08 January 2014

Cory Bernardi's enduring values

... There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
They were flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home in the sun

- Neil Young After the gold rush
There was a time when a substantial proportion of the population was a member of a political party, when local branches actually were a representative sample of the community in a way that focus groups attempt but never quite succeed at recapturing. In such an environment, Cory Bernardi would have been an impossible candidate for office at the branch level, let alone state or federal. The creatures that live and thrive in a free-flowing river are different to those in a series of stagnant, shallow ponds.

Inspired by the Tea Party and its Christianist forebears in US politics, Cory Bernardi is on a death-or-glory mission to do one of two things:
  • drag the hollowed-out Liberal Party to the far right and bend it to his will, or
  • (more likely) create such friction that he leaves with a name, a follower-base and a war-chest that will survive his ultimately being cast out of a major party, like Brian Harradine and Don Chipp did.
He has been creeping toward this for a while, like a squirrel gathering nuts for when conditions get colder. Within the Liberal Party there is a self-flagellating element happy to encourage a rightward drift, and who confuse obstinacy with conviction, but it is self-defeating. Abbott got where he is today both by courting those people and doing nothing substantial for them. Expecting Abbott or other Liberals to condemn Bernardi is a waste of time and effort.

The Tea Party is not only notable for its ability to draw out idiots. It is notable for its ability to act as cover for large donors seeking to push legislation to advance their interests. This is what Hanson, Katter, and populists other than Palmer lacked: the ability to rabble-rouse and stay in the game.

Idiots tend not to have money and can't keep you going if you stumble; there is no positive narrative for simply doing what you're told by wealthy people. The Tea Party makes up for that, and the fact that it hasn't run out of puff yet inspires Bernardi. The fact that the Tea Party helped lose the Republicans the last two Presidential elections is neither here nor there - Bernardi has never been about advancing the Liberals over Labor. He is ambivalent about who's in government so long as he retains his own bully pulpit by whatever means.

Matthias Cormann visited the US and flirted with the Tea Party, but chose to get with the strength and is now in Cabinet. Over the next year or two Cormann will face a perfect storm politically - architect of unpopular cuts in Canberra, and in his home base in WA he will face the implosion of the Barnett government. Alex Hawke could have fulfilled the role that Bernardi is playing now, having been the heir to David Clarke's Christianist rabble, but by turning his back on Clarke he is playing a longer game even though Abbott doesn't trust him (Abbott's elevation of the equally distrusted Steve Ciobo offers hope to someone like Hawke). Bernardi has the field to himself, and there are political advantages and disadvantages in that.

Bernardi is a clever man who can rouse a rabble but who cannot persuade other equally clever people who take different views to himself. The reason why his travel entitlements claim is so extraordinarily high is because he has to travel far and wide to reach those who constitute his base, and who will sustain him once the Liberals grow weary of him. Let's hope he's not travelling on public expenses to promote a book whose proceeds will not go toward Liberal funds, or even Bernardi's pocket, but toward more rabble-rousing.

This profile usefully captures the embarrassment most Liberals feel toward Bernardi, but so long as he's inside the tent and bringing fringe preferences, he'll be tolerated. The bemusement that comes from Bernardi baiting easily-riled opponents of the government will evaporate once it becomes clear he is shaping perceptions by swinging voters, who were never fully convinced by this government anyway and whose support is desperately needed for it to stay in office.

Conservatives claim that centrist Liberals have a role in securing preferences from centrist parties but that they have an equally important role in securing preferences from Christianists, gunlosers, and racist anti-migrant groups. The election result put the lie to that, and conservatives bellyached that their people lost their places at the top table as a result of being passengers rather than drivers of victory. Less than a quarter of the swing away from Labor last September went to the Coalition - do you even know what Ricky Muir, Clive Palmer or Wayne Dropulich think about abortion?

Right now most conservatives are willing to place their faith on Abbott. The sheer absence of any actual achievements for conservatives will be noted by even the dumber ones at some point, and the hollowness of rhetoric from Maurice Newman and Bernardi. Conservatives were shafted when Abbott was handing out ministerial roles because they contributed nothing to the election result for the Coalition.

When Bernardi says he wants an "exchange of ideas", he means that he wants his opponents to exchange their ideas for his, no questions asked. In an exchange of ideas you take the chance that your own position may have to change in order to secure a result - this is the 'liberal' aspect of 'liberal democracy', and it's what clowns like this don't understand - if give-and-take only ever represents capitulation and loss, you're doing it wrong. His book contains no honest research, unlike other pro-family groups genuinely wrestling with issues like marital breakdown.

