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Cory Bernardi is being backed by Gina Rinehart and has strong links to U.S. Republicans (Image screenshot ABC Four Corners)

Cory Bernardi's new party has been mocked and derisively dismissed by most commentators. Managing editor David Donovan says you write it off at your peril.

AS DEPUTY EDITOR Michelle Pini wrote on IA yesterday, Senator Cory Bernardi has finally leapt off the slowly sinking Liberal Party ship.

This came as little surprise to anyone — he had been threatening it for so long. He even had a well-appointed life raft tethered and provisioned — something called the Australian Conservatives. It is said to have 60,000 “online registrations”.

The consensus among most politicians and commentators appears to be that

  1. Bernardi has betrayed his Party and its leader by leaving it just seven months after taking the second spot on the Liberal’s SA Senate ticket;
  2. the Bernardi defection will have relatively little impact on either the Liberal Party or Australian politics; and
  3. Bernardi will be a lonely little Party of one, out-shadowed by One Nation, with the decision almost certain to end his political career at the end of his Senate term in five-and-a-half years.

The first conclusion is clearly true. Bernardi has betrayed the Liberal Party and its leader. Even more so given Turnbull had just given Bernardi a sweet three month “secondment” (paid holiday) to the United Nations in New York late last year.

It is the other two conclusions – that his defection will have relatively little effect on politics and that Bernardi will just fade away – which I question. In my mind, the consensus completely underestimates Bernardi’s contacts, funding and organisational ability. In fact, in my view, Bernardi’s new Party is more of a danger to the Liberal Party than One Nation and could cause a significant split, perhaps commensurate with the Labor Party / DLP split of the 1950s.

Let me explain why.

To begin, Bernardi has extensive and valuable contacts, both inside and outside the Liberal Party. He is a former Liberal Party national vice president and past president of the South Australian branch of the Party. He has also, for many years, been head of the conservative (or “dry”) faction of the SA branch of the Liberals. Indeed, Bernardi and his faction has long been in a bitter feud with Manager of Government Business Christopher Pyne and the moderate (“wet”) faction he leads in the State.

He won’t be missed in the branch by Pyne, who tweeted hopefully on Wednesday:

‘The honourable course is for him to resign his seat and for him to recontest it as an independent.’

(Followers of Ashbygate would be aware of the “honour” of Christopher Pyne)

As mentioned, Bernardi already has 60,000 people on his email list. The thought that Bernardi will not take a significant number of Liberal Party dries with him, especially from South Australian, would  seem naïve.

Bernardi also has powerful and well-resourced contacts outside the Liberal Party, both inside and outside Australia. Inside Australia, Bernardi has close personal links to Gina Rinehart, which have become even closer in recent times. For instance, Bernardi spent New Year’s Eve last year with Rinehart on a luxury cruise liner. Earlier in the month, the mining mogul and Bernardi travelled to the United States to meet with key members of Donald Trump’s team.

How much assistance Trump may provide Bernardi’s nascent political party remains to be seen. However, the senator has significant political support in the United States well beyond the support of new U.S. president. Indeed, it is no surprise Bernardi announced his decision to resign from the Liberal Party after spending three months in that country, presumably after meeting up with old contacts and trusted funding sources.

Bernardi’s history with far right conservatives in America is longstanding.

As he told ABC Four Corners in 2011, he has spent significant time there learning how to set up a Tea Party movement equivalent in Australia:

‘There's no better place to learn than to go to America about these things. And I went there and I met with a number of key players in the activism training schools, and how they went about their business and what their objectives were….’

Bernardi has also spoken at rightwing U.S. "think tank" the Heartland Institute. This, in reality, rightwing lobby group is largely funded by Tea Party backers the Koch Brothers and is known to extensively fund climate science denialism in this country — including in organisations closely associated with Bernardi.

Having trained with the conservative activist network that helped deliver Donald Trump power in the United States, Bernardi has successfully applied these principles in Australia.

Bernardi again on Four Corners:

I've always sought to build a movement, not an empire. I want as many, you know, like-minded groups out there advocating for what they think is important — not what Cory Bernardi thinks is important.

If they've got a good idea about a blog or you know an activism initiative that they want to pursue, if I've got the money and the resources to help them, I will do that.

Soon after the ascension of the Rudd Government, Bernardi began developing strong conservative youth and climate denial networks — factors that helped deliver the Liberal Party power federally in 2013.

To this end, in 2009, he established the Conservative Leadership Foundation (CLF), an umbrella group that has been pivotal in setting up a host of other blogs and activist networks, especially ones opposing action on climate change. For instance, with the help of David Flint and his Australians for Constitutional Monarchy group, Bernardi set up the Conservative Action Network (CANdo). This organisation helped organise anti-carbon tax activism and rallies. It also staged a picket outside the offices of Fairfax in 2012, demanding Gina Rinehart be granted a place on the publisher’s board of directors.

The public – and progressives, in particular – may regard “bestiality” Bernardi as an extreme rightwing joke — and many of his far rightwing positions do seem strange in this country. However, as objectionable as he may be, he is no clown. Bernardi is an expert activist, with extensive contacts throughout conservative politics and one used to developing grassroots organisations. He will take a lot of people with him to his new political force. He probably already has.

He will take ordinary Liberal Party rank and file members, especially from the right of the South Australian branch. He will take conservative youth activists from all over the country who he funded through his Foundation. He will take extreme rightwingers with money — especially those involved in the mining industry, who would never dream of being associated with Hanson, whom they’d no doubt regard as “common”.

His organisation will very likely be well funded by Gina Rinehart and U.S. conservative groups, especially those promoting fossil fuels and opposed to action on climate change. It is notable that the only reason Bernardi could give for resigning from the Liberal Party was the Party briefly talking about holding an inquiry into an emissions intensity scheme — something Turnbull knocked on the head a mere two days after it was floated.

Bernardi is also likely to be assisted by Donald Trump’s new regime in the United States, which appears to regard the Turnbull Liberal Government with outright contempt.

The one thing we can’t be sure about is whether Bernardi will take with him Liberal Party MPs. He probably won’t, for a while at least. But if the Party starts to poll well, you can be sure some will jump ship, as they have done in Queensland with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

And, as I wrote in September 2016:

‘… with a majority of only one, an unpopular Turnbull Government … could … be ended by a backbencher with a grudge. For example, a disgruntled backbencher could … side with Labor and the crossbenchers in a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister on the floor of the House and so bring down a shaky Turnbull Government.’

Although Turnbull will, most likely, be rolled in the party room well before that has a chance to happen.

Of course, the rise of a well-funded extreme rightwing party similar to what we see now in the United States is not just a danger to the Liberal Party. It is a danger to the environment, minorities and the very fabric of our nation. We should, rather than simply mock, all be very concerned about Cory Bernardi and his new Australian Conservatives Party and what it may mean for our land. It won’t be anything good.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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