Australian politics, society & culture

All About Cory

Cory Bernardi, Conservative Warrior

Cory Bernadi standing for something, 2011. © Matt Turner / Newspix / News Limited
Cory Bernadi standing for something, 2011. © Matt Turner / Newspix / News Limited

Sally Neighbour

Medium length read2800 words
 

The wall in Cory Bernardi’s Canberra office is adorned with mementos of some of his political paragons: framed portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a young Queen Elizabeth; a letter from Robert Menzies, penned to an admirer in 1966; John and Janette Howard beaming from an old Christmas card. Another wall sports a corkboard displaying an anonymous letter from a few weeks before: “Corey Bernadi [sic], you filthy, putrid, liberal cunt! Fuck you, Zionist Jew loving shitkicker … fuckin’ hippocrite … ignorant filth …” Bernardi keeps it to show his attackers are the extremists, not him. The third wall bears one of the oversized and irritatingly loud analogue clocks that grace every Parliament House office to ensure members and senators keep to their schedules.

Cover: December 2011 - January 2012
December 2011 - January 2012
Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour
Fiona McGregor
Janette Turner Hospital
Manoly Lascaris and Patrick White’s ghost
Debra Adelaide
Melbourne Zoo at 150
Christine Kenneally
William Kentridge
Sebastian Smee
Norfolk Island’s chickens
Ashley Hay
Portrait Painting
Charlotte Wood

“When you first come into this place, all the walls are blank, and after the first bonhomie’s done and people say hello, you’re left alone in your office with your clock, and I remember sitting here one night thinking that’s the sound of life ticking away,” says Bernardi. “That’s the very first thought I had, by myself in this place – that whilst it ticks away I’ll always try to be doing something.”

Bernardi has certainly wasted no time in the five years since he was elected a senator for South Australia. He’s played a key role in killing off the former Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme, toppling Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader and replacing him with Tony Abbott. He’s “carved a niche as one of Australia’s leading conservative voices”, according to his website. He’s riled Greens, gays, feminists, Muslims and small ‘l’ liberals with his campaigns against action on climate change, gay equality and the burqa.

“Cory is deluded,” says a Liberal Party colleague. “He is one of the least effective or important members of the parliamentary team. Cory is a person without any intellect, without any base, and he should really never have risen above the position of branch president. His right-wing macho-man act is just his way of looking as though he stands for something.” 

Bernardi shrugs off the criticism. Beneath his Ken-doll good looks, smooth manner and radio announcer’s baritone lies a political hide as tough as any in Canberra. “I have a number of strong beliefs that I believe reflect the concerns, the hopes and I think the aspirations of mainstream Australia,” he says.

Bernardi is so pleased with how things are going that he threw a party in November to celebrate his forty-second birthday – or “second twenty-first”, as he called it – at his Adelaide home. The karaoke tragic serenaded guests with Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’, accompanied by “all the moves”, according to his wife Sinead. “He’s quite a party animal when he gets going,” says his mum Jo. “He gets into it, has a few drinks, dancing, singing – he doesn’t sit in the corner.” 

Sinead, an Irish-born economics graduate who migrated to Australia, recalls one of her first impressions while working in the Bernardi family’s pub in Adelaide: Cory in black suit, hat and sunglasses belting out songs from the Blues Brothers with the band. “Cory’s never short of confidence, that’s for sure,” she says. His later move into politics would come as no surprise. “I always knew he would never just sit in the back. He’d want to be up front and centre – right-leaning centre, of course.”

The senator who claims multiculturalism has failed is the son of an Italian immigrant, Leon Bernardi, who came here at 16, worked his way from the David Jones food counter to running his own hotels and restaurants, and succeeded well enough to send his three sons to the exclusive Prince Alfred College, an alma mater of the Adelaide establishment. Bernardi’s mother Jo says her own father, who was a trade unionist and staunch Labor man, would have turned in his grave when Cory joined the Liberal Party at 17. She assumed he signed up to meet girls, though Bernardi says he joined because “contributing to a political party is a really important part of democracy”.

He “sailed through” school despite not really trying, according to his mother, and began a business and marketing course at the Adelaide Institute of Technology. “I didn’t like university at all,” he says. “I thought that university was a very important place if you wanted to pursue a particular profession and gain specific skills [but] I didn’t think it was a place of great entrepreneurship.” He was saved from uni when his skill as a rower won him a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport. He went on to row for Australia at the world championships in Yugoslavia in 1989. Former Olympian and friend, Peter Murphy, recalls Bernardi as “the life of the party … charismatic, highly intelligent, highly strung and passionate”, which he puts down to “his Italian blood”. “I love his conviction. He was like that as a rower. If you know the sport of rowing, at that level it’s not an easy sport. You’ve got to be pretty dogged to make the Australian team.”