It's one thing to say, as Lenore Taylor and Andrew Porter have, that Bernardi is redefining the parameters of debate and making it easier for Abbott to look reasonably centrist when he adopts a right-wing position. This is what Abbott was thinking when he appointed Bernardi as his personal parliamentary secretary when in opposition, a gaambit that failed (here's what I wrote at the time). There are three reasons why this doesn't apply to what is happening now.

Firstly, abortion - Bernardi's chosen gambit - is an open question for very few Australians. Popular opinion has been pretty much fixed since the 1970s: it should be publicly available as and when required. Those who feel otherwise are few and not increasing as a proportion of the population, no matter how fervent they may or may not be or whether their number is adequate to support the Bernardis of this world. Bernardi also overreached when he went after blended families and workplace law reforms - not just because he's offensive, but because he obviously doesn't know what he's talking about.

The most powerful advocates against publicly available abortions are the churches. The churches do not have the power they once had, not only because of an increasingly secular and multicultural Australia but also because of their own failings (about which more in a later post), not the least of which are the sordid cover-ups and evasions arising from clerical and institutional child abuse. Bernardi cannot hope to fill the vacuum of authority in public debate left by incompetent archbishops. He can, however, fill the political vacuum left by Harradine and the Victorian DLP, one which Nile and Katter and Hanson grasp at but can never fully exploit.

Bernardi, a major-party incumbent, can be an ambassador from the Liberal Party to the fringe or the reverse. He is well positioned either way (or to put it slightly differently, he's all right Jack). This is why the SA Liberals were such mugs to hoist him atop their Senate ticket. The quality candidates within that outfit are not taking their chances in the big pond of national politics by taking on Bernardi, instead taking the surer shot on state politics ahead of this year's state election.

Secondly, Abbott's inner circle could not shut Bernardi up if they tried. They have given him no ministerial responsibilities to encourage him to be quiet, or at least to keep him busy. Bernardi is not a distraction from other issues with this government, like, for example, Morrison's increasingly weird humiliations of and petty self-defeating behaviour in the face of asylum-seekers. Modern media has more than enough bandwidth for more than one story at a time: old-timey news organisations, nostalgists who disdain social media, and press secretaries who aren't very good at their jobs, miss this important point.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Bernardi's intervention comes at the wrong time for Abbott. If Abbott was firing on all pistons and fulfilling all his major promises, popular or no, he would be in a strong position to bat away Bernardi's ravings as unrepresentative of the government. We would have a clear idea of who Abbott was and what he's about, and Bernardi would be seen clearly as inconsistent with that. As it stands, people are still wondering what this government is really up to and Bernardi is providing input to that opinion-forming process. The screaming from the attic cannot be unheard and inevitably spoils one's impressions of Mr Rochester and his parlour.

Again, SA Liberals putting him ahead of all other Senate candidates make it hard for the government to distance him from them. Contrast him with SA Labor's number one candidate: the party initially elected Don Farrell, who shared a lot of Bernardi's views. Farrell was replaced by Penny Wong, a politician capable both of principled stands and the give-and-take necessary to persuade those who are not party loyalists.

Abbott will eventually have to destroy Bernardi as he did Hanson. The difference is that Bernardi is smarter than Hanson and more inextricably part of the party organisation than Hanson was. Bernardi is a former state president of the SA Liberals, and though his old mentor Nick Minchin does not back him as strongly as he once did he has an established base within the party that Abbott can't reach. By contrast, Hanson was a member of the Queensland Liberals for less than two years, and was defenceless both from being expelled and from the flies who descended on her when her political career continued regardless. This necessity will not come at a time of Abbott's choosing.

Bernardi is playing a double game with the Liberals and the sooner they wake up to this, the better off they'll be. The fact that he gets away with this is a sign of weakness, not strength and confidence, on the Liberals' part. He imposes himself upon and defines them and not the other way around. When the Abbott government passes into history Bernardi, more than any other backbencher and even most ministers, will have played a role in its downfall. His career may well continue after Abbott has gone, just as Brian Harradine outlasted the Labor split and Whitlam. This is what Bernardi means when he talks about enduring values.


  1. I enjoyed the article Andrew.

    The machinations of pollies like Bernardi are a constant cause for concern.


    1. A constant reason not assume those in office are keeping things going on your behalf, perhaps. Thanks for that.

  2. It's interesting that with the ABS showing the decline of religion among the general population, there seems to be no corresponding decline amongst politicians. Unrepresentative much?

