Cory Bernardi: Hardcore Conservative

September 24, 2018

Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi features in an article appearing in the Spring edition of SA Builder, a publication of Master Builders SA.

MBSA's Policy and Communications Manager Will Frogley writes:

Cory Bernardi is without doubt one of the most polarising figures in Australian politics. The 48-year-old Senator is well-known for his controversial remarks on climate change, gay marriage and Islam. Jacqui Lambie once described him as an “a**hole” who was “born with a silver spoon up his rear end”.  Nick Xenophon was far more generous in his character assessment, telling The Advertiser “As much as I disagree with him on a lot of things, he’s a class act.”

Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Bernardi stands for something. He’s fearless in his defence of private enterprise, Australian culture and traditional family values.

When Bernardi quit the Liberal Party last year to establish the Conservatives Party he copped a fair spray from many of his colleagues, but he wasn’t going to die wondering. In his mind the Liberal Party had drifted unacceptably far to the left under Malcolm Turnbull and he would never be content being part of an organisation that no longer reflected his values.

“Both major parties are consumed by short-termism; a complete lack of application of consistent principles in their policy approach,” says Bernardi. “There’s no framework or philosophical approach. After the election, like it or not Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten will be Prime Minister, and that makes the role of the Senate more important than ever."

"In the Senate we’ll watch your back and give the party of government the will to do the right thing: arresting our debt and deficit, reducing taxes, shrinking the size of government and bureaucracy, strengthening families, small businesses and removing red tape and regulation and making sure our immigration program is working to our economic, social and cultural interests. It’s a pretty mainstream agenda that seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of political correctness by both the major parties as they’ve lost their compass.”

A strong work ethic appears to be in the family blood. Bernardi’s father Leon came to Australia in 1958 and worked his way up from the David Jones food counter to running his own restaurants and hotels. “In many ways, my father was a pioneer in the hospitality industry,” says Bernardi. “He taught me the value of private enterprise, hard work, integrity and honesty. I was always aware of politics, the importance of institutions and enduring values, and I’ve defended them throughout my life.”

Frustrated by the focus on theory rather than practical skills, Bernardi dropped out of university and had a stint in the Australian Rowing team before a back injury forced his return to Adelaide, where he became a publican. Then he was hospitalised for a year with tuberculosis. “That made me re-think my priorities. I got more involved in politics. At 28, I became the President of the Liberal Party, and six years later I was elected to the Senate. The rest is history.”

The way Bernardi is frequently portrayed in the media gives many people the impression that he’s somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. In person, Bernardi is cordial and relaxed. He’s generous with his time and seems almost bemused by the level of hatred reserved for him.

Since Tony Abbott was replaced as Prime Minister, Bernardi is probably Public Enemy Number One to the social justice warriors of the Australian hard left. At least south of Queensland, where a certain red head has the same ability to both inspire and infuriate in equal measure.

Unsurprisingly, Bernardi is a fan. “One of the things I admire most in people is resilience. I don’t always agree with Pauline Hanson, but she is one resilient cookie. She’s attacked personally all the time, but she’s so tenacious - her toughness cannot be understated.”

Bernardi is genuinely passionate about addressing the challenges facing Australia. “Number one has to be debt and deficit. We are mortgaging the future of our children to provide benefits for today. I think that is extraordinarily short-sighted and the greatest moral challenge of our time.

“People feel increasingly alienated from institutions that previously were respected. As politicians we need to earn back respect. Our biggest challenge is get the word out there that the Australian Conservatives exist and we are a credible and principled party that has policies that reflect mainstream values.”

It’s the unshakable belief in himself and his philosophy that puts many people offside. His critics say he has a black and white view of the world and is full of his own self-importance. Make no mistake, his many enemies hate him. How many politicians have had their office trashed by protesters? Bernardi is the type of guy who could save a bunch of children from a burning orphanage and still his detractors would find a way to make a derogatory comment about him based on something he said many years ago.

But there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s frequently called a racist, yet he has Aboriginal heritage. He’s apparently anti-immigration, but his own family is the quintessential migrant success story. He’s labelled a misogynist, but before his sons started school, he was a stay at home dad for two days per week.

Bernardi is a true maverick, but he’s also consistent. He’s definitely not the type of politician that tells one group something and then goes and tells another the exact opposite. And whether its reforms for small business, opposing red tape and duplication, or supporting the reestablishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, he consistently backs our industry. In fact, it is difficult to think of an example where he hasn’t.