That doggedness would serve him well when a chronic back injury cut short his rowing career. Bernardi likes to joke that this paved the way for the Oarsome Foursome to win gold at the 1992 and ’96 Olympics. “I rowed in the coxless fours and we finished ninth or tenth, then the next year because I was injured they recruited and they won and went on to win gold medals and stuff, and they never would have done that had I been in the boat.” If he was devastated about the injury, he never let on. “Cory threw all his energy into his rowing. So once he had a chronic back [injury], he then threw the same energy into his career,” says Murphy.

First, he took off overseas and travelled around Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East, working as a labourer with a German construction company that erected marquees for international events, including a political conference held by then Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte. He returned home after being injured in a car accident in 1993 and took over running the family hotel. Two years later he was struck down by tuberculosis, which he thinks he caught in Libya, and spent four months in hospital and a year in isolation. Alone in his sick bed, Bernardi decided he wanted to “make a difference”. So he quit the pub, got married, began a new career as a stockbroker and financial adviser and set his sights on politics. 

Bernardi owes his ascendancy in the Liberal Party to a powerful mentor, the right-wing faction leader and long-time South Australian senator, Nick Minchin, who was struck by the younger man’s physical stature (he’s 195 centimetres tall), sporting achievements and political potential. “He is confident without being overbearing, intelligent and committed, with a well-thought-through philosophy on life and a strong sense of direction,” says Minchin.

Thanks to Minchin’s backing, Bernardi became the Liberal Party’s youngest ever South Australian state president in 1998, and the youngest federal vice-president in 2005. The moderates in the branch were never impressed. One recalls: “There was nothing memorable about his term. Even his own supporters got sick of waiting for him to do something effective.” Bernardi rejects this, saying he boosted the branch’s membership by 40% and its bank balance by half a million dollars during his term.

Minchin’s support also got Bernardi onto the senate ticket and into parliament in 2006. In his maiden speech he extolled the importance of a strong economy, small business, the defence industry and entrepreneurship, and derided the “new culture of rights” in Australia. He thanked his mother for staying at home to raise him, hailed “the sanctity of human life” and marriage as “a sacred bond between a man and a woman”, and pledged: “I shall be guided by my conscience, my family, my country and my God.”

A tireless self-promoter, Bernardi has his own website and blog, is the self-published “author of four books” (a pamphlet on encouraging children to save, another on healthy eating and exercise, and two compilations of his opinions). He has been known to hand out ‘Cory Bernardi’ coffee mugs.

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.”

I asked Bernardi what he loves. He replied: “Family. And my wife says myself, but you know [that’s] a bit unkind.” He continued: “But I have to say I kind of, I love fighting, mm. Yeah, in a metaphorical sense. I love the battle as much as anything else. Sounds really aggressive doesn’t it? But I just do.”

Bernardi’s singular achievement is having helped destroy the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme in 2009 and, with it, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. His opposition to the ETS, and later the carbon tax, was first inspired by veteran climate sceptic, University of Adelaide’s Ian Plimer. It was girded by a 2009 visit to the United States where he sought advice on strategy from America’s foremost climate-change deniers; among them Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner who, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “routinely ignores and denies even the most robust, vetted scientific findings”, and Senator James Inhofe, a beneficiary of generous energy industry funding, who has described global warming as “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state”. 

Inspired by the tactics of the Tea Party, Bernardi established the Conservative Leadership Foundation in 2009, which in turn set up the Conservative Action Network (CANdo) that Bernardi likens to “a Facebook for conservatives”. CANdo rallied dozens of like-minded groups and thousands of individuals to join an orchestrated ‘grassroots’ campaign – also known as ‘astro-turfing’ – against the ETS. Their efforts persuaded Liberal MPs to revolt against Turnbull, killing the ETS and propelling Abbott into leadership.

Some of his moderate colleagues are caustic about Bernardi’s role in undermining Turnbull and others on the small ‘l’ side. One colleague calls him “disloyal and treacherous”, while another says he spends more time attacking those in his own party than the others. Some colleagues privately blame him for circulating a “shit sheet” before the 2007 election implying that an unnamed Coalition minister was gay. Bernardi categorically denies he had anything to do with it, adding he’s a “convenient scapegoat for those on the Left”. He has maintained a poisonous feud with fellow South Australian Christopher Pyne, who signed him up to their local branch in the 1980s before they acrimoniously fell out.

He was sacked from the front bench by Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, after writing on his blog that the “wannabe” MP who had recruited him had told him during a golf game that he only ran as a Liberal because he lived in a Liberal seat. Bernardi refused Turnbull’s demand that he apologise to Pyne, and remains unrepentant today. “Why would I apologise for [writing] something that is true?” Turnbull had previously rebuked Bernardi for speaking against the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws–Superannuation) Act 2008, which had bipartisan support. Bernardi opined in the senate that the bill would throw open the doors of “the marriage club” to people “whose relationships are uncharacteristic of the most basic elements of a marital union”.

