If You Like Sarah Palin, You’ll Absolutely Love Cory Bernardi
By Mike SeccombeSeptember 21, 2012
He’s not just a homophobic, Islamophobic, climate-change denying South Australian senator, he’s an ideological entrepreneur, importing the Tea Party’s ‘astroturf’ techniques and now training others in the faux-grassroots campaigns first cultivated by the American far right.
Gee, it's been a big week for the Tea Party. And not just in America, where the wingnuts who infiltrated the party of Lincoln now look set to lose what should be an unlosable election.
It's been a big week, too, for Cory Bernardi, the Antipodean standard-bearer for the values and tactics of the American far right.
He was forced to resign his post as parliamentary secretary to the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, following his comments linking gay marriage to bestiality.
Bernardi was a victim not only of his own words, but of the circumstances of the time: an Opposition appearing increasingly ill-disciplined and a leader whose belligerence, negativity and social conservatism are costing him support in the electorate.
Bernardi's comments only underlined both problems. There was no question he had to go.
The more interesting question is why Abbott gave him the job in the first place.
And the answer to that is that Bernardi, 42, got the job because of his take-no-prisoners attitude. Indeed, it is in part because of Bernardi's uncompromising approach to politics that Abbott became leader of the Opposition.
The history goes like this:
Bernardi, the protégé of the South Australian hard-right power broker Nick Minchin, entered the Senate in May 2006 by way of a casual vacancy, when the moderate Senator Robert Hill left to take up a diplomatic appointment. He was returned at the 2007 election.
Under Malcolm Turnbull's leadership in 2008-9, Bernardi held a junior position as shadow parliamentary secretary for disabilities, carers and the voluntary sector. He was also a fierce factional warrior, intent on undermining a fellow South Australian "moderate" Liberal Christopher Pyne (yes, in today's Liberal Party, Pyne counts as moderate), by way of a particularly nasty dirt file.
Malcolm Turnbull told him he must stop and apologise to Pyne, or bear the consequences. Bernardi did not comply and as a result was sacked.
And so Bernardi, the homophobic, Islamophobic, climate-change-denying, free-market Christian fundamentalist, was free to busy himself marshalling support to replace Turnbull with a leader whose values he thought more acceptable: Tony Abbott.
When Turnbull was beaten, by one vote, in the party room, Bernardi's reward was the job as assistant to the leader.
This history highlights two things. One, why Malcolm Turnbull so floridly led the charge to have Bernardi dumped over his most recent comments. That's not to say Turnbull's reaction was in any way insincere, for he is genuinely progressive on gay issues. But it's fair to assume he found eloquence and satisfaction in the opportunity to damage the men who damaged him.
Two, it shows Bernardi — twice sacked but unbowed — is immune to party discipline. He won't pull his head in for anybody.
And Tony Abbott has hardly suggested he do so. In comparison with the thundering denunciations by Turnbull and others, Abbott's response was rather meek. He conceded "many people" would find the comments repugnant, but his emphasis was not on the sentiments expressed so much as on the indiscipline Bernardi had shown by expressing them.
If such "freelancing" was to be done, it could be done from the backbench, Abbott said.
And you can bet it will be. For Cory Bernardi is now once more free of the constraints of front-bench solidarity. He lost a job title, that's all. He won't even lose any pay. A day after 'resigning' from the front bench on September 19, he blithely went off to the UK to meet with his ideological fellows over there.
Tony Abbott, on the other hand, was left here with a big mess. He has stirred up the wingnuts of the right. And those wingnuts are loud these days, in large part because Cory Bernardi, more than any other politician in the country, has helped them build a vast echo chamber of American design.
That echo chamber began reverberating immediately.
Within a day of his move to the backbench a new website, SupportCory.com, went up — the identities of those who registered it, of course, hidden behind a domain proxy in the United States. It features a picture of Bernardi standing resolutely in front of the Parliament House flagpole, and declares he had been "sacked for speaking the truth".
"Sign The Petition To Stand With Cory And His Fight For Traditional Values," it orders. (Meanwhile, some tech-savvy lout has claimed the domain SupportCorey.com, and redirected confused Bernardi boosters to the Australian Marriage Equality campaign page.)
Menzies House, which sounds like a venerable Liberal Party institution but which is actually a website that was set up only a few years ago by Bernardi (and whose editor, Tim Andrews, has a background with the US Tea Party-affiliated Americans for Tax Reform and Charles Koch Institute), flew to his defence.
It ran an incendiary piece (right next to its links to Support Andrew Bolt, Close the Tent Embassy and Stop Gillard's Carbon Tax websites), complaining Bernardi had been "hung out to dry by his own party".
"Why? Because he had the guts to tell the truth, and his PC political mates were too chicken and too spineless to back him up," it thundered.
This surely sets some kind of precedent. Has Tony Abbott ever been condemned before for being politically correct?
Jim Wallace, of the Australian Christian Lobby, the man who courted controversy recently by suggesting homosexuality was a greater health hazard than smoking, went on TV to say Bernardi's words had been misrepresented.