“My engagement with builders has been fabulous. I reckon they are risk-takers, developers, they generate employment, and they literally build the state. I’m in awe of what you guys do, because I think there’s a real artistry to it. As someone who has built houses and other small scale projects, I find the bureaucratic impediments to building and some of the mandated things really just alien. I don’t understand why as a consumer I have to get an energy rating for a building. It’s my business. If I want to build something with lots of single pane glass in it that’s going to use a lot of energy, well I’ve got to pay the bills for it.

“The approvals process is a nightmare. Councils just seem to make it up as they go. My own experience was chaotic. You could streamline that and maybe even just have private certifiers for development applications of that nature rather than relying on council bureaucracy.

“People want affordable homes. Not everyone can afford the Grand Manor but they do want a backyard so you’ve got to unleash this landlocking. For many years now the State Government has been locking up huge tracts of land. If they release that land or sell it there’s a whole range of red tape and green tape you’ve got to get through.  Why not unleash all that land and allow developers to get in there as cost effectively as possible to provide homes that people are happy to buy?

“I also think the Construction Industry Training Levy is a disgrace. How is it benefiting anyone? The Construction Industry Training Board has millions in the bank and people are still complaining they can’t find apprentices or there’s not enough opportunities for them.”

Fuelled by his own negative experiences at university, Bernardi would like to see trades have a higher level of prestige. “Kids are being encouraged to go to university even if they’re not well suited to it. Universities used to be places of higher learning, now they’re just degree mills in many respects. People go in and study basket weaving and they come out unemployed with a HECS debt. We have to change people’s mindsets. Our tradies are the small business people of the future and if you think you can have a prosperous future without electricians, carpenters, bricklayers and so on you are kidding yourself. We need to start treating our tradespeople as the entrepreneurs of the future and also treat them as students. A lot of people are put off doing an apprenticeship because they don’t earn much money in the first year and they don’t see the future benefits where they can make a good quid."

"Every university student is subsidised, if they want to be, by payment of fees by the government and they repay that through future employment. We should be looking at the same for apprentices that gives them a living wage in their first year. The government might supplement what the employer pays and there could be a repayment system just like HECS so people are not being forced to survive on $20,000 a year. People are not attracted to working hard and being impoverished, and I can understand that.”

Bernardi’s focus right now is the upcoming Federal Election. The performance of the Conservatives at this year’s State Election disappointed supporters. The party failed to win a seat, and their lone sitting member Dennis Hood defected to the Liberal Party. Bernardi says he was humbled by the experience and is confident of a better showing this time. His Chief of Staff Rikki Lambert is the lead South Australian candidate in the Senate.

“Rikki is a very astute political operator,” says Bernardi. “He’s a family man with four kids, he’s legally trained and he understands politics and the subtleties of getting outcomes in the political sphere. You get devoured in that bear pit of parliament if you don’t have a working knowledge and understanding of how to get things done, and Rikki brings that to the table. He would be a huge asset for South Australia.

“People are generally filled with good will, but there’s a huge capacity constraint with some of them. Very few people in the parliament have run small businesses. The business of politics is what drives them. They haven’t been on the hook for making payroll, they haven’t been on the receiving end of bureaucratic nightmares. I’m not interested in the political convenience of something, I’m interested in the principle behind it. If it’s in the interests of the country, I’ll get behind it.”

Locally, Bernardi thinks the Marshall Government is off to a good start. “I’m quietly impressed with how methodically the government is going about its business. It seems to be very keen to honour commitments. Reducing payroll tax is a positive step, and they are very pro-business. The level of optimism from the business community because of the change of the government is felt almost everywhere I go.”

I once heard a journo quip that Bernardi would rather have a fight than a hot breakfast. He readily admits he enjoys a good stoush as much as ever, but after so many years in politics his approach has slightly changed.

“I’m only motivated by policies now, I’m over the personalities and the egos of individuals. However you measure the political contribution of the last decade, we’ve gone backwards. I just want to see Australia get back on track. Let’s stop the experimental politics, let’s go back to what we know works. Look at the electricity industry. We used to have the cheapest and most reliable energy in the world, and it was Australia’s great competitive advantage. What have we got now? A mishmash of policies that are working against every industry in this country, families and individuals. We’re penalising the overwhelming majority and for what purpose?”

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