He says he wants a revolution

The first challenge presented to a reviewer by Cory Bernardi’s The Conservative Revolution is getting a copy. The headline-grabbing lines have done their work nicely. The references to a ‘culture of death’, abortion as an ‘abhorrent form of birth control’, the ‘gold standard’ family form, the ‘great green cult’ have succeeded in getting his new book noticed, and have sent the curious and the appalled into the bookshops to snap up copies faster than the publisher can supply them. Then, even when it is available, you have to front up to the counter and pay for it – and it is very clear from the checkout chap’s demeanour that your attempt to convey irony isn’t really working. Finally, there is the cover – Bernardi staring out at you from a stark black background, looking more like an aging male model than a senator, dark suit, white shirt, fashionably tieless. (There is a reference inside to ‘ego-driven temporal satisfaction’. I assume it wasn’t being used ironically.)

But once you start reading, the clarity and simplicity of the cover evaporates and we are presented with a sticky miasma of ideas, allegations, accusations, footnotes and anecdotes.

It starts off OK. The first chapter on the elements of conservatism is the kind of thing you might provide to undergraduate students, although whoever decided to let him end every section (and later on every chapter) with the italicised insistence ‘this is why we need a conservative revolution’ needs a short course in effective writing.

Then come the chapters: Faith, Family, Flag, Free Enterprise, Freedom, Future. Effing hell.

Bernardi’s argument is simple. Australian society is in decline, even chaos: ‘a general sense of detachment from community, a reduced level of public service, higher crime rates, increasing levels of poor health, loneliness, relationship breakdown and child abuse’ are the defining characteristics of our times. Australia has ceased to be the decent, functional place that it was until a generation or two ago.

The cause of all this? Radicals (militant secularists, cultural Marxists and the like) have – sometimes unwittingly, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes naively, but mostly maliciously – undermined all that. Having captured the media, the universities, the school system they have reprogrammed young people, the political class and wide layers of mainstream society. At the heart of their success is their undermining of faith – in God, in the future, in Australia.

None of this is remotely new, and very little of it is even very interesting. We have heard it all before, often. I bet there is a quote from Plato or Socrates saying pretty much the same thing. The usual response could easily be mobilised: that Bernardi’s old Australia was characterised by poverty, sexism, homophobia, racism, genocide, ethnic discrimination, exploitation … and this is what prompted the reformers of the 1960s and after. That it is a bit much to blame alternative family forms for child abuse without trying to weigh that up against the abuse that takes place within traditional families and the Churches.

Sometimes the book is genuinely hateful (and hate-full) – as when Bernardi turns his attention to Islam. While Christianity is whitewashed, as the source of all good values, Islam is treated as precisely the opposite. He admits that there are Muslims who present their faith as a religion of peace, but he says they are (and he has a quote to prove it) either deluded, or lying. Islamophobia is a word that gets tossed around too lightly but here it is exactly what we are looking at.

This is the point that Bernardi tips over from tedious (with occasional bursts of nuttiness), to genuinely and seriously dangerous. In a political climate where lies and cruelty has been proven to work (see refugees), he clearly expects that a demonisation of Islam might generate support for his agenda in the same way.

The really interesting thing, I think, is to ask what Bernardi means by ‘conservative revolution’. He is delightfully vague. He would like the unfair dismissal appeal rights of workers abolished (again). He would like school vouchers introduced. He would like Sunday trading banned (but, surprisingly timidly for a man calling for revolution, he recognises that this might be ‘impractical’).

Mostly the conservative revolution is cultural. Asking, like his fellow revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, ‘What is to be Done?’, Bernardi starts with the basics. Christian values need to be more strongly asserted (there is a passing reference to ‘Judeo-Christian’, reminding us that some elements of the tradition – the 2000 years of murderous anti-Semitism – are off the table). Expectations of government need to be reined in. Ill-thought-out social change needs to be resisted.

This is not the work, primarily, of politicians, but of citizens. For Bernardi there is a great middle layer of the population, between the radicals and the conservatives, whose instincts are good but who are being misled by half-baked notions of tolerance, relativism, freedom – all Very Bad Things. His chapter on the ‘Future’ calls on those within that middle who can see what he is on about, who know what dangers lie in the radicals’ program, to come out (my word, not his), to stand up for their values and their rights – and to reshape society in their own image.

