Across the Echo Chambers with Senator Cory Bernardi

Words by Rachel Withers

By Rachel Withers, 28/11/2016

When I was given time to interview Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi at the United Nations, just a few weeks before the US election, I was nervous. I assumed, having listened to enough of his hurtful anti-marriage equality tirades, that I would find his company insufferable. He assumed, when I said I was writing for Junkee, that I was going to write a sledge piece.

We were both wrong.

The Liberal Senator is on a three-month secondment to the UN, one half of the annual bipartisan delegation (Labor selected Senator Lisa Singh). As we walk the halls of the diplomatic melting pot, my tour guide is casual and frank — his demeanour uniquely Australian. His official role (when not giving tours) involves attending committees and speaking engagements. He has also been getting up extra early to make time for his usual provocative commentary, keeping him relevant in the Australian media.

Bernardi knows the place well by now: he refers to a quiet, ornate lounge donated by Qatar as a “good place for a nap”, and is on jovial terms with the security guard in the General Assembly chamber. When he’s not sure if he can go down a particular wing or through a particular door, he gives his swipe card a crack anyway. If he stuffs up, he pleads ignorance.

He would never want to be Ambassador to the UN, he admits during our tour. “Too much representing other people’s views — I would rather argue my own position.”

Bernardi, The Martyr

Bernardi is known for being (at times painfully) outspoken about those positions, even when they don’t align with his own party lines. After the 2016 federal election, the media speculated that Bernardi might defect from the Liberal Party to form his own conservative party. He seems to find the idea amusing, but isn’t willing to rule it out completely.

“I am a traditionalist liberal. If the Liberal Party chooses to depart from its underlying ethos, I think it would have implications,” he says. But it wouldn’t, he assures me, be called the Cory Bernardi Party. “No one should ever name a political party after themselves.” Hard to say if this is a dig at Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Bob Katter, Derryn Hinch, Glenn Lazarus or all of the above (my money’s on Xenophon).

Our conversation turns repeatedly to Trump, who at this point is yet to be elected. Many mistake Bernardi for a Trump-fanatic, but speaking to him directly, this public support feels overblown — by both himself and the media. “I’m not a stickler for Trump,” he says. “But if I could vote here I would be voting for him, because I don’t like Clinton.”

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The cover of Bernardi’s book, The Conservative Revolution. Read the great Amazon reviews here.

Supporting Trump fits in well with his Bernardi brand of bold non-conformism. “The only thing worse than being at a dinner party and saying ‘I don’t support same-sex marriage’ is saying ‘I support Donald Trump’.” Bernardi wouldn’t hesitate to say either. The senator is famously outspoken against marriage equality, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and he denies that humans are directly contributing to climate change. His commitment to his unpopular, anti-mainstream stances struck me as almost perversely martyred.

“Certainly, I’m a target for those who don’t like the conservative movement, and if they insert my name into the abuse somehow it resonates with their target market. I accept that…” he says. “And because I’m happy to champion what others perceive as a lost cause, because I’m immune to the abuse, I guess it gives some people some hope. But the way I look at it, if I can wear some of the blows for it, it might make it easier for someone else to come in and assist.”

He also takes issue with those less committed to a cause, no matter what side of debate they’re on. I even find myself on the same page as the senator as the conversation turns to careerist politicians (on both the left and the right).

“People now are leaving university and their whole mission is to get a job as a staffer, get into politics and stay there until they’re 65,” he says, irate. “Now that’s BS to me. You know that’s not what we need in our country; we don’t need more well-paid bureaucrats, we need more people that are passionate about certain things who are going to fight as hard as they can to see some change.”

At the very least, Cory Bernardi definitely believes in what Cory Bernardi is doing.

While many Junkee readers are stridently opposed to the kind of changes Senator Bernardi is arguing for, it’s easier to sympathise with his frustration at the career-driven motives of many politicians. There’s a proven track record of people doing what is politically expedient over what they think is right — of choosing polls over principles.

“You always gain more if you are principled,” he says. “And one of the things that I admire about John Howard — I admire him enormously — is the thing that people used to say, ‘I don’t like John Howard, but…’ and there’s always a but. And the ‘but’ was: he believed in what he was doing. He seemed to have a framework that’s he’s applying; you know he’s doing what he thinks is in the nation’s interest.”

At the very least, Cory Bernardi definitely believes in what Cory Bernardi is doing. You could easily mistake his fighting words in his most recent email to his mailing list — “standing up for change and making a difference isn’t a futile task” — for those of an impassioned activist.

It’s clear he thinks deeply, in his conservative way, about where the country is going — “the advancing tide of the tyrannical progressive agenda” — rather than just getting re-elected. That said, second spot on the Liberal senate ticket in South Australia is a pretty comfortable place to be not worrying about the polls (at least until the Xenophon takeover is complete and South Australia secedes to form the Kingdom of Xenophon).

I get the feeling, however, that even if polls do start to affect his position, he will be going down with the ship.

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Still from Canberra al Desko with Annabel Crabb (worth a watch if you’d like to see this kind of talk in action).

Bernardi, The Fighter

Cory Bernardi has a self-deprecating sense of humour. I suggest he might be the face of conservatism in Australia and he chimes in: “the ugly face”. His razor-sharp sarcasm is exasperating and funny, even when it’s at my expense. He says he is willing to have a laugh with anyone, even if they hold different views, citing Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson as a source of good-natured banter across the chamber.

“It’s not like I walk down the corridor cursing at other people. Some curse at me,” he adds.

