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Hamilton-Smith to Bernardi: I feel your pain


Former state Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith writes about his empathy with Cory Bernardi’s decision to leave the Liberal Party, warning that major parties need to reflect the views of their supporters.

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Cory Bernardi’s decision this week to resign from the Liberal Party to better represent conservative voters in his constituency is a journey similar to the one that led me to the same
point in May 2014.

The Liberal Party I joined in the 1990s was the broad church of which John Howard so frequently spoke, which bought together the small “l” liberal moderate tradition with the conservative tradition.

The Liberal Party when formed by Robert Menzies was a construct of multiple parties all of whom came from philosophical positions of the centre right. It was able to embrace and give voice to those Australians who held these views.

Around five years ago in South Australia, the ambitious moderates led by Christopher Pyne installed Steven Marshall and Vickie Chapman as leader and deputy thus completing their control of the SA division and vanquishing the conservatives. Since then Malcolm Turnbull appears to have done the same thing in Canberra and similar currents are flowing in other state divisions.

As a result, the conservative voters who were the foundation of the Menzies era Liberal Party are looking to minor parties like One Nation and independent MPs to represent their views. I understand where Cory Bernardi and other conservatives in the Liberal Party are coming from. I’ve been there too.

In our democracy, elections are decided by the enrolled 1.1 million voters, not half a dozen political journalists.

In such circumstances your first instinct is to try and fix it by working within your party to get things back on track, but there comes a point when you need to do what you know in your heart is the right thing for your constituency, your state and your country. This is our democracy working and it’s not just happening in Australia. As we have seen in the US and Europe, a weary electorate is choosing alternatives.

Major parties who fail to hear the voice of the voters risk losing supporters they used to rely on. The electorate is demanding no nonsense, plain speaking action from their politicians. They demand that major parties reflect the views of their supporters.

Conservatives in SA are bewildered by the recent decisions of the state Liberals to turn their back on coal seam gas exploration, nuclear recycling and low level waste storage and a bizarre plan to undercut businesses at Adelaide Airport with a multi-billion dollar airport proposal for Murray Bridge. The businesses and employees most affected by that pie in the sky proposal had not even been consulted. How is that a party that calls itself the party of business can choose not to talk to its core constituency?

What the state Liberals have lost is the art of listening. They play to an agenda of media popularity. In our democracy, elections are decided by the enrolled 1.1 million voters, not half a dozen political journalists.

Politicians are elected to argue the case for the future on behalf of their local constituents. Real political power sits with the voter, not the commentariat.

Cory Bernardi’s decision is another signal that the Liberal Party is talking to the wrong people.

Martin Hamilton-Smith, a former state Liberal leader, is the South Australian Minister for Investment and Trade, Defence Industries, Small Business, and Veterans’ Affairs.

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