnadi’s defection actually have?

Well, for now, not much.

As Rolling Stone contributor, Andrew P. Street, highlights in his Monday column for the Sydney Morning Herald: “He’s in the upper house and while this increases the size of the senate crossbench the government know they’ll be able to rely on his votes as they did with the now-dismissed Family First senator Bob Day. Cory might want to make a point to his former party, but he’s not hardly likely to vote with Labor and the Greens in order to do so.”

Furthermore, while Bernardi has cited being inspired by Trump-like populism, the Australian voting system doesn’t exactly support the rise of a single popular candiate.

Again, Street on Monday, February 6th: “…unlike the US or Britain or most of the democratic world, Australia has a voting system that is both compulsory and preferential — meaning that candidates that are furiously loved by a large and vocal minority but hated by everyone else will lose to a candidate that isn’t as widely adored but can be tolerated by a larger slab of the electorate.”

So, while a U.S. President can slide themselves into power on just 27% of the vote, any Australian politician posting such a dismally low-percentage is unlikely to hold much influence, or even a seat for that matter.

bernadi greatagain
Senator Bernardi in New York, 2016. Via Twitter.

The threat is, however, that Bernardi’s exit operates as a catalyst, with his personal profile boost and the independent freedom he enjoys possibly serving as inspiration for other minister’s struggling with their lack of influence within the ranks following his lead.

The results of which would be far more disastrous.

Given the slimmest of margins currently held by the Libs and Nats in the lower house, even one House of Reps MP jumping ship would force them to form a new coalition alliance, likely with the far further right One Nation party. And, suddenly, Hanson and Co hold far more influence. And, you probably don’t want to even think about what could mean.

Of course, it’s likely that such drastic actions aren’t even required, with the mere threat — combined with Turnbull’s ongoing poor poll results — serving as a jump-off for the conservative arm of the party to start work on another leadership coup.

Perhaps sensing such unsettlement, following Bernardi’s announcement, ever-lingering former leader, Tony Abbott, took to Facebook: “I appeal to everyone who wants smaller, stronger government and who wants a freer, fairer country to continue to support the Liberals because that is the only way to improve our party, our government and our country.”

While opening his update with disapproval of Bernardi’s actions (“I deeply regret his decision”), Abbott went on to take aim at the party’s handling of the situation. In what could easily be interpreted as a dog-whistle stab at the current leadership, he wrote: “I’m disappointed that more effort has not been made to keep our party united.”

Reports that Abbott also met with Bernardi in the lead-up to Tuesday’s announcement have some speculators starting to say that this could all be a strategic play from the former-PM to get back into the top spot.

Feeding such #spillgate supposition is Abbott’s continual commentary from the fringes, where he’s voiced his frustrations of the current operation of not just his party, but the government as a whole.

In an address to the Young Liberal Party on Monday, January 30th, Abbott criticised the current make-up of the Senate, saying “good government is much harder than it used to be”, due to that “these days Australian prime ministers, especially centre-right ones, don’t just have to win elections, make sensible decisions and run competent administrations; they have to negotiate every piece of contentious legislation line-by-line through a Senate with an in-built populist majority.”

Again, between-the-lines interpretation could take this as a shot at Turnbull, given it was the prime minister’s double dissolution strategic gamble which led to the last election and in-turn created the current make-up of the upper house, a place which in Abbott’s view, “has ceased being a house of review and become a house of rejection.”

While Canberra has likely learnt a few harsh lessons from the public’s disdain for the past decade of seemingly endless leadership swaps (today’s actions arguably reflecting that), it remains a distinct possibility that without a few fresh wins in the first few months of 2017, the PM’s tenure is now far from secure.

Every spill needs a challenger though and while Team Turnbull appears tight, don’t doubt the intentions of the remaining right faction.

And if they’re looking for someone keen to lead they needn’t look any further than the closing line of Abbott’s Young Libs speech last week: “Let’s get on with it, so that our country can have the government it needs and so that in 2017 our political system can start to recover from the trauma of the past few years.”