Welcome to our In Conversation between Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi and Dr Timothy Lynch, lecturer in American politics at Melbourne University.
Since being appointed to the Senate in 2006, the Senator Bernardi has attracted (and courted) controversy. Notably, he has been vocal on issues like gay marriage, the role of Islam and what he sees as the decline in traditional Australian values.
In this wide-ranging discussion Senator Bernardi touches on a range of subjects including:
How Australian conservatism differs from British and American strands
Marriage equality and “attacks on the pillars” of Australian society
Why President Obama doesn’t deserve to win the 2012 US presidential elections – but probably will
The importance of individual freedom in debates over smoking and ‘pokie’ restrictions
The influence and impact of left-wing thought in Australian universities
Tim Lynch: Senator Bernardi, it is a pleasure to meet with you and I thank you for giving us your time. Let me dive straight in and ask you what you think the differences are between American conservatism, Australian conservatism and British conservatism?
Senator Cory Bernardi: I think they all differ markedly because conservatism is not doctrinal, it is a way of viewing the world and conservatives will describe themselves in different manners and in different ways according to where their area of interest is.
There are many fiscal conservatives and people are happy about that and there are people who say they are social conservatives and one can be a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. In England, the Conservative party has evolved from Burke, who was the father of modern conservatism, and we have seen a bit of that translate across the pond, as they say, to America.
I think the Americans are far less interested in government doing things for them, they want more freedom whereas perhaps the English like their government to be able to do some things.
The conservative movement here, in Australia, I think has been under threat for a little while because government has continuously gotten bigger and there’s an increasing appetite for people to say “the government should do something about it”. I think we are seeing a Europeanisation of conservatism and probably general political discourse, unlike what we are seeing in America where there is a rebellion against government’s waste.
Lynch: I think that is very interesting. In some ways you’d hear the opposite response from liberal progressives here. They would point to, and you might be cited as an example of this, the Americanisation of politics.
Bernardi: I think you are right in the sense that those who are unaccustomed to conservatives fighting back and making their voice known will complain about it and say it is the Americanisation of political discourse. But I simply want to see mainstream Australia stand up and have a voice and to put forward their voice because I believe that mainstream values and middle class Australia have been shut down from having an opinion by what I would regard as “elite” opinion makers who seek to dominate the public discussion.
Lynch: Why did that happen? I can explain why they seek to dominate but why did they become dominant? The theories, political, social and economic they latched onto in the Cold War failed. They lost the economic argument – even when the current GFC is factored in – but won the cultural one. Why did they win the cultural one?
Bernardi: They started to reach out. Post-WWII, they started to reach out and find pockets of society who felt they weren’t being listened to or were victims in some way, shape or form and they played that up and they have sought to take over the institutions.
The church is no longer as dogmatic about some of the things it has believed for a long time. We have seen this weekend an attempt to redefine marriage which is another enduring institution. We have seen Kevin Rudd recently blame capitalism for the failure of banks where I would take the position that it was excessive interference by government: the mandating that people should be given loans that they couldn’t repay and trying to create equality for everybody.
This is simply not sustainable. The world does not work this way.
Australia and America
Lynch: Thomas Jefferson, it was once suggested, expected the United States to look the way Australia does now: large, agrarian, exclusive, empty with a small population concentrated along its east coast. This ties into the question I asked you about Americanisation. But the US did not evolve this way, Australia did. With this in mind, how do you think Australia and the US compare as nations and as political systems?
Bernardi: It is very interesting. I think Australia has an advantage because we have got the best of the Westminster system and the Washington system. They call it the “Washminster” system over here. We have a powerful upper house and I think that is very important in holding the government of the day to account.
We don’t have the extremes of politics we see in many other countries. And that concerns me. To digress, it concerns me because where you have one extreme in politics it always gives rise to an equal and opposite reaction. That is what we are seeing with some of the political discourse in Europe at the moment over social issues or economic issues. I don’t want to see that in this country but it is about maintaining a balance.
