Senator Cory Bernardi.

Senator Cory Bernardi. Photo: Andrew Meares

ONE OF our (email) correspondents suggested last week that Cory Bernardi - self-styled scourge of everything that is not right, or decent - is a secret member of the Labor Party working earnestly to maximise the Labor vote.

Whenever the Liberals were riding high, or Labor was at a low ebb, one could rely on Senator Bernardi to make some statement attacking homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion or some other pet theme inside what The Australian has recently titled ''the goat cheese belt'', the implication ran. This would cause universal anger at Bernardi as the pig in the minefield for the secret agenda of the Abbott government, make voters realise how wrong they were to throw Labor out, and renew their determination to be rid of the Coalition forever.

Perhaps it does work that way among those of us who drink latte, eat goat's cheese and obsess about whales and human rights. There is certainly nothing like publicity for any statement of Bernardi's moral beliefs to generate letters to the editor, or outraged statements from people in the public square, particularly Labor politicians. Bernardi is, in fact, so out there that he even generates outrage from Liberals, and not only known moderates but even from classic libertarians and economic conservatives who are not into his brand of evangelical authoritarianism.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Nick Moir

But I have a more cynical theory. I don't suspect that Cory is a secret Labor man. I suspect that folk like Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese and all of the usual suspects, even the apparently outraged Liberals, are secret members of the Cory Bernardi Party. Bernardi, after all, is able to attract publicity, whether to himself or his beliefs, only by their confected outrage. He is able to strut the public stage only because people take notice of him, sometimes even pretending that he is a much more important person than he is.

The subtext of all Albanese comments about Bernardi - indeed perhaps all Albanese statements about anything - is that the Liberal Party, under Tony Abbott, has a secret agenda to install the Pope as governor-general, to burn witches, heretics, Protestants and atheists, and to place a policeman in every bedroom of the nation, searching in particular for instances of immoral thoughts, words or deeds, premarital sex of any kind, homosexual or onanistic behaviour, the use of contraceptives, or attempts to put women in any sort of position of equality with men.

Albanese has divined, as it were, that most Australians would not agree with this program, which is the reason why Abbott has worked so hard to conceal it from them, even if he has, from time to time, used words that suggest that he personally is opposed to at least some of the conduct in question. It is thus necessary to scan and parse every one of his phrases for some implication that he is intent on establishing a holy inquisition, or to pay close attention to the utterances of any crazies who have gathered under the Abbott banner, just in case they give the game away.

The task is the more urgent these days, of course, if only because Abbott has been so cunning over such a long period. There were times over the past four years when it seemed that the entire resources of government, not to mention most of the Dorothy Dixers at question time, were devoted to warning the populace about Abbott's secret agenda. Abbott, of course, denied such an agenda, which, of course, tends to confirm that he had one, not to mention establish how cunning he was. He was able to continue the charade right into The Lodge - or at least Kirribilli House - and, so clever is he, that he has still yet to take his mask off. Surely this can only confirm that his intentions are even more drastic than we had suspected. Hark at the swine!

The logic of this line of thinking is confirmed, for some, by the fact that it came from just the same sources as the inquisition itself. Remember when we knew that a woman was a witch (and thus needing to be burned at the stake) if she floated after we threw her in the pond, and that a woman could acquit herself if she sank and drowned?

Cory Bernardi is an earnest, probably sincere, politician who has closely studied the techniques of the American Christian right. He has attempted to mimic both the techniques and the style of presenting them in Australia in an effort to build up a following, a movement and a stage for his ambitions. Mostly, however, he is fairly ineffective, other than in playing the numbers among smallish groups. The public, in particular, has never warmed to him, and not only because of what he says or thinks but because there is, alas, something about him that makes people feel uneasy. Almost all of his public relations successes depend on someone picking up - and very predictably - his cues. Only when others depict him as a monster does he seem humanised, possibly even persecuted.

All the more so when the attacks upon him are so predictable, and from such predictable sources. It is probably true that Albanese is Labor's best attack dog and is often, as such, not only funny but impersonally scathing. But he is simply not in the league of a Mick Young, a Paul Keating, a John Dawkins, even a Fred Daly, and mostly his scorn is more a party trick than something actually able to win an argument. He, like Shorten, also suffers from the disadvantage that many will discount anything he says about an opponent simply because he is an opponent. And that others, recognising the tired old stalking horse line, turn off immediately.

This does not necessarily mean that the Bernardis of the world are best ignored, lest they be given ''air'' simply by denunciation. One can, in fact, use the occasion to actually argue, promote principles and propositions, perhaps even to chide people notionally on one's own side who fail to properly adhere to the standards one suggests. I could, for example, think of several dozen people in Labor's ranks - even on the frontbench - whose attitude to women, or abortion, or gay rights are closer to Bernardi (or even the supposed view of Abbott) than to Albanese.