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Bernardi split is symptomatic of a fractured political system, here and abroad


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.

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