That is why we need to have people feeling free to raise issues they think are of genuine concern, to engage in the battle of ideas, not the battle of smears, and to encourage everyday Australians to have a voice. If they feel they have been shutout, there is a kickback which is much, much stronger than it otherwise should be.
Lynch: How would you compare the religiosity of both places? We think of America as being a very Christian nation which is very unlike Europe. How does Australia fit into that dichotomy?
Bernardi: Australia is a secular nation but it is founded upon the Judeo-Christian tradition and values. Most people identify themselves as Christian whether in practise or in thought. It is often said that you can’t get elected in America without mentioning God and you can’t get elected in Australia by mentioning God.
I think that to have a faith, or a sense of faith that there is a being greater than yourself and there is a greater calling than the individual satisfaction of wants on behalf of a community or a nation is a very healthy thing. You can’t ask people to check their personal beliefs at the Senate door or the House of Representatives door, that is why we [parliamentarians] are made up of such a vast and wide variety of experiences and belief systems.
Religion, politics and the Arab Spring
Lynch: If there is a role for faith in politics, is the rise of political Islam in the Middle East a good thing?
Bernardi: I don’t think so. I don’t think it is.
Lynch: So it is the type of religion that matters?
Bernardi: No, not necessarily. I think the difference is between politics and religion. We have many religions in this country and we have freedom of religion in our constitution. But we also have a system of government. We have very few religions that seek to run a political agenda as well. They are free to advocate as they see fit but for the Islamists, where I see that causing a problem, is that there is no separation of church and state. There is no state, there is sharia law, or God’s law. And I would reject that just as I would reject any return to canon law for the operation of our state. I don’t see that there is any difference.
If you remove the element of faith and you are left with a political agenda which is as totalitarian as communism or fascism we should be free to reject that as well.
Lynch: So what should Australia’s policy to the Arab Spring be if what the Arab Spring gives us is the “Islamisation” of the region?
Bernardi: It is a very big concern because that could breed a great deal of instability throughout the Middle East. For example, I read this morning that the Salafist party in Egypt, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, will dominate the parliament. If Egypt suddenly, as a result, tears up their non-aggression pact with Israel, who knows what could spring from that and I think we should be very concerned.
And that is not in any way, shape, or form, justifying some of the human rights atrocities that went on under a range of regimes in the Middle East. But we have got to be mindful that what rises in their place can sometimes be worse. That is what concerns me and I know it concerns a lot of people because we don’t want to see destabilisation or any more aggression than we have already got.
Lynch: I think a number of people would have sympathy with that view. One of the problems that George Bush Jr identified was that there was too great a stability in the Middle East, there was stasis and stagnation and these brutal regimes were able to impose their will. Now we have almost the exact opposite. It seems to me that the West has not come up with a coherent response to that.
The west is rather keen on democracy but not when it elects totalitarians, as you call them.
Bernardi: Quite right. It is ok if democracy is continued. People will make mistakes, they will elect poor governments and as long as they get an open and transparent chance to make that choice. If some Middle Eastern nations decide they want to implement sharia law and live under theocracy that is for those people if they do it in a fair and transparent manner and, equally, they should be able compete against it.
History would suggest that once a regime like an Islamist theocracy is established, they generally don’t have free and open elections after that. People are intimidated. That is the concern. It gets back to the balance.
We have to, in every aspect of decision making, particularly in international relations, look at the possible consequences of actions and do it in a diligent manner and that means not reacting to some of the shriller calls for action. You can’t be responsive just to the loudest voice. Sometimes you have to think “what is the lesser of two evils?” and it is a great conundrum in politics.
Lynch: What did you think about the Iraq War? Had you been a US senator, how would you have voted?
Bernardi: I would have voted to do it. There was always a doubt that there were weapons of mass destruction. I thought that may have been a convenient ploy, notwithstanding the fact that Hussein had used gas and WMD previously.
But I would have supported it because I think he was a barbarous dictator and there are times when you have to do the decent thing. I have spent some time in the Middle East as a younger man (http://www.corybernardi.com/2011/08/goodbye-gadaffi.html) and my brother was in the first Gulf War and I regret that they didn’t displace Hussein then.