This claim seems a little dubious given the corridor #banter captured between himself and Bill Shorten earlier this year. Bernardi, passing a Shorten presser, called out, “at least I’m honest, Bill. You’re a fraud, mate.” Shorten shot back: “Nah mate, at least I’m not a homophobe either, mate.”

Bernardi also seems frustrated by media echo chambers. “People listen to the opinions they want to listen to,” he says. “There’s this polarisation — you just reinforce your own views about what you think is going on… and maybe I’m no different.”

I ask the senator to apply this to himself. If he suffers from the same confirmation bias on climate change, could he possibly be the one in the wrong? Bernardi insists he is open to evidence of man’s impact on climate change — “you provide me with the evidence and I’ll happily consider it” —but he apparently doesn’t accept any of the mountains of climate change science currently on offer. “Just because a bunch of people say this is what’s going to happen, doesn’t mean they’re right.” He’s so certain, in fact, that climate change is a natural phenomenon, he doesn’t think any precautions are worth taking.

“If the whole world said ‘we’re going to cut all our emissions tomorrow’, it’s still going to make bugger all difference, except it’s going to sentence a whole bunch of people to poverty. And you can try and do your journalism without your electricity, you can give that a crack. You know, see how the printing presses run and the electrons do it online, you know, maybe you can wait for the wind to blow and choose between you and each other inhabitant of your commune who gets the electricity for that day.”

I sometimes think climate change denial is a matter of convenience for those in major political parties — that they reject the science for their industry mates or because it’s easier than making the hard changes. But Cory Bernardi talks with the conviction of someone who genuinely doesn’t believe that anything can be done to stop it. Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems like he really thinks he is doing what is in his grandchildren’s best interests. Could that mean there’s still hope of convincing him? It seems more likely than swaying someone who’s ignoring the issue for political reasons.

Either way, this isn’t the most intense moment of our discussion. That comes when I challenge the senator on marriage equality, suggesting his conservative faction of the Liberal Party had used their influence to sway their leadership on the issue. Was it fair that a small group of parliamentarians should hold the entire government to a position, at a point when a majority of Australians and — it would appear — parliamentarians now support the opposite?

He deflects the question. “So what you’re asking me, is whether I think it’s important that we uphold our promises at elections — is that what you’re asking? I think it is. Are you advocating that we should break some promises? … We took that to an election and you want us to dump it because, what? Some people have got hurt feelings? You’re saying because the Greens and Labor want us to change our policy, we should do it? Well I’m not going to buy into that, I’m really sorry.”

There’s the sarcasm again.

“I think Labor and the Greens should change their policy,” he says in mock righteousness. “Because we got elected, we’ve got the moral authority to make that demand of them.”

“There you go. You’ll get some headlines on Junkee with that.”

I question whether the Australian government really has a plebiscite “mandate” based on the 2016 election campaign (I mean, between “Jobs and Growth”, sticking with the current mob, Labor doing a deal with the Greens, the Liberals doing a deal with the Greens, and a Dandrews/CFA dispute that really had nothing to do with the federal election, was the plebiscite really enough of a decisive vote-winner for the government to claim a mandate on it?) At this, he deflates slightly.

“What was the election issue? This is the point, what was it?” he half-jokes, half-laments. “From Labor’s point of view, it was a Medicare scare campaign which was based on next-to-nothing. And from our point of view…” There is a pause. “It was about… uhh… [with a mock enthusiasm air-punch] innovation… and [punch] change.”

His tone suggests even he thought Prime Minister Turnbull’s innovation agenda was pretty hollow.

“There you go,” he says. “You’ll get some headlines on Junkee with that.”

Bernardi, The Man

The internet is bubbling right now with thinkpieces on how siloed public discourse in the US has become — how Trump’s supporters were fed fake news and incited with divisive online rhetoric; why few on the progressive side saw Trump’s victory coming. There is not much connection between the left and the right, and when there is, there’s little respect given either way.

Political junkies in Australia need to get better at this too, before it’s too late. We need to be able to engage meaningfully outside of our bubbles. And no, I don’t mean engaging with someone from Labor Right as a person from Labor Left.

Cory Bernardi is a particularly extreme example. He is still the conservative senator who denounces and opposes the rights and lifestyles of many of my friends, and for that there is no defending him. But I don’t think screaming at him or calling him names would have achieved anything for anyone. Instead, I spent 90 minutes rationally questioning his assumptions. Perhaps I’ve put a little chink in them. It was undeniably more effective than vandalising his office.

These conversations are not always a safe space for everyone — I’m not suggesting it should be the role of people of colour to have to reason with aggressive racists, or people who identify as LGBTIQ to justify their rights to… Cory Bernardi. But there are conversations to be had here for people who feel they are in a safe enough position to have them. And if your main reason for not stepping outside of your comfort zone to talk to someone is that their views offend you as a progressive, that’s not good enough.

It’s hard to know if anything productive was gained by sitting down with Bernardi. I didn’t get even remotely close to changing any of his views, nor he mine — these things aren’t achieved in that kind of time. But I have been reminded that, though we see the world differently, there are people on both sides who think they are working towards what they see as the greater good.

I don’t like Cory Bernardi’s views, but I did enjoy the chat and the challenge. Maybe I’ll see him in Canberra some time. I’ll bring that evidence of human-led climate change he said he would be “happy to consider”.

Rachel Withers is an Australian political junkie living in New York City. She blogs about women and politics at anastywomansblog.wordpress.com, and tweets when she gets upset at @rachelrwithers.