    The SA Libs are a rabble with no guarantee of winning in March, despite a community really sick of 12 years of Labor. There is little talent on the front bench and less on the back - with preselection for safe seats not even contested, they are treating the electorate with contempt.

    1. Many non-observant religious people send their kids to religious schools because they are generally well-disposed to religion, and they elect religious MPs on the same basis.

      Thanks for the insight into SA - the lack of preselections suggests a fairly tight factional balance that might be upset with vigorous preselections. Be assured that the electorate is the least of their concerns :)

  3. Also, well done Warren Entsch. It's good to be reminded that there is some sanity within the Liberal party, even if it is scattered thinly.

  4. Andrew,

    First, Happy New Year.

    Second, thank you for an incisive post.

    Third, Sally Neighbour's article was truly excellent. I've already cited and quoted from it elsewhere, but this particular paragraph made me puke:

    Sinead, with whom he has two sons, aged ten and 12, says they have the perfect marriage because they’re “both in love with the same man”. “Cory obviously has this huge belief in himself … If you didn’t love a guy who was so in love with himself you’d have a lot of trouble living with Cory. Life – I don’t think he’d mind me saying this – it’s all about Cory. I am all about Cory, and he is all about Cory, so it makes it easy.”

    (my emphasis)

    I'm also in strong agreement with Anomander's analysis (from The Australian Independent Media of Bernardi:

    It is often said “the eyes are the mirror to the soul”.

    Over the years, I’ve deal with a lot of mentally disturbed people, particularly when they are angry, paranoid, delusional or violently irrational. When you encounter someone in this state, they have a distinct look in their eyes that often gives away their state of mind.

    Every time I see a photo of Bernardi I shudder because this very same look is always glaringly apparent in his eyes.

    There is real malevolent intent there and distinct traits that point toward psychopathy – zero empathy, an unbridled lust for power and control, an overwhelming passion and crazed belief within himself and his distorted ideologies, all hiding behind a flimsy fa├žade that is always right on the very brink of unravelling. Truly disturbing.

    Here's the relevant pic: http://resources3.news.com.au/images/2011/05/06/1226051/434835-cory-bernardi.jpg

    1. what about Tones or Erica Bets the only woman of calibre in the cabinet..

    2. You disappoint me: what about Mr Pyne? (Though I will agree that PM Blood Oaf as Minister for WoMAN is a close contender.)

  5. I am tempted to regard Bernardi as just a bit of a distraction during silly season except for one thing: He is fulfilling a role in the Liberal party, the role of the crazy ultra-conservative who nobody in the party really takes all that seriously but gives voice to some views that others hold but dare not say.
    This role used to be held by Tony Abbott.

  6. VoterBentleigh8/1/14 11:52 pm

    Warren Entsch is in damage control. If members of the Liberal Party, including Mr. Entsch, really find Senator Bernardi's views objectionable, then they will ensure that he is relegated to the cross-benches on the basis that his views do not represent those of the Party. If he had promoted the carbon price or the MMRT, the Senator would have been sent to the cross-benches faster than one could say “toxic tax”. But that will not happen, because the Liberal Party has moved so far to divisive, sectarian, intolerance that it supports Bernardi.

    Lenore Taylor fails to understand Mr. Abbott's character and Andrew Porter's article is poorly argued., but they are both right to suggest that unchallenged comments by such as Newman and Bernardi make previously irrational and intolerant views more and more acceptable. While I agree that the Prime Minister will not do anything more than he has done, this is not because he cannot do anything, but because Bernardi is useful in promoting the PM's agenda and that of the fringe right. Even on IVF, where the PM supported Ms Credlin, this seems restricted to women “of calibre”.

    By the look of it, the only people to cast Senator Bernardi out will be the electorate. However, given the incessant propaganda through much of the media, it is doubtful.

    But I do differ from you, Andrew, regarding the consequences for public discourse, because attitudes can be substantially altered in a short period of time. Added to the propaganda from the conservatives and fringes is the fact that Labor MPs, like Don Farrell, who hold similar views, have such power, although his views are contained to some degree by his party's policy platform. The notion expressed sometimes that there are left-wing Catholics out there who would disagree with Bernardi is arguable - most genuine “left-wingers” have left the RC church - or you never hear from them. Despite the eventual acceptance of Vietnamese boat people, Howard quickly reversed the attitude of the community to refugees and who would have thought that Rudd would completely reverse ALP policy on refugees or that dismantling protection for National Parks and World Heritage areas could be so little criticised by the public?