Lynch: In some ways the failure of 1991 is just carried over until 2003. The attempt to box him in lead to a bankrupt state and the death of half a million Iraqis and yet the same people that marched against the war in ‘91 also marched against it in 2003, seems that America couldn’t have it both ways.
Bernardi: The world had changed enormously after September 11 and there was great demand among people for their government to do something. I think one of the great problems was that there was a thought among some people that George Bush the second was finishing the job that his father didn’t complete and that may have undermined the integrity of the effort that was there. But, as you say, half a million people died as result of not following through and thinking that it is better the devil we know and sometimes it is, but in this instance I don’t think it is.
The Obama doctrine
Lynch: Can I ask you about the current US president? He came to Canberra last month and some claimed, including me, that he laid out a new doctrine, the Obama Doctrine, which some have construed as the re-calibration of US military force in the Asia/Pacific. What do you think Obama announced when he was in Canberra?
Bernardi: He did say the US was going to shift their focus to the Asia/Pacific area and that was welcomed by most of my colleagues and I welcome it too. America is a force for good in the world and we need a strong America within the constraints of limiting the rise of any particular force. They are our greatest ally and I support them and I think that is wonderful.
For Obama though it was a strategic political issue as much as anything else. The Middle East is going to become very difficult for America to continue to police and they see that future prosperity is going to continue to drift to Asia and America wants to make sure that they are a part of the economic growth of the next century.
Lynch: Positing that the Asia Pacific is central to American foreign policy is not new. Since Pearl Harbour America has dedicated a good proportion both blood and treasure to the region. But it was interesting, I thought, that he was prepared to say that we deal with China not just economically but we do so with an eye to potential military confrontation.
The [US troop] deployment to Darwin is a small thing, seemingly, but symbolically it is very important.
Bernardi: I think symbolically it is. And it means to me that no-one is going to be allowed to dominate a particular region, either economically or militarily, and we always have to think of our national interest and America has to think of its as well. Having a great ally like Australia down here is very important to America as our relationship with China is very important to Australia.
It is about ensuring freedom by ensuring there are equal and opposite forces. I think it is a very important check and balance to have. And if America said “No, we’re not really interested in the Asia Pacific region” it would allow China to have a much bigger influence than it already does – and they have serious influence already.
We want to make sure that there is balance in this part of the world and that nations can get on with their business free of coercion.
President Obama and his challengers
Lynch: Let me take you back to American domestic politics. What do you think of Obama as a president?
Bernardi: Not much. That is my personal view. He is very charismatic. He is a handsome man. He didn’t have the runs on the board to make him an effective president. Indeed, in my meetings with Democrats and Republicans over there, the political system is different, but in the meetings I have with them the Republicans will say he has these big visions which are not borne out of reality and the Democrats will say that he doesn’t give us enough detail to say what he wants. He just talks in generalisms and expects us to fill in the detail and when we do, it isn’t what he wants and he complains about it.
[He is] someone who in my view hasn’t been tested and hasn’t been held to account. This is part of the problem with personality politics. You need people who have actually got some history of achievement and have actually been into battle if you will so you know they are capable of responding effectively in a crisis and I look at American politics and I look at the current crop of Republican contenders and the general view I get is that people aren’t happy with them because the populous wants say Sarah Palin who isn’t running or even Cain.
But it was put to me that Cain had never run anything and so how could you expect him to run a government when he had never been involved in [running anything] outside of a commercial operation. Business is not like politics. Romney, to his credit, has run a state. Gingrich was speaker of the House. But none of them seem to have this great track record that is inspiring the desire for smaller government and freedom and to get their country economically back on track.
Obama could win and I don’t think he should.
Lynch: Let me disagree with you on your assessment of Obama and argue that in some ways you are viewing Obama through too much of an ideological lens. When you actually look at his track record at home and especially abroad, he’s a competent version of George Bush Jr.
He has done many of the things Bush did and intended to do, from killing Bin Laden to taking the war really inside Pakistan, from the use of Predator drones in that campaign.
