Tuesday, 7 February 2017
by leave—Mr President, I rise to inform the Senate that this morning I resigned as a member of the Liberal Party. I consider it my duty to inform the Senate of this decision prior to making any public comment. After a membership spanning my entire adult life, having been a state president and a federal vice-president of the party, this has been a very difficult decision for me—perhaps the most difficult one of my political life. I stand here today both reluctant and relieved: reluctant because this decision has weighed heavy on my heart but relieved because, whilst it is difficult, I believe it is the right thing to do.
When as a younger man I joined this ship of state I was in awe of its traditions and the great captains that had guided us on our way, but now, as the seas through which we sail become ever more challenging, the respect for the values and principles that have served us well seem to have been set aside for expedient, self-serving, short-term ends. That approach has not served our nation well.
There are few in this place or anywhere who can claim that respect for politicians and politics is stronger today than it was 10 years ago. In short, the body politic is failing the people of Australia and it is clear that we need to find a better way. The level of public disenchantment with the major parties, the lack of confidence in our political process and the concern about the direction of our nation are very strong. This is a direct product of us, the political class, being out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people.
Politics at its best has always been the shared contribution of men and women of conscience who bring their skills to bear for the benefit of the nation. It is not in the interests of our nation to yield to the temptation of personality politics, which shrink the debate to the opinion of the few whilst compromising the good sense and values of the many.
For many years I have warned of the consequences of ignoring the clear signs. I have spoken of the need to restore faith in our political system and to put principle back into politics. I regret that too often these warnings have been ignored by those who perhaps needed to hear them most. It really is time for a better way, for a conservative way.
The enduring beauty of the conservative tradition is that it looks to the past to all that is good and great to inform the future. It is a rich paradox where the established equips us for the new. And so today I begin something new, built on enduring values and principles that have served our nation so well for so long. It is a political movement of Australian conservatives, a community of individual Australians who will share their unique gifts and talents to chart a better way for our nation.
We will be united by the desire to create stronger families, to foster free enterprise and to limit the size, scope and reach of government whilst seeking to rebuild confidence in civil society. We will give hope to those who despair at the current state of Australian politics and who demand a better way for themselves, for their children and for the nation.
The journey ahead will not be for the faint of heart, but worthwhile ventures rarely are. Every journey begins with a first step. Today I take that first step, knowing the direction in which I will be heading, and I hope that those who are truly concerned for the future of our nation will choose to join me. Mr President, in light of this you may like to consider the seating arrangements in the Senate in your further deliberations. I thank the Senate for their time.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the statement.
What we have seen today is extraordinary—a government senator leaving the government benches on ideological grounds and on grounds of conviction and philosophy. What we have seen today really tells us something very important about this government, because Senator Bernardi's statement is emblematic of a government that is bitterly divided, a government that is coming apart at the seams and a government so riven with internal division it is more focused on its own issues than on the matters that matter most to Australians.
Senator Bernardi's resignation is not a cause of the deep divisions we now see on open display in the Senate chamber; it is a symptom. It is a symptom, because we know Senator Bernardi's view is far from an isolated one in this government We know that amongst those opposite he is one of many who believe that this government stands for nothing, that this government is led by a man who does not believe most of the things he is now forced to say and that this is a government that is riven with factionalism, dissent and distrust.
This resignation is a consequence of the failure of leadership by the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister is leading a government that does not have an agenda and that does not have a philosophical framework. This is a government led by a man who has sold his soul for leadership—a prime minister so weak he is only allowed to remain in the job for as long as he betrays virtually everything he ever stood for. He is a man who used to believe in marriage equality; now he is not even allowed to grant his members the right to vote. He is a man who used to believe in an Australian republic; he is not even allowed to talk about it now. He is a man who said he understood the need to change the tax system so young people could actually aspire to homeownership; he is now not even allowed to talk about negative gearing. He is a man who came to the job vowing to end the three-word slogan who is forced to stand up every night, endlessly repeating the three-word slogans of his predecessor. And, of course, he is a man who used to believe that action on climate change was actually important. As has been said, I do not think Tony Abbott was much of a Prime Minister, but he was a hell of a lot better at being Tony Abbott than Malcolm Turnbull will ever be.
There are very few issues—in fact, there are almost no issues—upon which I agree with Senator Bernardi. But I do respect one thing: he does stand up for what he believes in. He is clearly no longer prepared to stomach the rank hypocrisy of a leader who clings to office by parroting views in which he does not believe.
But there is another lesson here for the Prime Minister: it is never enough. No matter how much you bend, no matter how many times you sell your soul to the hard Right of the party, no matter how often you betray everything you have ever stood for, it is never enough. That is what Senator Bernardi has today demonstrated. For every concession, another one will be demanded; when you cave in on that, they will just ask for another; and, when you cave in on that, another will be demanded of you.
So I say to those opposite and I say to the Prime Minister: time to call time on this farce. Why don't you do a little of what Senator Bernardi suggested. He said, 'Put principle back into politics.' Well, Australians await this from Malcolm Turnbull.
