You don’t have to endorse Cory Bernardi’s betrayal of his party and the electorate to recognise that his departure is yet another dramatic wake-up call to the Coalition parties.
The frustration that has seen him develop a strong following and decide to leave the Liberals is the same frustration that has fuelled the revival of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and a range of other candidates from the Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm to Family First’s Bob Day.
We have a dramatic demonstration of that today with the Newspoll survey showing that Australians are evenly divided over whether this country should follow Donald Trump’s lead on boosting security vetting for immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries with serious Islamic terrorism issues.
In a way, it is a moot point, because Australia already has thorough vetting. But the point is that even with the hysterically biased and misleading coverage about what Trump has imposed (media and politicians have been erroneously describing it as Muslim ban) enough Australians have realised it is sensible policy.
It is no more than we should expect from a government trying to keep its people safe. Importantly, the poll showed more than half of Coalition voters support the measures.
Yet the Prime Minister was silent on this issue. We all know Trump stuffed up the introduction of his temporary bans, so that the confusion and chaos created problems, but Malcolm Turnbull should have endorsed the intent — the actual policy. It would have been in keeping with what this country has done and demonstrated to his conservative base that he understands national priorities.
This is just one passing example of how the Coalition has drifted away from the tough stances that should define it. After all, if politicians want to pointlessly signal their compassion, win the praise and affection of the press gallery and receive endorsement from the ABC, they should not be in the Coalition but join Labor or the Greens.
Too many on the Coalition have drifted down this path of trying to please the chattering classes instead of the mainstream; culminating in what many see as the decline of strong, traditional conservatism — once the mainstay, and always the future, of the Liberal and National parties.
If a Coalition government will not speak for conservatives and act on their values, then conservatives will go elsewhere. They have been splintering away and that trend seems to be accelerating.
Even under Tony Abbott conservative values were under threat — rather than offer smaller government he backed massive government expansions through the NDIS and Gonski spending sprees, proffered another huge government intervention through the Paid Parental Leave scheme and broke a core promise not to increase taxes by bringing in a debt levy.
But Abbott delivered for conservatives by stopping the boats — when the media/political class insisted it couldn’t be done — and axing the carbon tax.
So from day one, Turnbull and his colleagues put themselves under the pump when they knifed Abbott. Their biggest challenge — as I highlighted that very day and often since — was to ensure they preserved the government’s conservative standing; that they didn’t drift to the liberal Left.
The moderate wing of the Liberal Party likes to think it is in the ascendant but that can only be a bad thing for the party unless they understand their weaknesses. Only conservative leaders have been successful warriors for the Coalition; only conservatives seem to be capable of wearing the criticism of the media/political class in order to see mainstream values triumph.
John Howard and Abbott were under constant assault from the Canberra Press Gallery — we were told incessantly how hopeless they were — but they won.
The nervous nellies in the Liberal Party gave Turnbull a chance rather than stick with Abbott (who, of course, did much to harm his own standing). Spilt milk. The challenge since then has been for Turnbull to recognise his task.
He was only ever going to be successful if he was seen to be just as tough on boats as Abbott, just as firm on national security and just as determined to put power prices above international climate gestures.
To be fair, the Prime Minister has not weakened these policy areas in substance; but neither has he argued them with conviction. He did not attack Labor aggressively or effectively on them during the election campaign.
He ratified the Paris climate agreement even after Donald Trump won, and although he has recognised the damage being done by the renewable energy target he is sticking by it. Turnbull needs to understand that to succeed he must fight — choose your area for a fight, sure — but pick a fight.
He ought to propose legislation to curb the RET in some way — bring on the fight now with Labor over electricity. Why should Australia do itself economic self-harm while global emissions continue to rise anyway?
If Labor and the Greens block such measures, rack them up as double dissolution triggers.
Do something on immigration. Our numbers fluctuate according to economic circumstances, so with growth sluggish and housing affordability a problem, make a virtue of a reasonable reduction in numbers until the economy improves. Tell the public about the security checks we have on immigrants; if they are not stringent enough, improve them.
Speak to people’s concerns about Islamic extremism. Don’t shut the debate down and constantly frown on people like Bernardi for raising reasonable issues. It is patronising to our Muslim communities to pretend they can’t join a discussion about an extremist problem they know and fear more than the rest of us.
Don’t defend the right of women to wear the burka — criticise a culture that would force little girls to cover up. Values matter. Our values. You don’t have to legislate to give vent to serious and justifiable community concerns.
Propose more budget savings. Do it soon, don’t wait for the budget in May. Close departments, axe programs. Have the fight with Labor. You keep telling us the budget is in dire trouble — then demonstrate to the population that you intend to fix it. If Labor block you — set up more triggers.
Also, take up the fight to Labor over the gay marriage plebiscite. Australians voted to have their say, don’t let Labor and the Greens thwart them with insulting lines about the debate being too much for the nation to bear. If it is blocked again, chalk it up as another double dissolution trigger.
There is much to do. The public wants the government (after the past decade, any government) to succeed.
Bernardi’s departure will actually do the government a favour it takes just one important lesson from it — it is time for action, time to fight.