Also at home, Bush had his No Child Left Behind policy, an expansion of big government programs and Obama has Obamacare. There’s far more to suggest continuity between these two men than difference.
Obama and Bush: similar policies but different treatment?
Bernardi: I’ll accept the fact that Obama has had many more holidays than George Bush which I raise because it highlights the difference in treatment. Bush was condemned for Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay where Obama is celebrated for these kind of things.
I find the difference in treatment by the press quite astounding. And yes, there is an ideological viewpoints in this. I have also been critical of George Bush Jr for losing the fiscal conservatism that is so necessary to maintaining a prosperous society over the course of time. I think he was a good man, and a well meaning man, and all of that, but you simply can’t run up trillions of dollars of debt.
He was pilloried for that and Obama won, I think, because he wasn’t George Bush. That is my personal view. He didn’t win overwhelmingly but the problem we have is that there is a continuity and they should both be criticised for the mistakes they have made.
Lynch: Yes, but I would argue that as Obama pieces together his platform in terms of foreign policy he’ll be able to paint a story of significant success, from the killing of Bin Laden and the successful invasion of Libya. Going back to the anti-Bush candidate of 2008, by 2011 he’d invaded his own Muslim country and did so with far greater success than George Bush was able to muster.
He used American military power in Libya and gained a definitive result at very little expense to America.
Bernardi: It was NATO’s responsibility, Libya, and it exposed how hollow NATO really is now.
Lynch: You may find this too convenient a comparison but it seems to me that if you put American forces on the ground and charge them with the killing of foreigners [like in Pakistan with Bin Laden], you’ve invaded that country. And he did it with far greater political nuance and strategic calculation than George Bush was able to muster in Iraq in 2003.
Bernardi: Firstly, they are two different environments. In Iraq there was a coalition of the willing initially, but it stayed on for a long time because the insurgency was being fuelled by Iran and others and it was seen as a war against the Great Satan of America. That’s how it was seen amongst the culture that was there at the time.
In Libya, Gaddafi had been – and I spent some time in Libya in the early 1990s – and was a tyrant and generally known as a madman. I have always wondered why he was made chair of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, why they indulged him at the UN and allowed him to visit as a head of government when he was so illegitimate, if I can use that term. Hypocrisy is rife. If George Bush had invaded Libya, notwithstanding if it was a success or not, he would have been attacked as a warmonger.
I just think here is a difference in treatment.
Lynch: I think the difference in treatment is stark but the difference in performance is pretty similar. In 100 years time we won’t make much of a distinction between the last two, potentially three, US administrations.
Bernardi: There is a case for that, the continuity of foreign policy in America. The challenge is going to come in the future. America simply can’t afford to be the world’s policeman anymore. It can’t afford, domestically from the fiscal position, to spend so much money on their military might.
I think they have tapped out. I think for the American people, while they are still full of pride and patriotism, the days of empire building may be over. It has happened to other great nations. Historically great empires have folded under the sheer weight of the cost of maintaining them and America, I don’t think, can afford to continue to do it and we can’t afford for them to not do it.
That is the problem. That’s the real problem the world faces at the moment. They can’t vacate the field and yet the group of people or the nation that occupies the field is really labouring.
The American paradox
Lynch: It is difficult to maintain hegemony but impossible to lose it. The thought of America being replaced becomes so problematic, you start to ask: what with? As Tony Abbott said, and we can argue about how absolute this designation is, he called it the most benevolent superpower in world history. There is an element of truth there.
Can we imagine another power like China, or Russia or Brazil, any of the other rising great power, with this amount of power being this relatively benign?
Bernardi: This is an excellent point and it comes back to the system of government. America has this great culture of freedom and the people stand up and they elect people in an open and transparent democracy however flawed it may be.
I think that acts as a natural check on what does happen and it does give this benevolence. It is hard to imagine any other nation with that level of influence not using it in a more forthright manner. The examples are stark right through history.
Lynch: It is the first nation in history that is founded on a distrust of political power yet it has found itself for the last 100 years with more power than any other nation has ever had. Reconciling those two positions has been very difficult for it.
