The conservative Liberal Senator from South Australia, Cory Bernardi, has addressed the National Press Club in Canberra.
Bernardi has been a senator since 2006. He is a former shadow minister.
Transcript of Cory Bernardi’s speech to the National Press Club.
Thank you Steve and may I thank the honourable members and officials of the National Press Club. It’s a great honour to be here and a delight to be here on such an auspicious day.
It seems like a long time ago, in fact it was 2007, that I authored a report which ran very heavily in the Adelaide Advertiser that we needed cool heads on global warming.
If I could characterise one aspect of my political career it’s been that we’ve constantly been in that battle and today I think the Liberal Party and the Coalition parties, at least from my perspective, [have] made significant inroads into restoring some common sense for the people of Australia.
But I’m here today to talk about politics in general.
Let me assure you, I know there’s some expectations in this room, I’m not going to do what I now call the ‘Rob Oakeshott’ and that is talk for an eternity and leave you all hanging for that seminal moment, if you will, in which a big announcement is coming.
I hate to disappoint my friends and I hate to disappoint the fourth estate even more but I’m not going to be announcing I’m joining another party today. I’m not going to be announcing I’m starting my own party.
I am absolutely delighted to be a conservative voice within the Coalition team. I’ve said that repeatedly over many, many weeks now.
Yet so many people found it so hard to believe.
And that is in essence what I’m here to talk about with you today – the fact that people don’t believe what politicians have to say anymore. There’s a disenchantment, if you will, with politics.
I think we need to identify why that is and we also have to start to have a conversation about how we can reclaim that public trust.
Now, The Guardian‘s Michael White said recently that “Politics is a mug’s game for addictive masochists” [i] – in other words, those people who can’t get enough of their own pain and humiliation.
For me, it’s a strange series of mishaps, as I describe them, that’s led me to become a Member of Parliament. I gave up an early sporting career due to injury.
While working overseas following that injury, I narrowly escaped being killed by a car.
Later, when I returned to Australia I had this unique perspective of being quarantined with a contagious disease for nearly 12 months. It gives you time to reflect on what’s really important in life.
I think these setbacks have given me a strength and maybe a resilience to cope with the vicissitudes of public life in politics.
Many of us are involved in politics because we have an interest in the future of our community. No one can deny that. We want to make a positive contribution to it.
If politics is at its core public service, we should expect that a sincere and committed politician will have a strong altruistic flair or be motivated by a sense of selflessness that is derived from, maybe, an idealism that gives their politics substantive content.
The fact that this sounds, to many of you in this room and possibly many listening, somewhat naïve says a lot about the world today. We’ve had scandal, political opportunism, we’ve had cronyism, we’ve had the general bankruptcy of ideas in politics.
This is a problem that sincere politicians struggle with every day.
The public is unfortunately, but perfectly understandably quite cynical about what we as politicians do.
The public think that politicians have little or no connection in their daily lives.
The public thinks that politics is sick…if not broken.
That needs to change.
Public cynicism comes not from what politics could or should be, but rather what it has become when the political arena is occupied by people who have little interest in the maintenance of the public square but instead choose to use it for the raw pursuit of power and influence.
The seeds of this are easy to spot.
All too often mediocrity and a lack of conviction are mistaken for ‘moderation’, and on the other hand, a commitment to values or actually believing in something is labelled ‘extreme.’
Public cynicism and apathy is partly due to this confusion.
Whether they agree with them or not, the Australian voter tends to respect those who take a stand on matters of principle, if and when the spirit of the times don’t run in the same current.
Now I’ve been called many things in my life in politics and I look around the room and I suspect that many of you have called me those names but I don’t think that anyone can profess that I’m not sincere in what I profess.
Where I thought it was necessary, I have chosen to ‘rock the boat’ and I won’t apologise for that.
It may not deliver short term success or positive headlines but I think it will bring long term results.
I believe that the future of Australian politics will ultimately be determined by representatives who pursue truth rather than what they may see as the ‘safe option’.
Indeed, in the long run those who fly under the radar are treading the path of greatest risk because I believe the public and the electorate will ultimately hold mediocrity to account.
It’s clear to me that our political system already struggles with a lack of interest and engagement by the public.
If you look at the assessments of civics education for example, it fails to cut through with some students.
In 2009, only one third of Year 10 students actually knew what the Australian Constitution was.
I’m sure most Australians could name the first of US Presidents, but could they name the first Australian Prime Minister? It’s Edmund Barton, by the way.
Incredibly, our support for democracy is also waning. The most recent Lowy Institute poll found that less than half of all Australians aged 18-29 prefer democracy over any other kind of government.
This illustrates that politicians have an uphill battle already on their hands and they can’t contribute to this battle or make things worse by driving more voters away.
It was Henry Kissinger, I think, who said that ‘Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad name’.
