6 May 2017
The last Federal election in mid-2016 began with eighteen crossbenchers, meaning from neither the Liberal-National Coalition nor the Labor Party, in the Senate. The result of the election, which the Coalition only just won, was a rise in the number of Senate crossbenchers, to twenty. Now another face is on that crossbench, namely Cory Bernardi of South Australia, who recently quit the Coalition and formed his own political party.
How Bernardi’s defection affects the Coalition remains to be seen. Even before that, the Coalition needed the support of a decent number of Senate crossbenchers to get any legislation passed. Bernardi will probably vote with the Coalition on most issues, as I haven’t noticed any issues likely to make him vote with Labor against the Coalition.
The question is whether any Coalition people in the House of Representatives, where the Coalition has a tiny majority, will see fit to defect to Bernardi’s party. There’s been some speculation of defections within the Reps, but I don’t see any coming in the near future.
However, I’d be interested to see how Bernardi’s defection affects his home state of South Australia, where a general election comes next year. Even if no MPs join Bernardi’s party there, its very presence might be troubling, in a state where Liberal fortunes haven’t been good for more than four decades.
Indeed I wonder if Bernardi might become a modern-day version of a controversial South Australian politician – Steele Hall, who was State Premier from 1968 to 1970 and later served in Federal Parliament.
Suggesting that Bernardi looks like a new Hall might be a stretch. But the state of Liberal politics in South Australia over many years makes me rate the comparison appropriate, in a broader context.
It was during the 1940s that the Liberal Party of Australia, as we know it today, first emerged. But while it didn’t take too long to win elections, in various states as well as nationally, it didn’t have representation, at least officially, in the State Parliament of South Australia until the mid-1970s. That representation came from MPs formerly with another political party – the Liberal and Country League, or the LCL for short.
After gaining office in South Australia during the 1930s, the LCL governed continuously for the next three decades. It lost office at an election in 1965, but returned to office after the next election, in 1968. By then, Hall had become LCL leader, after the defeat of the long-serving Sir Thomas Playford at that 1965 election. Hall was Premier for two years, but lost office at an election in 1970. As a result of differing opinions, Hall formed his own little group within the LCL, in March 1972.
The group was called the Liberal Movement, or the LM for short. Among LCL MPs with Hall in the LM were David Tonkin and Dean Brown – both of whom would later have terms as Premier.
Later, the LM became a political party in its own right, after the LCL declared it a separate body. Hall went out of the LCL as a result, but only a few supporters went with him. Most LM people, including Tonkin and Brown, chose to stay with the LCL.
A few years after this split, the LCL and the LM settled their differences, and came back together. Some LM people didn’t return, but Hall was among those who did.
By that stage, they could all be described as members of the Liberal Party.
However, since this split in the 1970s, the Liberals have seldom won elections in South Australia. Indeed they’ve arguably been in a state of semi-permanent civil war. To be fair, it wouldn’t have helped to be facing popular Labor leaders like Don Dunstan and John Bannon and Mike Rann, each of whom served for many years as Premier.
Tonkin led the Liberals to an election win in 1979, but lost the next election, in 1982. The Liberals lost elections in 1985 and 1989, before winning in 1993, under Brown. But he was rolled in a surprise leadership coup in 1996, and John Olsen became Liberal leader and Premier as a result. Olsen almost lost the next election, in 1997, and resigned in 2001 after a scandal engulfed him. The new Liberal leader and Premier, Rob Kerin, narrowly lost an election in 2002. The Liberals have been out of office ever since.
Even before winning office in 1993, the Liberals had problems. Labor had begun to unravel amid major financial scandals after its 1989 election win, but voters weren’t flocking to the Liberals. Indeed Brown was out of Parliament as Labor began to unravel, having lost his seat to a former colleague who’d stood against him as an Independent in 1985. He only returned when another former colleague suddenly quit Parliament in 1992, much to the behest of Olsen, who was a fierce rival and hadn’t sided with Hall.
Coupled with various leaders and leadership challenges since Kerin’s 2002 defeat, you can see how fiercely the South Australian Liberals have fought each other for so long.
How the Liberals do at the next South Australian election seemingly matters little with their internal squabbles, even though they should win, because Labor looks stale after almost sixteen years of governance. The defection of Bernardi might unsettle the Liberals now, just as Hall and his group unsettled them in the past.