It’s hard to imagine that, less than five years ago, Cory Bernardi was Tony Abbott’s parliamentary secretary. The role suited him perfectly: as a senior member of the shadow cabinet but unhindered by a portfolio, the senator was well-placed to serve as a counsel to his leader and a conscience for his party. Looking back, it was his dismissal from this post – for the wicked heresy of making some less-than-choice comments about gay marriage – that began the slow but steady decline of conservatism in the Liberal Party. When Abbott and the Right faction abandoned Bernardi to the wolves (or, rather, the foxes), they made conservatism itself negotiable. They promised their moderate colleagues never to prioritise principle over party. If any senator or MP made the Wets uneasy, the Dries would dispatch him with nary a second thought. Alas, that precedent came back to haunt Abbott: when Malcolm Turnbull proved to the Right that Abbott was himself a liability to the Coalition’s re-election prospects, they marched their own leader to the guillotine.
That’s not to say either Abbott or the party room necessarily did the wrong thing. Anyone who reads my articles here regularly (hi mom!) will know I wrote the first post-spill pro-Turnbull Speccie article. And I wasn’t by any means the most prominent member of the ‘Tories for Turnbull’ brigade. Brilliant stalwarts like Miranda Devine still gab nostalgically about the Ides of September. I just don’t see how they can avoid the conclusion that we were catastrophically wrong.
Because, now, being loyal to the PM doesn’t just mean defending his deposition of Abbott: it means defending his failure to keep his promises to conservatives in the party room. He swore not to revisit proggy pet projects like the ETS, republicanism, and gay marriage – all of which he’s either reneged on, or will do in the near future. We sold our soul to the mods, not realising our account was already drained. We’d cashed out in 2012 when we sacrificed Cory Bernardi to elite opinion. So the cheque bounced.
But selling out Bernardi wasn’t just ill-advised politically. Without a doubt, his marginalisation by the party was a far graver loss to conservatism than was Abbott’s ouster. Though a fundamentally good man and a conservative at bottom, Abbott had (and has) serious flaws. He was horribly weak on 18C. He supports constitutional recognition for aboriginals. He regurgitated PC pieties like ‘Death Cult’ and ‘Religion of Peace’. Worst of all, he struggled to articulate a conservative vision for his government. His most sound initiatives, like knighting the Duke of Edinburgh, were done as ‘captain’s calls’, as though he either couldn’t or didn’t want to defend them even to his own party. He led his conservative government like a band of guerrillas, taking pot-shots at his own country and then retreating back into the bush.
Not true of Bernardi, who literally wrote the book on the conservative revolution. Yes, it was widely panned by critics, most of whom hadn’t read it and probably still haven’t. But he wore that as a badge of honour, and rightly so. He wasn’t afraid to suggest that Lefty bien pensants mightn’t actually like conservatism if it was articulated clearly. He refused to water down his – our – principles in the name of preserving a ‘broad church’. The Liberal Party might be the custodian of both Burkean traditionalism and Millian liberalism, as Abbott and John Howard suggest. But Bernardi refused to indulge the myth – born of the insulting lie that ‘there are no factions in the Liberal Party’ – that traditionalism and liberalism are everywhere in agreement. And so he wrote that, ‘The framework of our Western moral tradition can be found in the wisdom of the Ten Commandments, and in the lessons of Christ and the life of the Apostles. Thus, secular or not, our society is based on the principles of religious faith, borne of the natural law that is engraved on our very heart, reflected in our customs and codified in our laws.’ Conservatives believe that. We might not like saying it aloud for fear of sounding ‘unfashionable’, but, good Lord! What’s self-censorship gotten us?
You might prefer that Senator Bernardi remain on the Liberal plantation. You might wish he’d continue banging his head against the wall, trying to reform the party from within. I only hope you’d first ask yourself this: Could you offer him one shred of evidence to suggest that there’s a way forward for those who articulate the conservative vision, without condition or apology? Right now, the Liberals are ruled by men like Turnbull who have nothing but contempt for conservatism; they’re served eagerly by (ostensibly) right-leaning eunuchs who’ve proved time after time that they’ll prioritise their seat over the principles they were elected on. And, looking at the latest poll numbers, it seems they can’t even sell out properly. This is why – to borrow Cory’s refrain – we need a conservative revolution.
Which isn’t to say that right-wingers must everywhere swear the Liberals off. But the fact of the matter is that, regardless of which bench he sits on, Cory Bernardi is the most courageous, principled, and articulate conservative in public service today. He’s never wavered in his – our – cause, despite being repeatedly savaged and betrayed by his colleagues. Only the most invidious hack could write him off because he refuses to serve in a government that’s Labor in everything but name. Cory’s always stood for us. We shouldn’t hesitate to stand with him. Forget ‘viability’: let’s bloody do what’s right for once. Let the revolution commence.