An Australian Trump? Not so fast

Cory Bernardi is angling to become Australia's version of Donald Trump. His track record and tactics are more politics-as-usual than populist revolt

Perth, February 17, 2017 5:14 PM (UTC+8)
Australian Senator Cory Bernardi in his office at Parliament House in Canberra on February 7, 2017. The veteran conservative politician aims to launch a Trump-inspired populist revolt Down Under. Photo: AFP/Mark Graham
Australian Senator Cory Bernardi in his office at Parliament House in Canberra on February 7, 2017. The veteran conservative politician aims to launch a Trump-inspired populist revolt Down Under. Photo: AFP/Mark Graham

After news of the phone call that rocked Australia-US relations, Senator Cory Bernardi’s split from the ruling Liberal Party to establish the Australian Conservatives as a political force, raising speculation he may bid to emulate President Donald Trump’s populist revolt against establishment politicians Down Under.

Bernardi, who represents the state of South Australia, resigned from the Liberal Party on the first day of this year’s parliamentary session in February.

He has claimed in public statements since that real conservatives are not represented in the center-right Liberal Party and has taken issue with Turnball’s more liberal and tolerant positions on climate change, gay marriage and other divisive topics. Bernardi has also called for an end to Muslim immigration and a ban on wearing burqas in public.

In 2016, the senator set up a non-party political movement – the Australian Conservatives – to unite conservatives under one banner and give a voice to those who believed that the political class no longer represented them. In February 2017, Australian Conservatives applied to become a political party.

Bernardi, a self-professed Trump fan, was based in New York on secondment to the United Nations during America’s rough and tumble presidential campaign. Days after announcing his split with the Liberal Party, a picture of him wearing a hat emblazoned with the Trump- inspired slogan “Make Australia Great Again” was widely circulated on mainstream and social media.

So could Bernardi be Australia’s version of Trump, the front edge of a new nationalist revolt against free trade and social liberal values? Not so fast, say political analysts.

For starters, analysts note that Bernardi is no outsider populist threatening to topple politics as usual. To the contrary, he is a machine politician with a long voting record in parliament for, not against, the type of free-trade initiatives Trump lambasted to populist, vote-winning effect on the campaign trail.

Peter Brent, who writes on Australian politics for various newspapers and popular blogs wrote in December when Bernardi’s split from the Liberal Party seemed increasingly probable that the South Australian was “a humorless ideologue, who actually seems to believe what he says, and is nothing if not consistent. He couldn’t be more different from [Trump].”

While right wing nationalist parties opposed to Muslim immigration are on the rise in Europe, it is not clear how deeply such nativist sentiments resonate Down Under.

A Lowy Institute poll conducted in mid-2016 found that nearly half of Australians felt the country should “distance itself” from the US if Trump became president.

A more recent survey conducted on February 7 by Newspoll found 52% of voters who favor the ruling Liberal Party-led coalition supported Trump’s immigration ban on seven Muslim countries.

Muslims stand in rows to offer their Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Lekamba mosque in western Sydney on July 17, 2015. Australian Muslims on July 17 celebrated their religious Eid al-Fitr festival at the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. AFP PHOTO / Saeed Khan / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN
Muslims offer their Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Lekamba mosque in western Sydney on July 17, 2015 during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

To be sure, Bernardi holds some ultra-conservative views. In one infamous flourish in 2012, for instance, he insinuated that gay marriage was a gateway to people marrying more than one person or having sexual relations with animals. Bernardi resigned his position as parliamentary secretary after a backlash.

With such out-of-step views, Brent believes that Bernardi’s chances of pulling off a Trump-like upset in Australia are still low.

“Trump became leader of a major party and rode it to the presidency …Bernardi is not even a player. The closest we have to a Trump is [nationalist politician] Pauline Hanson. But she would need to become leader of the Liberal Party to replicate Trump and that’s obviously not going to happen” because she was previously booted from the party over her penchant for protectionism, Brent told Asia Times.

Hanson, leader of the One Nation Party, is the closest thing Australia has to a rightist revolt. But Hanson probably shares more with France’s xenophobic politician Marine Le Pen than Trump, as she is fundamentally against Muslim immigration, views Islam as an ‘ideology” rather than religion and has warned that Australia is in danger of being swamped by an influx of Muslims.

In 1999, she expressed similar fears about “Asians” overwhelming the country.

Australian Senator Cory Bernardi shakes hands with One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson before speaking in the Senate chamber in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, February 7, 2017. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT.
Australian Senator Cory Bernardi shakes hands with One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson before speaking in the Senate chamber in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, February 7, 2017. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Hanson’s xenophobic message, however, has never translated into many votes. Her One Nation Party won a mere four seats in parliament’s upper house in 2016, but fell apart quickly when Western Australian Senator Rod Culleton left to become an independent.

Voter cynicism regarding politics-as-usual has given rise in recent years to a smattering of “micro-parties” and issue-oriented independents rather than mass appeal ideologues like Trump.

For Bernardi to pull off a similar type of upset, his Australian Conservatives would need to field candidates across the country, which analysts agree is unlikely to happen any time soon due to logistics and expense.

Turnbull called an election in 2016 to clear out just those types of smaller parties in the Senate in hope of notching a strong majority in both houses.

Instead, he limped in the polls winning by only one seat in parliament’s lower house. Should any MP defect to Bernardi’s new party, Turnbull would lose his majority and need cross-bench support to make any move or pass legislation – a scenario that would effectively freeze his legislative agenda.

Bernardi could poach votes from the Liberals, including staunch conservatives who to date have not backed Hanson’s more extreme One Nation.

Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks about an alleged terror plot at a press conference in Sydney on December 23, 2016.A "significant" Islamic State-inspired Christmas Day terror plot targeting central Melbourne has been foiled after a series of arrests in raids across the city, police said on December 23. / AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKS
Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks about an alleged terror plot at a press conference in Sydney on December 23, 2016. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

Yet many establishment conservatives want their voices reflected in a major party, not splintered into smaller ones. “The right of Australian politics is splintering and the development reflects global trends,” said Tom Switzer, a journalist and fellow at the University of Sydney’s US Studies Center.

“Turnbull is widely distrusted among many conservatives … He is widely seen as [former US Republican presidential candidate] Mitt Romney without the conservatism.”

Switzer notes that with the benefit of a quarter century of uninterrupted economic growth, Australia’s working class is not nearly as downtrodden as those in the US and Europe, where economic crises have hit hard the low and middle income earners.

As such, it is not clear exactly how Bernardi proposes to make Australia “great again” or win power through hardline stances on still largely marginal issues like Muslim immigration and gay marriage.

While analysts say Bernardi lacks the US President’s showmanship or free-range oratory, his colleagues note he shares Trump’s tendency towards self-obsession.

As one of his former Liberal Party colleagues put it in a past interview with The Monthly news magazine: “His right-wing macho act is just his way of looking as though he stands for something.”

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