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
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”
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.