Bernardi: It just goes to show that freedom works. If you empower people, most of the time they will make the right decision and when they get it wrong, they get it wrong and you hope the decisions aren’t catastrophic. People like to feel their voice is heard and people fight and die for the right to have their voices heard and in the end democracy will win.
If you look at some of the nations you raised earlier, corruption is endemic in some of them, it is not one vote value, you are not allowing people to have their voice heard. It is either dominated by cronyism or electoral fraud. I read this morning about the first volley in the Russians elections was the independent monitoring website being somehow hacked into and disabled.
Now, you have to think “That has got to be a politically motivated attack” and Russia is a very powerful country, it has got a lot of resources, it has got a lot of money and you think, that should concern us. Democracy is not evident there.
The politics of the individual
Lynch: Switching approach, I’m going to ask some more personal political questions if I may. You are physically very fit, a rower …
Bernardi: You’re very generous.
Lynch: … I am speaking in comparative terms! You were a rower of international repute and you’ve been active in instilling a sporting ethos, if I can call it that, within Australia, it is a good thing to see children doing sport in schools. And I think I share much of that, I have a young son who loves the Australian sporting culture.
Bernardi: Who does he barrack for in the cricket?
Lynch: At the moment, I’m turning him into an Australian. We are quite new to Australia, so we still barrack for England.
Bernardi: We’ll get that out of you.
Lynch: But in some ways the problem with Australian sport is that it has become too democratised. Kids play bits of everything so they don’t focus on the important sports.
Bernardi: Like cricket and Association Football? Look, I disagree with that. I was one of those kids who couldn’t play any sport. I was hopeless at sport. I couldn’t catch, couldn’t kick, no hand-eye co-ordination, couldn’t hit a ball properly, I tried every sport. I played basketball okay but it didn’t inspire me. I could swim ok, but it didn’t inspire me.
So I kept going through all of these things and the opportunities that were presented by them until I found I could row okay so I continued with that. If I was forced to play cricket I would have retired after my first backyard cricket game because I could never hit the ball. It has skipped a generation because my sons can both play sport, cricket and football, but I think sport is a really important part of Australian cultural life.
It gives kids this enormous resilience, it gives them life lessons they don’t learn anywhere else and that means knowing how to get a bad decision by the umpire and putting up with it, knowing how to work with your teammates and sometimes you get to open the bowling and sometimes you don’t, knowing what it is like to get a dodgy ball or whatever. The discipline of turning up and being committed.
These things are so important throughout life and I think in many respects society is losing some of those disciplines, those team-building communications and ethos.
Lynch: Why do you think that is?
Bernardi: A lot of people can communicate with the whole world without seeing a human being. Computers have a fair chunk to do with it. It is hard for people to have a conversation like we’re having now when most kids are text messaging. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been with someone who picks up their mobile phone while they’re talking to you and wants to text and check their emails.
People aren’t focused on relationship-building anymore, it is more about communicating. I think we are losing a bit of the social discourse and a bit of that thing that brings us together as community.
Lynch: I’m interested that you don’t offer a political analysis, that in some way it is the Left’s dismissal of competition as an appropriate vehicle for human progress. “All shall have prizes,” that sort of thing.
Bernardi: I don’t agree with that [left-wing approach]. I went in the father and son swimming day and it was ugly but I came last and I got a ribbon for participation and I don’t agree with that. I find it offensive. The kids keep score every game anyway, they know exactly how many runs they’ve scored and what the score is and who the winner is and everything else.
If they come fourth or fifth they make an excuse, I didn’t run fast enough or I missed the start or whatever. They understand, they are competitive, particularly boys. That is not to discourage people, we want people to participate but you can’t give someone a prize for turning up.
Turning up will get you so far, it will get further than a lot of people but you shouldn’t give prizes for that, you want to encourage excellence. But there’s plenty of time for that later on for kids to get seriously competitive.
I think you just have to get kids active right from when they are three, kicking a ball, hitting a stick, climbing a tree, whatever, get them out there, because it stays with them for life and then at 12 or 13, maybe even a bit earlier, you can start giving them measurable performance goals.