In recent decades we’ve seen a conceited arrogance creeping into political discourse, contributing to political elites’ neglect of important characteristics of Western civilisation that some of them consider to be irrelevant or passé.
Driven by political correctness, Western values have been increasingly defined along procedural or materialist lines, while elements such as our religious traditions and our unique culture have somehow been relegated to second place, or even worse.
This is where the problem, I believe, has arisen, feeding the growing discontent amongst the electoral grassroots.
We seem to be going through some sort of existential crisis, if you will, which may be as damaging to the core of our national psyche as any of the struggles that we’ve faced in recent decades.
There is a distinct disconnect between the people and the faith they have in their representatives.
More and more, politics has become, or is seeming to become, a top-down process – removed from the sentiments that actually founded our system.
It’s as if the politicians have forgotten that Parliament House was deliberately built within the hill, not on top of it, so that it would, as the architect envisioned, “symbolically rise out of the Australian landscape, as true democracy rises from the state of things”. [ii]
The Australian‘s Paul Kelly got it right when he wrote:
“The trust between the political system and the people to sustain ambitious policy may now be severed.” [iii]
Broken promises, politicians’ perks, spin over substance, scandals, little perceived difference between the major parties and a lack of focus on the issues that matter to the Australian people all help to fuel this chasm that is developing between politicians and the people.
The public now – sadly – expect pollies to break their promises, they expect us to weasel our way out of the tough questions and hide behind prepared lines.
To put it bluntly, political sophistry is no longer resonating with the Australian people.
We’ve seen it all too clearly in recent times. We’ve had Kevin Rudd, he paid for his about-face on the ‘greatest moral issue of our time’, Julia Gillard copped it for her ‘no carbon tax’ promise and you cannot dispute that the current government is being punished for the perceived sophistry of some of the positions it took to the election.
Voters don’t believe that their representatives will deliver what they say.
It’s as if political opinions are like lotto numbers: chosen at random to suit the mood of the day.
And as a self-described outsider inside the beltway, I have always fought hard to actually be consistent, even in the face of great resistance.
My message often doesn’t resonate with the political establishment but I can tell you it surely resonates with the many Australians who are growing disenchanted with politics.
People want consistency and they want principle; they want to know what their politicians stand for even if they don’t agree with them.
In some respects, we have to admit that politicians do live a life cocooned from real world concern by the insulating nature of Parliament House, the opinions of the Press Gallery and the accoutrements of office.
I say this has to change.
Some elected officials view politics as a career rather than what I would refer to as a temporary duty, fuelling the perception that it becomes more about self-interest than the national interest.
You can imagine my horror when very early on in my career I heard a fellow parliamentarian say, quite sincerely, “bugger the national interest, I want this to go away so I can get re-elected.”
No one elected anyone to do that.
One of the biggest problems with mainstream politics throughout the Western world is the expediency that has replaced principle.
We see it as a triumph of mediocrity, or a refusal to tackle the big questions, some of which may indeed be deemed ‘controversial’.
This is where the ‘safe option’, the refusal to ‘rock the boat’ actually ends up turning into electoral disaster.
The two major political parties are finding it increasingly difficult in this space.
In essence, I suggest voters are turning to minor parties and independents in a popular response to a perception of cowardice and distrust of the major parties.
I’m probably alone when I refer to one of my great political heroes, Barry Goldwater; he said he needed to offer voters “a choice, not an echo”. [iv]
Now, Barry Goldwater was spectacularly unsuccessful but he’s one of my political heroes because he paved the way for a reformation, if you will, of the conservative movement in America which led to great success for President Reagan and others.
I would suggest that appealing to those who are never going to vote for you by straying from your principles will not bring long-term electoral success.
I’m quoting The Guardian, this time Katharine Murphy. She put it well when she wrote:
“Politics desperately needs more dissent to convince the public that there are [some things] worth having, and values worth fighting for, to exhibit that public policy isn’t just a stitch-up by the self-interested that happens at a remove from the community.” [v]
Yet offering alternative opinions is often viewed by contempt by the media and the political class. One dissenter often equals a party in crisis and it earns the ire of colleagues and critics within the media circle.
Over the years, it’s fair to say I’ve had my fair share of flak, starting when, in 2007, I voiced my concerns about the alarmist climate change predictions. That was in 2007. The same happened in 2008 about same-sex laws, the ETS in 2009, the burqa in 2010. You getting the picture? It’s an annual event. I could go on, I could go on; and 2014 hasn’t finished yet.
Some of my colleagues even criticised me for going overseas to Europe to witness the issues giving rise to voter discontent there and the corresponding rise of minor parties and the personalities that were associated with them.
I would suggest that in the current climate, that decision was rather prescient.