The Liberal Party, the coalition, the government, are disappointed by the course that Senator Bernardi has taken this morning. We believe that he has done the wrong thing, because only seven months ago Senator Bernardi was elected by the people of South Australia to serve in the Senate as a Liberal Senator. There are a variety of views in the Liberal Party, as there are a variety of views in the Labor Party. But, only seven months ago, Senator Bernardi was happy to stand before the people of South Australia and to say that he sought their endorsement to serve for a six-year term as a Liberal senator.
Now, Senator Bernardi has been a participant in debates in the Liberal Party, as have I, and, in the seven months since the federal election, nothing has changed. There is no policy for which the Liberal Party and the government stand today which is not the same as the platform on which Senator Bernardi sought election by the people of South Australia only seven months ago. In view of that, we find it perplexing that, when there is no difference between the policy and platform on which he sought re-election, and the policy and platform of the government today, he would feel the need to take this course. There was no need for him to take this course, because as former Prime Minister Mr Howard famously said, the Liberal Party is 'a broad church'. It can accommodate people like Senator Bernardi and it can accommodate people of more moderate views than Senator Bernardi, and it is genius. The reason why it has been the government of Australia for longer than any other political party is that people within the Liberal Party have understood that. Senator Bernardi, a former state president and a former federal vice-president, should understand it as well.
We in the government will deal with Senator Bernardi as we deal with all members of the crossbench—in a professionally courteous and respectful way. We will treat him as a colleague, and for many members of the government he will continue to be a personal friend. But we do not condone what he has done. Might I say, that if one seeks to restore confidence in the political class, it is a poor way to begin by breaking the promise one makes to one's electors to serve for the political party on whose platform and on whose ticket one stood. What Senator Bernardi has done today is not a conservative thing to do, because breaking faith with the electorate, breaking faith with the people who voted for you, breaking faith with the people who have supported you through thick and thin for years and indeed decades is not a conservative thing to do. Nevertheless, as I said, we will continue to treat Senator Bernardi courteously and professionally as a colleague.
There is one respect in which, of course, Senator Bernardi stands in a different position from the other members of the Senate crossbench. Unlike the other members of the Senate crossbench, Senator Bernardi was elected to support the policies of this government and, whether within the Liberal Party or now as a member of the crossbench, what we will be seeking of Senator Bernardi is to do no more than to support the policies and measures on which he stood when he sought re-election by the people of South Australia in July of last year.
Senator Wong predictably seeks to make political points; she is entitled to do that. I am not going to engage in a slanging match with Senator Wong, other than to remind her that it is not unknown on either side of politics for people to become unhappy and unsettled in the political party in which they were elected to represent and to leave. We saw that in the parliament before last with Mr Peter Slipper in the other place. We saw it in this Senate some 20 years ago in the case of former Senator Mal Colston; but, unlike the Labor Party on the occasion of the Mal Colston defection, we will not be abusing Senator Bernardi. We will not be engaged—
Opposition senators interjecting—
We express disappointment but we will not be abusing him in the way, for example, we saw former Senator Robert Ray conduct the most vindictive personal campaign against Senator Mal Colston that any of us can remember. We will not be doing that. We will be treating Senator Bernardi as a professional colleague, with appropriate professional courtesy.
Senator Wong, you observed cheaply, if I may say so, that there is division on my side of politics. The departure of one person from a party room of more than 100 hardly constitutes division, particularly when I look across this chamber and I see not one party of the Left, but two. I see the 26 Labor Party senators but I also see their mortal rivals and enemies, the nine Greens senators. Do you know, Mr President, that if you examine the statistics from the last federal election they reveal something very instructive. Do you know that, if you were a young Australian, a person under the age of 30, whose political sympathies lay with the Left, you were as likely to vote for the Greens party as you were to vote for the Australian Labor Party. So, please, Senator Wong, we will not be having any lectures from you about division in politics when your entire electoral base is being gradually, indeed, not so gradually but fairly rapidly eroded by your rivals on the Left of politics—the Australian Greens. Nor will we be hearing sententious lectures from you, Senator Wong—the person who sits in the same party room that former Senator Mal Colston once sat.
So, Mr President, this is a sad day for the Liberal Party. It is a sad day when somebody leaves the family. Senator Bernardi will have to account to the Australian people and to his own conscience about how he can continue to sit in this parliament, having been elected as a Liberal—but that is a matter for him. We in the government will proceed with the important business of making Australia secure and prosperous. We have a very busy agenda in 2017, and we look forward to working with every senator for the best interests of our country.
In Senator Bernardi we have six-and-a-half foot of ego but not an inch of integrity. I would have respected that speech if he had given it a year ago—before he stood as a Liberal Party candidate and waited to get himself a six-year term in the Senate. What a hypocrite, coming in here and talking about ensuring he is here to represent the values of people who have conservative views when he has shown himself to be a person lacking in integrity and substance.