What makes this important and interesting is that it addresses, perhaps unconsciously, the great failure of the Right over the past thirty years. The program of economic rationalism/neo-liberalism/globalisation was adopted by the political class with a vengeance. But the public was ignored. For the most part popular opinion remains hostile to the economic reform agenda, and eruptions like Hanson, Katter, Palmer (and on the left, the Greens) have expressed the anger that many feel at what has been done to them and their society. Bernardi at least understands that without some kind of groundswell, the moral conservatives are going nowhere.

But I suspect it is too late, which might explain his lack of specificity. Does he, for example, want abortion recriminalised? Probably not. More likely he would like to see the Medicare rebate removed and for a cultural shift away from acceptance of abortion. But neither is likely. Some two-thirds of Australians accept a woman’s right to an abortion. They do so because the notion of ‘rights’ is so deeply embedded in the culture, and because so many women have had one, and so many men and women know someone who has had one. The great middle has long since made up its mind on issues like abortion, gay and lesbian equality, the secular public sphere … and it is hard to see any kind of rollback happening.

As a polemicist, Bernardi is a serial offender, and in this book he has offered some more offence to some more people. Fair enough. But as a thinker? Well, if this is the best the Right can do, we are in for an easy ride, assuming that we are prepared to do what he wants his people to do – stand up, fight back … and win the argument.

Graham Willett

Graham Willett is a recovering academic. He has a particular interest in social movements (of both Left and Right) as instruments of social change.

More by Graham Willett ›

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  1. I like this review overall but it’s a shame that it repeats a point of view common in progressive communities that abortion in Australia is “decriminalised.” This is at best partially true. In Queensland criminal prosecutions have taken place for procuring an abortion in recent times.
    Access to clinics is difficult for many and notwithstanding that safe abortions do take place, the law in Queensland (as well as in some other states) is in desperate need of reform.

    I acknowledge that the majority of Australians do not want to see abortion criminalised; however the legal framework as it exists in Queensland is very far away from that goal.

  2. Good overview, but I think the conclusions of the last three paragraphs are off base.

    One has to inquire what sort of threat the political bloc of which Bernardi is a member poses. The answer lies in the electoral relationship between “social conservatism” and the economic programme of our wealthy elites.

    There’s no need for right wing views on issues such as reproductive choice, immigration policy, multiculturalism, or the nuclear family to prevail among a majority of the population for these issues to control elections.

    The way the democratic franchise works in this country – one set of preferences for every electoral issue – the right will simply continue to cynically exploit any issue where they can get electoral traction. Naturally these will change from time to time, but the art of centring them in debate is becoming more and more refined.

    From the perspective of halting the inexorably tightening grip of capital on our society, there may not be any point “winning the argument” on any given issue, or talk of progress or rollback. As one issue falls, another will arise.

    With media money focusing the conversation, the limited resources of public debate will always be divertible from the regressive core policies that contribute to widening economic inequality, the degradation of essential public services and a contempt for honourable internationalism.

    For instance with the curriculum review, we’re now suddenly focused on the content of the curriculum, surely a side issue relative to the question of how schools funding will be handled as the government backs away from Gonski.

    Bernardi’s social views are not a special concern in all this. He’ll attach himself to any celebrated cause as the GOP politicians who inspire him deliberately did with abortion in the early 80s, when so many of their former moderates suddenly became adamantly pro-life.

    It’s not the specific wedge issues that should worry us the most, it’s the way they will be used systematically within our politics.

  3. Well said Tom. Bernardi’s true value to the Right (and Abbott in particular) is to serve as both lightning rod and smokescreen. They can use his agenda to swing LNP internal politics even further to the right, while at the same time making their existing draconian policies seem downright reasonable by way of contrast. “Yes we’re gutting the CSIRO, propping up the rich, eviscerating the public service and destroying the manufacturing industry in the interest of cheaper Audi imports, but have you read Cory’s book? What a nutjob!”

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