    I'm probably wrong about this, because I was wrong in assuming that the electorate were sufficiently educated and “fundamentally united” (pure Abbott prattle) not to vote in someone who is so divisive, narrow-minded and selfish as Mr. Abbott.

    1. A matter of weeks ago, the SA Liberals selected Bernardi as their number 1 candidate for the Senate. Neither Abbott nor Entsch have much pull in that state. For him to go from hero to zero for expressing views which were well and widely known would be amazing. As I said, his outbursts are not some orchestrated campaign on the part of the government, they're a sign of weakness.

      You're right about MRRT (or, God forbid, asylum seekers). Bernardi's own attack on Turnbull for his position on same-sex marriage is also quite illustrative. Taylor is deliberately avoiding the question of Abbott's character.

      Bernardi is not 'advancing' an agenda by airing it. That agenda has always been part of public life and has not advanced one iota since this time last week, in the same way that viewing figures for Peppa Pig are unaffected by Piers' recent intervention.

      I take your point about a shift in attitudes, but I disagree that Bernardi will be that effective in bringing that about, however indirectly.

      What is more likely to shift those attitudes is an ageing population, where fertile women become a smaller proportion of the populace than they are now, and where declining birthrates (and continued fear of immigration) put wilfully terminated pregnancies in a different light. This leads us into the territory covered by the Handmaid's Tale and I'm not going there at this stage.

      Farrell is scrambling to maintain his career after 30 June because at the last election the voters of SA elected one Labor candidate to the Senate, and he wasn't it. The RC Church isn't and never has been a democracy, and has been brought into disrepute. Bernardi might feel he's stepping in to prop up declining authority, but this is not the time for that authority to expand.

      We were both wrong about Abbott never becoming PM, but the idea that he's going to stuff up every aspect of government except this one deserves re-examining.

  7. Hillbilly Skeleton9/1/14 12:55 pm

    1. Bernardi will never be able to be a Harradine proxy, or convince the Groupers in the DLP to accept him because he is anti-union and Workers Rights. Harradine, Santamaria, AND Abbott, get that much. Like the people are sanguine and have internally resolved their abortion position, so, I think, they want to retain a 'Union Safety Net', so to speak. I'm sure Abbott had that conversation with Howard after the 2007 election, and you could be guaranteed he had it many times with Santamaria. Is it not the case that Abbott was the only one in Cabinet that arced up against WorkChoices when it came before the Howard government Cabinet table? I could be wrong,but that's my recollection. Ergo, Bernardi,who also postulated the return of the Individual Contract aspect of WorkNoChoices this week, could not countenance Senator Madigan's stances as far as Workplace Conditions goes. So,no go there. I've read enough of the writings of Chris Curtis, another powerful DLPer from Victoria, to know they are staunch about it.

    2. It's my belief,based upon your theory, that Bernardi may more likely be courted by that other disaffected Lunar Right ex-Liberal, now a Senator-elect for Family First for SA, Bob Day. It's a more 'family-friendly', if you will, fit for Bernardi, with the added upside that if they can snag another Senator with the help of Glenn Druery next Senate election, and depending on how the PUPS pan out over the next 3 years, Bernardi, in such an arrangement, may end up holding the Balance of Power in the Senate, from where he could do some real damage. He, and Day, are both from South Australia, after all, and if Bernardi stood for Family First next election, if eventually dropped like a slimy,lukewarm potato by the Liberal Party, and Minchin OKs it, then he could conceivably be back for FF after the next election. Minchin would no doubt see the advantages of a Conservative-friendly block he could liase with, behind the scenes.

    Now, if I've thought of all this, and I've only played the computer game 'Machiavelli', don't you think they would have to? Why, they could even get Sister Sarah over to rev up the old white guys that are likely to vote for them, as an added bonus!

    1. 1. You're right about the DLP and workers' rights regarding Bernardi, something I overlook too often. Abbott might have been close to Santamaria but I don't believe the reverse was true to the same extent.

      2. Bernardi was elected at the last election, which means (DDs aside) he will stay in the Senate until 30 June 2020. He doesn't need to go up for re-election in 2016.

      Day is a millionaire businessman and pretty much runs FF. Bernardi will not want to go from being a small-to-medium operator in a major party to being second-fiddle elsewhere; he will want to run the show, and he will want it to sustain him, and will not move from his present paddock under the scenario you describe.

      The Liberal Party has stunted itself by depleting its left wing. If it depletes its right it faces the same predicament Labor faces now, squeezed by both the Greens from the left and the Libs from the right. Minchin is not going to want to outsource the Liberal right.

