Rumours have flown thick in recent times that conservative firebrands Cory Bernardi and George Christensen may ditch the government and form a new conservative movement, and both men seem one step closer to that threat this morning.
The Australian reported on Thursday that Bernardi had been meeting with mining magnate Gina Rinehart, and there were fears among his Liberal colleagues that he would soon announce a split from his party. Bernardi himself dismissed the notion, but a "senior Liberal" told The Australian that the South Australian senator was "becoming more serious about this". Fairfax Media also reported a Liberal source claiming that Bernardi had made up his mind to leave.
Bernardi launched his own Australian Conservatives group in July, which some had speculated was the groundwork for a breakaway conservative party. The group claims it now has some 60,000 members. Bernardi has quite publicly voiced his disillusionment with the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull -- after the July election, Bernardi said Turnbull "should be asking himself if he has done the Liberal Party a service or a disservice" -- and has dropped what could be seen as hints about a change in his own political future.
"My time in the USA has made me realise I have to be a part of that change, perhaps even in some way a catalyst for it. Exactly what direction that will take is still a work in progress," Bernardi wrote in an email to supporters in November.
One of the moves Bernardi had been most upset over was the dumping of former PM Tony Abbott. On Twitter on Thursday morning, Abbott himself publicly urged Bernardi to remain with the party.
Queensland Nationals MP Christensen, also a vocal critic of the government and PM, too has been linked to a split from the party. He has looked quite chummy with Pauline Hanson and her One Nation bloc in parliament this year, has defended and praised Hanson on social media, and supported several One Nation policies especially around immigration, leading to speculation over his own future.
On Thursday, as news was spreading of Bernardi's possible defection, Christensen said he was "loyal to the Nationals" and "local LNP members who selected me to be their candidate", but did lay out a threat that his support could not be taken for granted.
"What the Turnbull government needs to do is start being more loyal to the voters and the party members who sent us here or there will come a time when remaining inside the tent is no longer tenable to my conscience or my voters," he wrote.
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