While he seems to be sincere in his convictions, the foundations of Bernardi’s ‘philosophy’ appear shallow. He claims to be widely read but admits his favourite fare is airport novels, especially the late Dick Francis’ formulaic thrillers. His recommended reading list includes a book called Confrontational Politics by a retired US senator, HL Richardson, published by the Gun Owners Foundation. The author’s credo is “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God” and he was once voted ‘Chauvinist of the Year’ by the National Organization for Women. His book is a crude polemic that rails against homosexuals, tree-huggers, humanists, pagans and abortionists, whom he likens to Hitler. It calls evolution a “scientific justification” for rejecting God, and argues for “the necessity to limit the power of man and government” as the Holy Bible should be the basis for human law (a proposition starkly similar to that advanced by the Islamists Bernardi condemns). Bernardi liked the book so much he bought 100 copies to hand out.

Many of his ideas are borrowed from others. He embraced the nickname ‘Ju-liar’ for Julia Gillard, coined by his friend Alan Jones, with whom he served on the board of the Australian Sports Commission. The slogan on his website, ‘common sense lives here’, mimics that of another of his icons, US talk-show host Phil Valentine, who wrote The Conservative’s Handbook and uses the catchphrase: ‘It’s just common sense’. Bernardi’s assertion that Islam is a “totalitarian, political and religious ideology” echoes the phraseology of right-wing anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders, whom Bernardi met and invited to Australia, earning another rebuke from the Liberal leadership.

A frequent commentator on the ‘dangers’ of Islam, Bernardi has the Koran on his iPad but acknowledges he hasn’t read it, except for the passages he quotes to advance his arguments. He doesn’t know the ‘five pillars’, or basic tenets, of the Islamic faith. He claims his warnings about Islam are based on the “unique perspective” he gained while travelling in Europe where, he says, Muslim migration has led to “almost unprecedented levels of social unrest”. 

“I keep saying this is not about Muslim people,” Bernardi insists. “A lot of Muslims eat pork, there’s a lot of Muslims who don’t pray five times a day or go to mosque, there’s a lot of Muslims who decide to drink alcohol. There’s a lot of Muslims who are terrific people, that are fantastic, like people of any faith.” In other words: Muslims are fine, as long as they don’t practise their beliefs.

“He wants to be some sort of conservative warrior but he’s not up to it intellectually,” says a Liberal associate. “In reality he’s like the kid in the playground who pulls his pants down so everyone will look at him, but he has no idea how he’s embarrassing himself in the process. He’s basically kryptonite for any serious person in the party because he’s a complete embarrassment.”

For a man who espouses “compassion, acceptance and personal integrity”, to quote his website, there’s also a pitiless quality to Bernardi. He calls asylum-seekers “welfare squatters” and condemned the government for flying survivors of the Christmas Island refugee boat disaster to Sydney to attend their loved ones’ funerals.

“There’s plenty of Australians who miss out on going to funerals too because they can’t afford it,” he says, unmoved by the fact that the mourners included young children who had lost both parents. “It’s tragic,” he adds, stone-faced. The same steely tone is employed when he talks about the elder brother he hasn’t spoken to for a decade, although they see each other at the park when their sons play sport together. He won’t say why they fell out. When I ask if it saddens him, he replies: “You’re gonna say I’m cruel and heartless but no, it doesn’t … It’s just one of those things. I’m estranged from my brother. Big deal.”

Bernardi was rewarded for his role in elevating Abbott to the leadership with a promotion to the position of shadow parliamentary secretary assisting the Opposition leader. Asked why he got the post, he replies: “I guess he [Abbott] thinks I’m someone who can help him get to where he wants to go.” What role Bernardi would play in an Abbott-led government is an open question. Minchin says Bernardi “has a very substantial support base”. Another senior Liberal believes Abbott and Bernardi are “very close”. An alternative view from within the party is that Abbott and his office think Bernardi is “a total liability” and “even the conservative wing finds him to be a complete screwball”. Abbott was not available to comment.

Bernardi is fortified by the fact that, by his count, the public feedback he gets runs 90% his way. “I hope Cory Bernardi gets voted in as PM. He can see the future,” writes one admirer. “Bernardi doesn’t need to be sacked. He needs a medal pinned on him for being the only politician with guts to speak out,” writes another.

“If you look at some of the great people of history, they all had trenchant critics,” says Bernardi, citing his hero, Ronald Reagan, whose speeches he listens to on his iPhone for inspiration during his evening walks. “You can’t go through life being loved by everybody, that’s a recipe for nothingness.”

Sally Neighbour

Sally Neighbour is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, best known for her work as a reporter with Four Corners, recognised by three Walkley Awards. She is the author of The Mother of Mohammed and In the Shadow of Swords.
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