Everything is measurable in life and we don’t want to age our kids too prematurely, let them be children, but children have been competing and they will continue to compete for forever and day notwithstanding what the PC brigade say.
The freedom to harm oneself
Lynch: Related to that, I have a question about health. Is smoking a freedom issue?
Bernardi: As a reformed smoker, which will horrify most people, I think it actually is. I don’t like smoking, I think it is awful. I choose not to go to establishments where smoking is allowed, though I don’t think it is allowed anywhere anymore.
There was a time when I argued as a publican that I will make a commercial decision whether I want smoking in my venue or not. Staff will make a commercial decision about whether they want to work in a venue where there is smoking or not. I just don’t like smoking but you make a decision on that.
I can understand why society has gone to a point where they don’t want it because it is a public health issue inside and in people’s buildings but if people want to smoke that is their call and I think it is a freedom issue for them. There are implications from it, from both the health budgetary point of view and from the invasion of other people’s smoke free environments, particularly outside. It is unpleasant to be walking behind someone who is smoking.
I haven’t smoked in 15 years and I don’t like it but I think it is a freedom issue. It is a legal product so why shouldn’t people be able to smoke it and let the market ultimately make the decision.
Lynch: And smoke it without stigma, they should be able to buy it in packaging that the cigarette manufacturers [intended]?
Bernardi: I agree. That is one of the fundamentals of our capitalist system. People are allowed to establish brands with legal products and they should be able to market those brands within the law. I can get caught in my own rhetoric because I don’t want to see cigarettes advertised on TV. I know that can be influential in getting kids to smoke.
Lynch: They advertise beer and alcohol kills more people than smoking.
Bernardi: I know and this is one of the issues, so does fast food, obesity.
Lynch: This is why I’m intrigued by your response because as a conservative I think you would have to defend the right to engage in these legal vices because otherwise you are obliging government to increase the scope of regulation. “First they came for the smokers, but I was not a smoker, so I did not stand up …”
Bernardi: And on the very first day [after the plain packaging legislation was passed] they moved onto drinking. People who were advocating plain packaging [for cigarettes] were saying “We should have this for alcohol. We should have it in fast food”. Where does it end? The nanny state will never end because there is always another cause to advocate for.
Once again it comes down to balance. In principle I would rather people make their choices themselves. If you are fat from eating too many McDonald’s burgers, it is not McDonald’s fault, it is yours and if you can’t make that decision for yourself, it is your parents fault for taking you there, all those sorts of things. It is a fundamental, the principle. People in this day and age should be able to participate in legal goods and services without needing approval or a license from government.
Which is my objection to this mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines. It is not because I like poker machines but if the government is going to give you a license to tell you when and how much you can spend your money on legal goods or services, it is wrong.
What is freedom?
Lynch: Again, I have some sympathy with this position but aren’t you going to lose? Even the United States in some ways is the most over-regulated when it comes to smoking, for example. In some ways you get far less freedom in the United States than you would expect to get in Australia.
Bernardi: America has a, I think, a kind of internal contradiction. They will forgive you almost anything. They will forgive you theft or abuse or being a communist, all sorts of things, but if you question one of the lefty orthodoxies they will berate you and hamstring you for it.
Someone put it to me, they wrote and they said, look, if you’re at university and you cheat on your exams, that’s okay, even if you get caught. But God forbid if you criticise the Islamic movement on campus or you try and set up a chapter of something that is a little bit un-PC and he didn’t give me an example of what a chapter of an un-PC organisation was but you can imagine.
They won’t forgive you that because that is the new demarcation, you can’t be critical, you can’t be “intolerant” of homosexuality or something along those lines without being destroyed, figuratively. There is that internal contradiction. You’re not allowed to smoke, smoking is so awful and terrible but cheating on your exams is not that big of a deal.