Well, all this might have been expected, for Bernardi is perhaps the Australian politician best connected to manifold manifestations of the far right of politics, not only in this country but internationally. And he is not just a networker — he's an ideological entrepreneur, setting up franchise organisations as he goes.
Bernardi's most important connections are with the Tea Party movement in the US.
He has assiduously fostered links with the same right-wing think tanks, funders, vested interests and propagandists who underpin that movement in America. He has absorbed their techniques and is in turn training others in their ways.
Let's go to a few examples, easily found by looking at Bernardi's entries in the register of senators' interests, filed with the Parliament.
Like this item, declared in the section which requires the disclosure of any sponsored travel and hospitality worth $300 or more:
"Accommodation provided by the Heartland Institute 30/9/10 and 1/10/10." This Chicago-based conservative/libertarian outfit promotes itself as "the world's most prominent think tank" promoting climate-change scepticism.
The institute spends millions every year funding fringe scientists and others, including some in this country, to produce work denying human involvement in global warming. Bernardi has twice been a speaker at its conferences.
In association with an equivalent think tank in Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Heartland Institute has involved itself in the setting up and funding front "environment" groups devoted to denying climate change and opposing alternative energy. Bernardi has spoken for them too.
A little further into Bernardi's declarations for the register, in the section relating to organisations to which he makes donations or in which he is an office holder, he records the Catholic Church, the Liberal Party and then a few more obscure organisations, including the Conservative Leadership Foundation (CLF).
The Senator is both chairman and founder of the CLF, which claims to be a "non-partisan education and training organisation".
One way it educates and trains is by sponsoring young conservatives to go to the US to be instructed in techniques for running effective political campaigns.
The lucky winner of the CLF's 2011 conservative essay competition, who got a week of training with the Tea Party-affiliated US Leadership Institute in Washington, was one James Paterson, the communications director of the Institute of Public Affairs.
The CLF website boasts its own domestic "leadership and development courses" as well, offering "seminars and workshops that address specific topics including campaign development, online activism and media training."
Not to mention a book club which will send texts written by "the best thinkers in Australia and around the world."
We'll come back to the CLF shortly, but let's now go back to the Senators' interests register, which also records Bernardi as a board member of Tears of the Oppressed, an organisation devoted to protecting Christian minorities from oppression in majority non-Christian (read Muslim) countries.
See, Cory Bernardi has a big problem with Islam.
Back in February last year he earned rebuke from Abbott for his denunciation of Islam as a "totalitarian political and religious ideology".
Bernardi's Christian fundamentalist view of the world makes no distinction between the minority of violent, radical Islamists and the Islamic majority; as he said in one radio interview at the time, "Islam itself is the problem".
Thus the Senator offered help in arranging a visit to Australia by the extremist anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders; the man who has compared the Koran to Adolf Hitler's biography Mein Kampf, and who is on the Movement Alert List, is now awaiting a visa to give two speeches in Australia in October.
Thus he condemned the government for flying survivors of the Christmas Island refugee boat disaster to Sydney to attend the funerals of those who died.
Bernardi's Islamophobia extends beyond the ugly to the ridiculous: he rails on his personal website that "many Australians now unknowingly consume Halal slaughtered livestock."
It's just not kosher, according to Cory.
But we shouldn't scoff; this is serious. Bernardi is changing the Australian political landscape with his imported American-right methods.
As Sally Neighbour wrote in her piece on him in January this year — the best yet done on the man:
"Inspired by the tactics of the Tea Party, Bernardi established the Conservative Leadership Foundation in 2009, which in turn set up the Conservative Action Network (CANdo) that Bernardi likens to 'a Facebook for conservatives'. CANdo rallied dozens of like-minded groups and thousands of individuals to join an orchestrated 'grassroots' campaign — also known as 'astroturfing' — against the ETS [emissions-trading scheme]. Their efforts persuaded Liberal MPs to revolt against Turnbull, killing the ETS and propelling Abbott into leadership."
You will no doubt be surprised to learn CANdo lists as its "National Council of Patrons" Hugh Morgan and Alan Jones. CANdo promotes fear and suspicion: of government, of unions, of the nanny state, of gays, of refugees, of alleged plans to steal our property, our freedom of speech.
Its multiple websites do this through a mix of misrepresentation and wild hyperbole. To cite an example of the former, wind farms represent a government attempt to effectively steal our property rights. To cite an example of the latter, Gina Rinehart is a "great Australian patriot" intent on rescuing Fairfax media from the "vegan, bicycle-riding, inner city elites" which have taken it over.
We could go on detailing the long list of associations between Bernardi and the ever-expanding web of organisations with which he is in one way or another associated. Truly, you can spend hours following the links around the country and the world.
But the point is surely made: Cory Bernardi is the archetype of a modern US-style conservative. From astroturf to God, in attitude and technique, he is the whole Tea Party package.
He's Sarah Palin, without the lipstick.
And he's now gone rogue.