At home with THE BERNARDIS

AF­TER A PO­LIT­I­CAL EPIPHANY SAW HIM BREAK AWAY FROM HIS PARTY, CORY BERNARDI TELLS STEL­LAR ABOUT THE NEW PATH HE BE­LIEVES HE IS FORG­ING FOR CON­SER­VA­TIVES IN AUS­TRALIA

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Late last year, Cory Bernardi was em­bed­ded in New York, rel­ish­ing the Western world’s big­gest po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in decades. Out on the street, beg­gars asked not only for loose change but a vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton. At Star­bucks, Bernardi would give his name as Trump – then pre­tend not to hear it called out when his cof­fee was ready.

His glee at Trump’s as­cen­dancy was “puerile and inane”, he ad­mits, shoot­ing a boy­ish smirk as he talks to Stel­lar from his cav­ernous home in Ade­laide’s north. Bernardi, 47, picked the even­tual win­ner when al­most ev­ery­one else had junked him. “I don’t know if it has been good or bad,” he now says of Trump’s first few months in of­fice, “but I do think it’s been ab­so­lutely im­por­tant that peo­ple see there’s a dif­fer­ent path.”

The swirls of un­rest also tick­led Bernardi’s lit­er­ary whims. On his blog, typ­i­cally a weekly mug­ging of pro­gres­sives, cli­mate chang­ers and (of late) “two-bit celebrity” Mus­lims, he wrote about the city’s first snowflakes hint­ing at shifts ahead. Any­thing was pos­si­ble. His three months in the United States – iron­i­cally on sec­ond­ment with that “fis­cal black hole” the United Na­tions – had re­vealed a path. “I have to be part of the change,” he wrote, “per­haps even in some way a cat­a­lyst for it.”

By early Fe­bru­ary, Bernardi was de­sert­ing the Lib­eral Party, which was his po­lit­i­cal co­coon of 30 years. He quickly launched the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives. In look­ing to the past to in­form the fu­ture, he would find “a bet­ter way; a con­ser­va­tive way”.

“The [Aus­tralian] elec­tion cam­paign was ter­ri­ble,” he says of the Coali­tion’s ef­forts last year. “A dis­as­ter. All the same char­ac­ters re­spon­si­ble for the poor re­sult were still in the same spots crow­ing that they were win­ning ma­chines. It [said] to me that if we do not high­light main­stream con­ser­va­tive views and the is­sues that peo­ple are con­cerned about, we will be re­placed by some­one who will.”

He had pri­vately railed against the Lib­eral Party’s “heart­break­ing” lack of prin­ci­ples. His dis­dain for leader Mal­colm Turnbull was plain. His spats with fel­low South Aus­tralian Lib­eral Christo­pher Pyne, which trace back to their grow­ing up in the same Burn­side street in Ade­laide, played like neigh­bours toss­ing dog turds over the fence.

His Lib­eral crit­ics called his exit a “dog act” and ad­vised him to “pray hard”. They dis­missed Bernardi, un­con­cerned that the per­sis­tence of their put-downs seemed to be­tray their mes­sage. He now ad­mits the choice was hard, but his “Ge­orge Costanza de­nial” could no longer mask the dys­func­tion. It was not, “It’s not you, it’s me,” he says. Rather: “It’s not me, it’s you.”

What Bernardi now de­scribes as a kind of epiphany could have be­come his po­lit­i­cal end – in fact, he tells Stel­lar, he al­most quit pol­i­tics al­to­gether at the end of last year. Some Aus­tralians, who re­mem­ber Bernardi com­par­ing gay mar­riage to bes­tial­ity, would have ap­plauded such a de­ci­sion.

It was his wife Sinead, 48, who con­vinced him to stay on. Bernardi calls her “my great­est sound­ing board. I spend five min­utes ex­plain­ing some­thing and she will sum it up in one sen­tence.” He says their sons Os­car, 17, and Har­vey, 15, have the same gift.

Sinead an­swers phones in her hus­band’s elec­toral of­fice. Os­car texts po­lit­i­cal ad­vice when he acts like a “doo­fus”. Bernardi’s great­est faith lies in his fam­ily, and he turns to them in cri­sis be­cause they put “steel in my spine”.

