Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin will freeze over before Cory Bernardi becomes leader of the Liberal Party, but what social progressives fear is that he is a mouthpiece for views which Tony Abbott holds but these days is careful to keep to himself.
Although the Prime Minister was quick to distance himself yesterday from a new book in which Bernardi refers to abortion as "an abhorrent form of birth control" and pro-choice campaigners as "pro-death", he was hardly energetic or scathing in his rebuttal of those comments. A one-sentence statement issued by his office described the South Australian senator as a backbencher whose "views do not represent the position of the Government".
That terse response did little to reassure critics of Bernardi, an influential member of the Liberal Party's right wing who is, or certainly was, a close confidant of Abbott, serving as his parliamentary secretary until being demoted in 2012 for warning that gay marriage could lead to public acceptance of bestiality. Abbott then had no choice but to sack him, and, arguably, had no choice yesterday but to disavow Bernardi's book The Conservative Revolution, which rails against IVF, surrogacy, step-families and single-parent families, as well as branding Islam and environmentalism as threats to Christian values.
However close those views may be to Abbott's, he is a pragmatist who knows how unpalatable they are to large sections of the electorate. He also promised, before last September's election, that a Coalition government would not change abortion laws. Abbott chose to side last month with the Liberals' leading moderate, Malcolm Turnbull, in an internal party row sparked by Bernardi's call for the Communications Minister to step down or cease his public support for same-sex marriage.
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While Bernardi is a maverick and loose cannon, what worries liberal Australians is that his periodic outbursts may be aimed at causing shockwaves that prepare the ground for a more moderate version of his social vision to be implemented. Acting leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, said yesterday: "The concern for many Australians is that Tony Abbott and Cory Bernardi are cut from the same ideological cloth but that, unlike the Prime Minister, Senator Bernardi is not trying to hide his views or disguise his brutal agenda."
Bernardi, re-elected to the Senate in the number one position on the Liberals' SA ticket, has previously called for women to be banned from wearing the burqa in public, and condemned the use of taxpayers' money to fly asylum-seekers across Australia to attend the funerals of children who had drowned at sea. His new book is a call to arms to fellow conservatives, and, as he told the ABC, aimed at reigniting debate on electorally delicate subjects. In it, he addresses not only social issues such as abortion but workplace law reform, a no-go area for the Liberals since being blamed for John Howard's election loss in 2007.
Abbott's statement did not clarify whether or not he regards Bernardi's views as beyond the pale. He could have followed the example of Howard, his role model, who resisted pressure to speak out against Pauline Hanson when she lambasted Asian immigration and Aboriginal welfare in 1996.
Howard calculated that doing so would reap him political rewards. Abbott may have figured that had he yesterday stayed totally silent, he would have risked alienating more voters than he would please.