What this reveals is that we have a divided government, where the right hand does not know what the far Right hand is doing anymore. This is a government now in turmoil—in absolute turmoil. We are seeing a sectarian split in the broad church that is the Liberal Party. We are seeing it come apart at the seams. There is a very clear message in this for Prime Minister Turnbull: you don't negotiate with extremists. You do not negotiate with extremists, because it does not matter how much you give them they always want more. It is never enough.
Look at the capitulation that we have seen from this Prime Minister on issues that he believed were issues of substance. Remember this was the Prime Minister who said that he would never lead a party that was not as committed to climate change as he is, but several days ago he was spruiking clean coal—straight out of the Senator Bernardi manual of conservative politics. He was out there spruiking for something that does not exist. We have entered fairy land here. On marriage equality, we have a man who has marched at a Mardi Gras now capitulating to the far Right in his own party. Perhaps he was convinced by Senator Bernardi's persuasive arguments around bestiality and the consequences that might flow if we allow people to marry each other, regardless of gender and sexuality. They are disgraceful contributions from a man who has not got the courage to put his views to the Australian electorate. On the republic, Malcolm Turnbull—the man who led the charge for Australia to become a republic—is now saying we cannot do anything until the passing of the Queen. Surely the point of a republic is that we do not have to take orders from the Queen, because we would be independent of the British monarchy. This is a man who has sold out on the most fundamental principles, who has so utterly capitulated to the likes of Senator Bernardi, Mr Christensen and so many others in his party room.
I heard this morning one of the Labor Party members refer to the Prime Minister as being paraded around like a prize bull at the Easter show, being paraded through the ring and being led by the nose by those on the far right. This is a prize bull who has now been knackered. This is a prize bull who now stands for nothing, incapable of doing anything. This is a man who is so hollow. This is a man who is so lacking in integrity and substance that perhaps he should join Senator Bernardi and they can form their own party: the Hollowmen. When it comes to taking a stand on the issues that matter—on climate change, on whether this country should end discrimination in marriage, on becoming a republic or indeed on taking on the dangerous lunatic that is now the President of the United States of America—what we see instead from this Prime Minister is appeasement. It is time for this Prime Minister to decide what he stands for and to ensure that the Australian community is given the opportunity to vote for somebody who at the very least will take a position based on principle, rather than for a Prime Minister who has sold out on his core beliefs and has capitulated to the likes of Senator Bernardi.
I say to Senator Bernardi: what is the point? How much further can the coalition go? What do they need to do to satisfy you? Zero taxes, is that what you want? No public health care or education in this country, is that what you want? How much further can this government go in tearing up the social safety net, in shredding universal health care and education, before the likes of Senator Bernardi and Mr Christensen will be satisfied?
The lesson here is very, very clear. Senator Bernardi is 6½ foot of ego and not an inch of integrity. If he had had the guts to do it a year ago he might have got some grudging respect, but to do it just after he has been given a six-year term shows the sort of person that he is. As for the Prime Minister, hopefully he will take stock now and recognise that in capitulating to the views of the far right he is not just selling out the Australian people but selling his soul, and the Australian people know a sellout when they see one.
I stand here and watch as a new senator—having been here as long as Senator Bernardi. To hear him stand there talking about principle, after he stood as a Liberal candidate and was elected by the people of South Australia as a Liberal candidate, is a joke. I feel sorry for the 330,000 people in South Australia who voted Liberal. They voted with him on the top of the Senate ticket. They voted for a Liberal senator for six years. Below the line, Senator Bernardi got something like 2,000 votes, and yet he stands up here and talks about principle.
It sounds crude but it reminds me of the words of President Lyndon Johnson who once said about a critic of his party—and the government knows the ones they have inside their tent—on why he had not fired or tried to expel him, 'I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.' Maybe Malcolm Turnbull is well rid of Senator Bernardi, because at least he is now out there pissing all over everybody else, and inside his own party room he has one less—
I will take it back, but I will leave the quote from President Johnson, because he is a President and he said it.
I want to go on record to say: I find it appalling that this happened. What should happen in the lower House is if somebody changes their opinion, does not like their party anymore or wants to get rid of it they should resign their seat in the lower House. They should then go to the people and stand and say, 'This is who I am. This is what I stand for now' and stand for re-election. Unfortunately, of course, in the Senate you cannot do that and that is not the best democratic way to do things.
As a servant of the people of Queensland and Australia I would like to share some comments that were given to me across south-west Queensland during the break from sitting in the last few months. They echo and reinforce Senator Bernardi's comments insofar as they were directed to the political elites and the political establishment—the political class. The people of Australia, and we see the people of America and the people of Britain, are tired of the ruling class. I see Senator Bernardi's call as yet another call to listen to the people and to serve the people, because the people have disrespect, disregard and no loyalty to the way this chamber behaves. I echo Senator Bernardi's call to the elites and the establishment to start returning to serving the people of our states and our Commonwealth.
Question agreed to.