It is an unusual system and we in this country I think are much more open about many things and more tolerant but we are seeing that shutdown as well. My wife is Irish so I can still make a little bit of fun about the Irish but to tell an Irish joke is politically incorrect. To tell one about the Italians, my father is Italian, is un-PC and you’re a racist. It is not racist, we’re just having a laugh. And we take the micky out of ourselves and I’d hate us to lose that ability, whereas in America if you made a Polish joke or something like that, you’d be up before …
Lynch: It is far more legalised, the political correctness there.
Bernardi: It seems to me that people are often prosecuted there. But we are having the same thing here. We have an example of a broadcaster from 2UE, Michael Smith, who made a relatively innocuous comment which was “You can believe in what you want even if you believe in a bloke who married a six year old girl” which was a reference to Muhammad marrying Aisha.
An anonymous complainant complained to ACMA and he had to then defend himself against the charge of racial vilification or religious vilification. ACMA came out and said “what you said was entirely correct, it was accurate and in accordance with Islamic scriptures and documents” and this is someone who had to defend himself and go through that process which is painful and annoying for saying something that is true because someone took offence to it.
When did we get to this point? When did we get to the point where people complain about anything and you’ve got to somehow incur expense and cost and worry for doing it and this is why I think we are heading down the wrong path when we indulge that sort of victim mentality.
Conservatism in universities
Lynch: You identify as a conservative even though you call yourself a liberal, something Americans don’t comprehend …
Bernardi: I explain that in America by saying we are different down under.
Lynch: There are very few conservatives, and you can measure this in opinion poll data or if you ask university departments, liberals – progressive liberals, not your style, outnumber conservatives in universities by about two to one, probably a bit more.
A consequence of this, it has been suggested, is that conservatives, bright, clever conservatives who want to have an impact, have moved towards think tanks and that is why the think tank world is so lively and energetic in the US in the way it is not really outside.
How do you estimate Australian universities? Where are they in terms of their capacity for exchange, political discourse and dialogue?
Bernardi: I am probably the wrong person to ask. My own experience of university was less than enjoyable. I remember one tutor in industrial relations telling me that my marks would be better if I didn’t turn up and indeed they were because I disagreed with the orthodoxy which was you just give the unions what they want and that is the way you get on.
I came from a small business background and believed and I continue to believe that small business owners do whatever they can to make their businesses a success and that means looking after their staff. When you have good staff, you look after them and you do whatever you can. You don’t need a union to do that, notwithstanding that there are some bad employers as well.
I didn’t like my university experience and that is why I went off rowing.
Lynch: Where was this?
Bernardi: This was in Adelaide, the Institute of Technology as it was then. It is now the University of South Australia. But I do get a number of complaints by people who are worried that they can’t express their view at university because they will get marked down for it.
There was a case where someone came to me and said “Look, I’ve been given this essay topic which is ‘Same sex parents make better parents than normal heterosexual couples’” and she disagreed with that premise and they said “No, sorry, you are not allowed to do that, you have to make the justification of why they are” and she said she didn’t want to.
That is not encouraging thought in my view, it is putting forward your thoughts and making someone reaffirm them. I don’t think that is healthy. I don’t know how widespread that is but I know a lot of the Young Liberals certainly complain about the treatment they receive.
I read somewhere that someone had turned up to uni with a George Bush T-shirt on and was told to take it off as it was offensive by a lecturer. Whether that is the stuff of myth and urban legend I’m not sure.
Lynch: It hasn’t happened in any of my lectures yet. I used to play squash with an academic who had a T-shirt that said “re-defeat Bush”.
Bernardi: My son is mortified because I go out with a T shirt that says “No carbon tax”.
Lynch: The Australian Labor Party voted this weekend on gay marriage, to recognise it. Let me suggest to you that in some ways this is a victory for your side of the political spectrum, it is a victory for conservative family values.
If you went back to the 60s being gay was a way of opting out, it was part of the counter culture, it was a way of defying patriarchy and the family values system which is a large part of your political platform.
In some ways your objection has been muted because it is not turning marriage gay, it is turning gays conservative and that is in your interest.