Sinead is the feistier of the duo and, her hus­band says, the “pretty” mem­ber of Team Bernardi. She tells him what to wear, or at least she did for their Stel­lar photo shoot. Not un­like many wives, she also tells him what to do. A re­cent caller to his of­fice was prais­ing Bernardi, un­aware that she was speak­ing with the man’s wife. “He leaves his socks and jocks on the floor,” Sinead told the woman. “I should know. I sleep with him.” He of­ten com­pares Sinead to Mar­garet Thatcher. Is she flat­tered? “I do wish he’d find some­one younger,” she ad­mits.

As Bernardi was con­sid­er­ing his big exit, he called his wife from the US. Sinead re­minded her hus­band of the peo­ple who re­lied on him to de­mol­ish the left’s agenda. “Real peo­ple”, she as­sured him, in­vested their hopes and frus­tra­tions in him. Be­sides, she needed him to stay on, too. “If you leave pol­i­tics you’ll be frus­trated with your­self for the rest of your life,” she told him. “I will be left with a cranky old man al­ways won­der­ing ‘what if’. And you’re cranky enough al­ready.”

THE TI­TLE OF Bernardi’s eight-year-old blog – “Weekly Dose of Com­mon Sense” – lends the se­na­tor a self-ap­pointed grandios­ity. But in per­son, he sheds a lot of the priestly starch­i­ness that po­larises so many. As all politi­cians do when they spot a tape recorder, he prat­tles on about his con­vic­tion and com­mit­ment. He oozes the ir­re­press­ible air of a mo­ti­va­tional speaker, and in fact looks a lit­tle bit like the self-help guru Tony Rob­bins, right down to the blind­ingly white teeth. He is self-styled, care­ful not to swear, and bathed in the mes­sianic glow of one who wel­comes dis­ci­ples.

Yet Bernardi is also self-dep­re­cat­ing. His views on Is­lam and gay mar­riage are de­rided as hate­ful, but he soft­ens in the flesh, es­pe­cially amid an af­ter­noon

“I don’t know if Trump has been good or bad… but I do think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple see there’s a dif­fer­ent path”

glow of laugh­ter and wine – served to­day over a bowl of Twisties.

The Bernardis built their home four years ago, and are gen­er­ous hosts. The cou­ple’s ban­ter re­lies on con­tin­u­ally pok­ing fun at one an­other. Their un­guarded cheer ex­tends to their boys, who sit down to talk af­ter com­ing home from school.

Paint­ings line the walls: Dame Edna Ever­age sits across the wall from a cru­ci­fix at the top of the stairs. Crime thrillers nes­tle along­side John Howard, Mar­garet Thatcher and Ge­orge W. Bush bi­ogra­phies in a home of­fice. From the bal­cony, the fam­ily catch glimpses of koalas in the nearby gums.

Both of the cou­ple’s sons, ac­cord­ing to their mother, are as right of cen­tre po­lit­i­cally as their par­ents. Both have en­dured back­lash over their fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal out­spo­ken­ness – although as Sinead says, “We choose not to suf­fer.”

When Os­car took him­self to hospi­tal af­ter a foot­ball knock, the doc­tor’s first ques­tion was: “Don’t tell me you’re any­thing to do with Cory Bernardi?”

BE­ING A BERNARDI in Ade­laide isn’t easy. Mar­cus Bernardi is al­ways asked about the older brother of whom he is very proud – and of­ten dis­agrees with: “If some­body pushed, I would say that his views are not pos­si­bly mine, no.”

Bernardi dis­cov­ered early on that he en­joys a fight. His in­stincts were sharp­ened in his 20s af­ter a child­hood in a fam­ily that didn’t talk about pol­i­tics. A bout of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and iso­la­tion in his 20s brought ques­tions and an­swers. What’s the point if you don’t make a dif­fer­ence?

Crit­i­cism from for­mer al­lies was harsh when Bernardi left the Lib­er­als, but he shrugged it off. “I’m younger,” he ex­plains. Be­sides, he seems most moved by an en­counter with John Howard. The for­mer prime min­is­ter did not ad­mon­ish him, Bernardi says, but his sor­row was plain. Bernardi, be­ing Bernardi, tried to be flat­tered: Howard’s sad­ness showed that he mat­ters.

