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Cory Bernardi: A principled politician?

by Simon Longstaff AO
10 February 2017
Whatever your political leaning, acting on your principles requires bravery and gumption. Could Cory Bernardi be the most principled Australian politician of the day? Dr Simon Longstaff explores.
In giving reasons for his abandonment of the Liberal Party of Australia, Senator Cory Bernardi has invoked the need for a renewed form of politics based on principle. In the normal course of events, I would applaud this. However, for such claims to have credibility, they must be rooted in practice.
The greatest ethical challenge now facing Cory Bernardi is to do with the legitimacy of his retaining his seat in the Senate – so recently won as an endorsed candidate of the Liberal Party. His critics claim to do so undermines the integrity of his position. His defenders point to the fact Bernardi is simply following in the well-trod footsteps of other defectors.
So, how might we decide this issue?

The first thing to note is the mere fact others have done the same as Bernardi is a poor defence. Two or more ‘wrongs’, do not make a ‘right’. Given this, we need to look beyond precedent.

By standing as a Liberal – just seven months ago – Bernardi offered the people of South Australia a political rather than personal package of a definite character.

Second, democracies derive their legitimacy from the quality of the decisions made by voters during elections. Good decisions are invariably informed decisions. So, a democratic mandate is weakened when it is based on misinformation or false beliefs. That is why truth in politics matters so much – especially in terms of policies and promises.
Third, a distinction should be drawn between those who are suspended or dismissed from their party and those who choose to leave. In the former case, the member of parliament is at the mercy of the party’s judgement. By controlling events affecting their own interests, political parties become responsible for the costs of their decisions. Where a politician chooses to leave a party of their own volition, the dissident member is in control and it is their unilateral action that imposes costs on others. As such, the dissident is responsible and should be held accountable for the effects of change.
Let us consider how these two observations apply in the case of Cory Bernardi.
First, Cory Bernardi chose to resign. He is responsible for his decision and should be accountable for its implications.

Second, Cory Bernardi stood as an endorsed representative of the Liberal Party. We should accept his beliefs have not changed as a person. His core values and principles were the same, as a Liberal, as they will be as a Conservative. However, by standing as a Liberal – just seven months ago – Bernardi offered the people of South Australia a political rather than personal package of a definite character. In doing so, he garnered a considerable number of votes in part as a result of being at the almost unlosable number two position on the Liberal Party ticket.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Cory Bernardi’s motives in making this change. His is a brave decision – but I question if it is brave enough. 

Given all of this, one could understand voters questioning the legitimacy of Cory Bernardi’s mandate to remain in the seat he now holds – despite his change in political alignment.
One way to resolve this question of legitimacy would be for Cory Bernardi to resign from the Senate in order to stand either as an independent or a representative of the new party whose foundations he has been building over the past year. I realise this step is easier taken from the House of Representatives than the Senate. Perhaps we should change the rules to allow for a Senate by-election in circumstances such as Bernardi’s. However, whatever the practical difficulties, Cory Bernardi should explain how remaining in his current seat, although in accordance with the strict letter of the law, is truly principled.

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For my part, I do not doubt the sincerity of Cory Bernardi’s motives in making this change. His is a brave decision – but I question if it is brave enough. Cory Bernardi has an opportunity to set a new standard for integrity in politics. He just needs to be true to the democratic ideal and expose himself to the judgement of the electorate. To do so would see his new Conservative Party born in a manner deserving respect whatever one’s political or ideological orientation.
Whatever Cory Bernardi’s intentions, he will forever be dismissed by his enemies as a ‘turncoat’ whose claim to being a ‘principled politician’ is open to question. It may be this is a price Bernardi is willing to pay for the sake of giving his fledgling party the political profile it needs. The choice to bear such a reputational burden might be understandable – and perhaps even admirable – if this was Cory Bernardi’s choice to make alone. However, if you believe in democracy, then the outcome of such choices must lie in the hands of the people.
Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

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Header image credit: SBS News



I would call into question the practice of voting along the party line. I've never understood this. As a member of Senate or Parliament or any other governing body, an elected official's first priority should be to act in the best interests of their electorate and secondly to their party. The electorate always comes first, it is not about what you think, it is about what your electorate wants.
22/02/2017 10:36:28 PM

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