The Bernardi Shuffle? This Time It’s Different

The release of Senator Cory Bernardi’s book (check out the reviews here) has set social media on fire. Calling Bernardi’s office to ask for advice on the which hair colour to choose or coffee to buy is the latest craze. However, some people worry that this is exactly what the Liberals were hoping – that Bernardi would act as a distraction from their real agenda. I think they’re wrong.

Throughout the Howard Government we saw a regular pattern. Howard, or one of his ministers, would make some inflammatory comments that would send the left into paroxysms of fury. Debate on the topicwould dominate the opinion columns of newspapers and talkback radio. The result would be that unpopular moves elsewhere would be ignored. Moreover, it was a safe bet that some of the responses would be sufficiently extreme that they would provide great fodder for News Limited’s campaign arguing that The Left was out of touch with twue Oztraalian values.

It is hard to be sure just how significant this was in Howard’s successive victories, but I think it probably mattered. So it is not surprising that some people think this is what is happening again. Helen Razer has been most vocal on this point, but she’s had plenty of people congratulating her on this.

However, there is one crucial difference between Howard’s approach and Bernardi’s – Howard picked his issues to appeal to swinging voters.

Some of the time Howard was actually talking about issues on which the Australian public was in line with him, or indeed even further to the right, most notably immigration and refugees. At other times he was talking about topics that probably have little resonance out there in marginal seat land. I doubt that most voters in Eden-Monaro care that much about the teaching of Indigenous history. Nevertheless, Howard could count on his opponents making such a fuss about the topic that they, rather than he, looked out of touch, particularly since he could count on his media mates amplifying the most extreme comments.

However, the tactic was not foolproof. In his last term of government Howard started to overstep the mark; he certainly picked the wrong target when he went after Obama, then a long shot candidate for the Democrat nomination.

In Bernardi’s case his whole operation is pretty much one big overstep. No doubt some of what Bernardi is pushing is actually popular, particularly when he attacks Muslims. Which is all the more reason to keep the focus where it has been, on his paleolithic views on gays, abortion, blended families etc. Quite simply this is not a vote winner for the Liberals, something Abbott knows well enough to want to distance himself from Bernardi, despite agreeing with pretty much all of it. It is the right, not the left, that looks out of touch obsessing about these sorts of issues.

It’s true that some of the responses will be over the top enough to win them back some ground. I’m sure Bolt and Divine will be able to generate some sympathy using the publication of fan faction about Bernardi’s sexual relations with his dog. But overall, this simply isn’t the ground on which Abbott wants to fight. Yes, publicity about Bernardi’s views may have pushed the idea of a fee for visits to GPs off the front pages, but that will be back soon enough if the government actually pursues the idea.

No doubt some Liberal strategists, even if they lack the wild-eyed extremism that causes Bernardi to come out with these sorts of ideas, think the book’s publication is no bad thing if it re-ignites the culture wars. However, the adage about “first (dozen) time as tragedy, second time as farce” springs to mind.

What Bernardi says is not, as Razer claims, irrelevant. He is a crucial figure in nurturing young talent within the Liberal Party, and his views have plenty of support. But that doesn’t stop him being a major liability. Hate on him all you like.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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