Conservative Party? Is Cory Bernardi about to go rogue?
FEARS are mounting in the Liberal Party that Senator Cory Bernardi is set to split from the Coalition to launch the new Australian Conservatives Party early next year.
The move would leave Malcolm Turnbull in an even more precarious situation in the upper house, where he currently needs the support of 10 key crossbenchers to pass his legislative agenda.
Speculation that the maverick senator could split from the Liberals to form his own party bankrolled by Australia's richest woman Gina Rinehart flared after Ms Rinehart and Senator Bernardi met key members of US president-elect Donald Trump's campaign team in Washington last month, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, The Australian reports.
Senator Bernardi has not commented on his plans but allies and colleagues of the outspoken conservative told The Australian a breakaway Trump-inspired movement was imminent.
Attempts were now being made to convince him to stay with the party.
The South Australian senator's strong opposition to a carbon tax being put back on the agenda as part of a climate change policy review resulted in an embarrassing week leading up to the Council of Australian Government's meeting for the Prime Minister just last month.
The speculation around a split was also fuelled by a message on Senator Bernardi's Australian Conservatives website this week, which says the group is planning a "massive" 2017 after operating since July with "modest staff numbers and a bare bones website".
"This is all set to change in 2017," the website says.
"Our new state-of-the-art website is almost ready to go, and we will be launching it early next year, along with a number of important campaigns."
Senator Bernardi dismissed any suggestions of a split as "gossip", but close allies of the conservative told The Australianhe had become more serious about the idea of a new party.
It comes as public trust in government has dropped to a near 50-year low.
"He is becoming more serious about this as people are losing faith in the Liberal Party and as he is losing faith in Malcolm Turnbull," one senior Liberal told The Australian.
Another friend and ally of the senator's told the publication they were "very concerned" he would quit early in the year and could even attempt to encourage other parliamentary colleagues to join the party.
"I don't think this is a flippant thing; this is now serious," the ally said. "I am worried about it, and I will do everything I can to try to keep him in our tent."
Senator Bernardi yesterday refused to confirm the move and told The Australian he would "not comment on gossip or speculation".