Bernardi: I’m not sure I agree with your original premise that being gay was a way of opting in the 60s. I can’t imagine how tough it would have been someone who was gay – and I don’t think people opt in to being gay – I can’t imagine someone just saying “I’m going to be gay so I can challenge things”. It must be enormously difficult for those who are either trapped in that zone of “I’ve got to get married and do these things” to fulfil societal expectations. There were a number of very brave activists who came out and said “I am what I am”.
But the second part of your question – that it is a victory for conservatism? I don’t think so. I just look at this quite simply. We don’t have any inequality within the law between couples of any distinction that are in a sexual relationship.
I disagree because I thought if you want to extend it when we changed these laws a couple of years ago, I said we should extend it to all interdependent relationships, irrespective of whether they are in an exclusive sexual relationship or not. I thought it was interdependency, that is what it should be.
The last time I looked in the dictionary marriage was defined as being between a man and a woman, as it is in the Marriage Act. I would no more want to change that than I would to redefine a cat as a dog.
Lynch: Marriage is the building block of society which you have spoken to eloquently. In some ways it is so powerful an institution that it embraces all sorts of different kinds of people and this is why I am suggesting gay men and women wanting to have their marriages legally recognised is actually a victory for conservative values.
Bernardi: We were slightly at cross purposes before. But I don’t think that all gay couples want marriage for themselves and I don’t think they all want to see gay marriage legalised.
The agitators and the pushers for this are not people who are looking to embrace conservatism, they are people who are seeking to undermine the institutions that we talked about and the fiercest proponents of this are either self-interested individuals who want it for themselves or for someone close to them or they are radical counter culture movements like the Greens.
The Greens have been pushing this for a long time, like they have, and this is not a conspiracy theory, this is Bob Brown who has said he wants to see a one world government, he wants to see taxes on carbon dioxide even though it is being increasingly demonstrated that what we have been told has not been entirely true.
We’ve seen Bob Brown wanting to undermine the other great pillars, he wants to see more government intervention in the free market, he wants to see greater taxes and less reward for effort, he wants to see Australia outsource its national sovereignty via international treaties and to be sending huge chunks of taxpayers money to international bodies like the UN for their Climate Change Commission. He wants to undermine the role of faith in the community, the Judeo-Christian ideals. It is the counter culture movement that are pushing this and if you can take it back to this fellow Gramsci who was involved with the Frankfurt School.
There was this whole idea of “let’s re-engineer” society because we can’t get communism to win until we rip down all the tenets of the capitalist West. I still see it through that prism. A lot of younger people today have never understood the battles that were going on before, that fighting against communism.
My generation is possibly the last that actually had a Cold War understanding. We haven’t had those battles since so they can indulge all these other things. The world is a lovely happy place, let’s now find all the inequality and remove it. Unfortunately, life is not like that.
There is always going to be inequality and to strive to remove it all and pursue some sort of utopia is just not possible and it is not plausible except in greenworld.
Lynch: There is a lot to agree with there and a lot to disagree with.
Bernardi: I specialise in that. Economically, I think the conservatives won the argument for a long time. You don’t have quite the same voice to pursue the collectivist centrist model. And I take your point about people wanting to take some of the institutions and open them up to groups that are maybe not normally part of it. But I am not sure that the intention is to embrace the institutions that have built the West.
And you can call me cynical but I’ve seen the redefinition of language, I’ve seen the commandeering of a notion and seen it turned into something different and in some respects I think conservatism itself became anathema to most people and part of my mission, if I have a mission, is to resurrect it.
Being a conservative is an important thing, or having a conservative philosophical outlook is important not only for society but for our prosperity and our values.
If I was to encapsulate it, I would say I want to protect the Australian way of life. That is, we have to make sure we are mindful that these things that evolved over generations are there for a reason. If we forget how they evolved and why they evolved we risk causing irreparable damage.
Lynch: Conservatives resist change until change becomes harmless.
Bernardi: Is it ever harmless? But I think the appropriate reaction is to preserve the good and you can then deal with the things that you want to try and improve. But I think it would be unwise for us to pioneer brave new things and dismiss centuries of history.