28 August 2017
Disillusionment with Australia’s political establishment arguably goes back decades, rather than just years. There were minor parties winning seats at times long ago, which would’ve been a sign of some disillusionment, both in Federal Parliament and in its state counterparts. But I suspect that the 1990s were when the disillusionment really became entrenched, with minor players popping up in parliamentary chambers everywhere.
The arrival of Pauline Hanson in Federal Parliament in 1996 probably illustrates the disillusionment best. Although she was only there for two years before losing her seat, she kept fighting again and again to win seats at election time. But after arriving on the political scene and saying things which resonated with perhaps millions of people while annoying the established politicians, she saw fit to start her own political party, and even though she and her party imploded after some successes, they never went away.
Now there are plenty of anti-establishment politicians around. Hanson is one of them, and so is Nick Xenophon, both of whom started political movements bearing their own names. To date, both have enjoyed some level of success, but they have also endured some bad moments. Bob Katter is another anti-establishment politician to have started his own political party, but he and his party haven’t enjoyed anywhere near the level of success that Hanson and Xenophon have enjoyed.
Some would consider the Greens to be anti-establishment. After all, their people went into politics following time as activists on environmental issues – although not always those. But in recent years, they’ve come to be seen as part of the establishment. When Federal Parliament became deadlocked after a general election in 2010, and the Greens ended up with one seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, they had power to make deals and, to some extend, dictate what governments could or couldn’t do. Although they’re not as powerful in Federal Parliament as they used to be, with their support having declined a bit in recent years, they can still be powerful players at times.
Earlier this year, Cory Bernardi appeared to join the anti-establishment ranks. He quit the Liberal Party, which he’d represented in the Senate since 2006, to form his own political party. But while Hanson and Xenophon and Katter started parties bearing their names, Bernardi didn’t do this. He’s formed a conservative movement, whose aim is to win over conservative voters who might otherwise vote for the Liberals but can’t abide Malcolm Turnbull – whom Bernardi himself is strongly at odds with on various issues.
It didn’t take too long for Bernardi’s party to attract sitting politicians. Already three have joined, from South Australia and Victoria. But little has happened since.
When you look at Bernardi’s party now, you only see crossbench recruits. And all are Upper House members, who win seats on the basis of statewide support, rather than through a strong concentration of support within small areas.
After Bernardi formed his party, he was able to recruit two people from his home state of South Australia. Two members of the Upper House of State Parliament there joined him, after the winding up of the Family First Party, which they’d been with. Family First was wound up following the downfall of Bob Day, who resigned from the Senate following problems with both a former business empire, among other things. Because Family First was considered conservative, the party’s two State MPs in South Australian went over to Bernardi. Joining Bernardi’s party a bit later was a crossbench member of the Upper House of State Parliament in Victoria.
But because Bernardi’s three “colleagues” were crossbenchers when they joined his party, their impact remains to be seen. Bernardi hasn’t attracted anybody from the ranks of the Liberals or the Nationals, many of whom share his conservative values.
Had a major party politician defected to Bernardi’s party, there’d have been more than just a ripple. But nobody has done so yet. It’s true that anything can happen in politics, and I wouldn’t write off the prospect of a major party defection, but I’m not seeing any evidence of a defection coming.
Bernardi himself lacks the charisma to make people snap to attention whenever they hear him. Some politicians have that. You can’t recognise his voice at once when you turn on a radio or television or whatever. He’s quite articulate in his views, but he doesn’t have a huge degree of appeal. Time will tell if he can attract disillusioned voters both inside and outside his home state, particularly if they distrust the likes of Hanson and Xenophon as much as the political establishment.