    2. I think if Bernardi did jump to Family First, he's highly unlikely to get re-elected. Bob Day was an abberation.

  8. Any thoughts on why Labor has not latched on to this in any real or meaningful way?

    They could have really piled the pressure on Abbott at this point to put his money where his mouth was on that gay marriage conscious vote he promised. The reasoning would be solid and likely gotten some significant traction from the usual mob. It would show Abbott putting Bernardi in his box and fulfil an election promise. All the while it would bend Abbott in a way that only he has been so successful in as an Opposition leader.

    1. When your enemy is making a mistake it's best to give them free rein. You'll notice that when Rudd was going in hardest against Gillard, Abbott didn't need to stick his oar in.

      For those of us who aren't gay, same-sex marriage is a proxy for being open to new ideas about the future (a bit like the republic was in the '90s). Get used to the idea that such a vote won't happen while Abbott is PM, in much the same way that Howard was never going to apologise to the Stolen Generation.

      Labor need to find a way to be more convincing on same-sex marriage. The free vote under Gillard didn't have the desired effect.

  9. Is this just the beginning? Will there be more from the right, speaking in a similar manner? Is this all part of a hidden agenda, veiled in secrecy? Who knows!

    I feel sorrow for those at the bottom of the food chain, as I feel it’s going to be a rough 3 years for them.

    It takes me back 6 months to the last increase of the minimum wage, and this cartoon . . . . . .



    1. There will be more from the far right, mostly hollow bullshit but watch for the rare occasions when they really offer them something of substance.

  10. Hillbilly Skeleton9/1/14 8:48 pm

    Re your comment to DavidR about Labor needing a more jiggy approach to the Same Sex Marriage/LGBT voting bloc(same thing really). If I was their adviser, now that Abbott has moved his pawn, his lesbian sister, Christine Foster, into place to attempt to block any further moves they may make, I would go for the Nuclear Option and start putting their openly gay party members on their tickets from now on. Penny Wong should be their ambassador into the community and champion in the caucus.

    The Liberals have their closeted homosexual MPs,and a few openly gay members of the Liberal laity, well, Labor have nowhere else to go but to trump them by overruling Labor's Catholic Right(whose influence is confounded anyway by the rise of the Catholic Left and thus, waning), and promote openly and without blush, good candidates just waiting to be asked, like Carl Katter.

    I think that would at the very least shame Abbott into sanctioning a Conscience Vote on Same Sex Marriage for the Coalition, as I am sure he lives and dies by the Howard maxim: 'It's all about the arithmetic.' Such that, as you say, he'd rather stay in power, so would go against his own firmly-held principles, to do that.

    1. I think SSM advocates have done a great job in the slow and patient work of making it non-partisan (opponents have done the same), and am not sure this is the answer to a question whose time is coming.

    2. Isn't that why Tim Wilson was chosen so quickly??
      I agree that the gay lobby has been one of the best lobby groups in political history thus far

      Kudos to them and maybe like Alex Greenwich have more members in parliament as a result.

      The hollow b.s from the far right includes Tim I would say.

  11. Interesting to see Sharman Stone's critical comments about some of her colleagues who are opposed to financial assistance for SPC.

    Her insistence that there is no such thing as international free trade and that fellow MPs who are opposed to helping SPC have no understanding of economics, will have caused a bit of angst in the ranks.

  12. Hillbilly Skeleton9/1/14 10:27 pm

    Thank you for your reply. You may well be the wiser head on this matter. :)

  13. Hillbilly Skeleton9/1/14 10:30 pm

    Support,at least on one of Bernardi's issues,has come from exactly where you expected it: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/under-fire-senator-cory-bernardi-finally-finds-supporter-in-john-madigan-20140109-30k0o.html

  14. Tour de force. A small correction from one who worked on the case - Abbott didn't destroy Hanson, though he briefly led on her pursuer.

    My take on Bernadi is that as a package he's a 'slanty eyed ideologue' as someone once said. Individually some of his positions aren't loopy, but together they are.

    Abbott (and any old DLPer) also knows there's a deep contradiction between advocating WorkChoices and perching family values.

  15. Andrew, just wondering;

    Do you think you could set up a mechanism so readers can get your blog posts emailed to our inboxes? Or at least a notification that there is a new post on the blog? I find myself checking every couple of days for the next instalment...

    (forgive me if I'm missing some option like an rss feed or something)


  16. Alexander, the RSS feed for this blog is

    On a Blogger blog, an RSS feed link can usually be found at the very bottom of the home page - the link will usually say "Posts - (Atom)"