This is a move­ment, he ar­gues – not a burst of per­son­al­ity. One Na­tion lives in Pauline Han­son. Bernardi in­stead reaches – with ironic glee – for com­par­i­son to an ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nent: the Aus­tralian Greens founder Bob Brown. The Greens go on, he points out, with­out Brown’s ste­ward­ship.

Build­ing a new party feeds Bernardi’s zeal, which he traces back to his fa­ther, Leon, who opened a line of Ade­laide pubs and restau­rants af­ter em­i­grat­ing from north­ern Italy. Bernardi bought into one of Leon’s pubs, where he met Sinead, then a 21-year-old bar­maid and re­cent ar­rival from Ire­land. He kept four staff and sacked 20. Sinead still jokes that she sup­poses she should feel lucky that he kept her on.

“I was in busi­ness be­fore I got into pol­i­tics, and this is some­thing that sat­is­fies my love of pol­i­tics, my de­sire to do some­thing good for the coun­try and the en­tre­pre­neur­ial flair,” he says. “I’m es­tab­lish­ing a brand, try­ing to roll it out across the coun­try. It’s ex­cit­ing. Tir­ing. Ex­haust­ing. Frus­trat­ing. But ex­cit­ing.”

When his son took him­self to hospi­tal, the doc­tor’s first ques­tion was: “Don’t tell me you’re any­thing to do with Cory Bernardi?”

He doesn’t re­sile from la­belling abor­tion as “pro-death” or call­ing the Prophet Muham­mad a “pae­dophile” for keep­ing a child bride. Yet Bernardi says, “I can’t ex­plain why peo­ple think I’m in­flam­ma­tory. They maybe don’t like the points I make be­cause I chal­lenge the or­tho­doxy, and I some­times chal­lenge what­ever is be­ing pushed at the time. But rarely do my crit­ics re­spond with facts.”

If Bernardi re­grets some of his more con­tro­ver­sial com­ments, like link­ing bes­tial­ity to gay mar­riage, he says he feels deeper re­morse over the times that he muted his views – par­tic­u­larly on mi­gra­tion and cul­ture – in bow­ing to the Lib­eral Party line. “I shouldn’t do that again,” he says.

The ap­par­ent dis­cord be­tween the per­son­al­ity and his poli­cies is noted by fel­low South Aus­tralian Se­na­tor Nick Xenophon: “As much as I dis­agree with him on a lot of things, he’s a class act.”

One of Bernardi’s old­est and dear­est friends is gay, and was a grooms­man at his wed­ding. That friend, who asks not be named, is pro-gay mar­riage, and ad­mits to Stel­lar that his po­lit­i­cal al­le­giance lies with Mal­colm Turnbull. He ig­nores the glar­ing con­trast be­tween Bernardi’s stern public im­age and his per­sonal warmth.

The two have dis­cussed same-sex rights many times, but their friend­ship is ap­par­ently too deep to be dinted by po­lit­i­cal de­bate. Those who con­demn him do not know Bernardi, the friend ar­gues. How many know, for ex­am­ple, that Bernardi once danced on­stage with the Vil­lage Peo­ple? And loved it?

An­other tale, which Bernardi seems hap­pier to share, goes that his ma­ter­nal grand­mother was part Abo­rig­i­nal. He plans to have ge­netic tests to prove his sus­pi­cions. How does Bernardi feel about this po­ten­tial lin­eage?

Well, he “blames” it for his nose. But, he also adds, “I think it’s amaz­ing. You can’t be called a racist.”

“I can’t ex­plain why peo­ple think I’m in­flam­ma­tory… maybe be­cause the points I make chal­lenge the or­tho­doxy”

Pho­tog­ra­phy MATT TURNER Words PA­TRICK CARLYON

MAK­ING HIS MARK (above) Cory Bernardi at an Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives press con­fer­ence in April; (left) fac­ing the me­dia af­ter his de­fec­tion from the Lib­eral Party in Fe­bru­ary; (op­po­site) with his wife Sinead and their dog Remy.

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