As US Senator Rand Paul said: “I am willing to risk unpopularity with politicians to do what I am convinced is right.” [vi]
I am not going to just shirk away from politicians’ responsibility to pick this up but there is another element that needs to, I think, help to reform politics in this country and that’s the role played by the media.
Once again, Paul Kelly observed that:
“During the reform age, roughly 1983 to 2003, the media was pivotal in backing national interest policies but that age is passing. It is replaced by new media values that mirror the fashionable narcissism and find national interest debates [to be] quaint and irrelevant.” [vii]
The 24-hour news cycle requires constant supply of content, so even the most minor story somehow becomes news.
It’s right to question: how many positive policies or positive stories about what the governments of the day is doing have been shunted aside (or not even written at all) because column inches are dominated by the latest minor triviality?
Just one week in May, the government announced support for: rural GP places, aged care programs, skills for defence industry workers, better Indigenous health industry outcomes, safer streets in our communities. But I can bet you that Tony Abbott’s wink in a radio station got more column inches than any of those.
It’s an era when the number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers seems more important than fighting for principle, so it’s hardly surprising that many see politicians as somewhat self-obsessed.
This void is part of what causes the disconnect between people and their politicians and it leads the people to be looking for answers elsewhere.
The alternatives they find tap into a well of discontent, drawing in supporters who feel the main players are no longer speaking to them.
We’ve seen this in the US, the UK, France and right through Western Europe in fact.
In the recent European elections, four million Britons voted for the UK Independence Party (UKIP). [viii]
The National Front in France won the European elections with nearly 25 per cent of the vote.
Since making a real impact in elections four years ago, Netherland’s Party of Freedom is also doing well in the polls.
The last decade has also seen support grow for the movements outside the traditional major parties; movements like the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party and the Tea Party in America, which is trying to reform the US Republican establishment and recently they ousted in a preselection battle the most senior Republican in Congress.
These parties are often described as ‘extremist’ simply because they differ from the establishment.
Now let’s get it clear, I disagree with many of the premises, many of the policies and many of the issues that these parties may choose to pick up. Some are too far to the left, some are too far to the right, but we cannot deny they are resonating with people.
And they are resonating for a reason.
Parties like UKIP are taking votes away from the Conservative Party in the UK but they’re also taking them from the Labour Party.
While David Cameron I think made a strategic error and demonstrated just how out-of-touch he is, he described UKIP MPs as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, they now have shown they are a force to be reckoned with.
We’re seeing the UK Conservative Party recognise this. I just hope it’s not too late.
In an assessment that could apply to many countries, political scientist Matthew Goodwin explains exactly what happened in the UK. He said:
“These voters have long felt intensely anxious [about] an array of perceived threats to their identity, [their] values and [their] way of life; from migrants and unelected Eurocrats in Brussels, to distant elites in Westminster. Never before have these working-class voters felt so disconnected from our politics…” [ix]
As an interesting aside to this, I’d like to point out that these minor parties are not homogenous. They’re not all the same. Their social and economic policies vary, quite often radically.
Yet one thing they do all have in common is their desire to preserve cultural norms and restore a balanced approach to migration.
That is what is resonating with the people of Western Europe.
We’ve seen the breakdown of social cohesion in Europe. I went there and saw it for myself firsthand and we’re seeing the early signs of an emergence of it here.
You can consider the Cronulla riots, for example, the calls for legal pluralism. The other day a man was assaulted by Arabic-speaking men simply because he had a t-shirt on with Hebrew writing on it.
Frankly, I think it’s time our representatives showed more courage in this space, that they defended our cultural norms, our values and our social mores in the face of cultural fifth columnists.
At the last federal election, we were given the greatest example yet of voters’ disenchantment.
Support for minor parties and independents was at record levels.
Election analyst Antony Green concluded that almost one third of all Senate votes went to non-major party candidates; it was about 32 per cent. [x]
In South Australia,the phenomenon that isNick Xenophongot more votes than the entire Labor Party. He nearly got more votes than the entire Liberal Party in the Senate contest. [xi]
The new kid on the block, the Palmer United Party, got a lower house seat right off the bat, got more Senate votes than the Greens in Queensland and scored a handful of Senate seats.
We now have 18 senators on the crossbenches, the most in Australia’s parliamentary history.
The message of distrust in ‘politics as usual’ could not be clearer to me.
I say we can’t keep going on like this.
While I do have hopes and I’m optimistic that the Senate will ultimately be quite productive, there is a real possibility that the Senate Chamber could live out the disillusionment of the Australian people.
If the political machine makes no effort to change, who knows what results we’re going to have to deal with in future elections?
So my message is we have to restore faith in the political process.
Everyone has a part to play here – MPs, the media and the public – but today I’m going to focus on what I and my colleagues can do.
Politicians have to stop drinking the Canberra Kool-Aid. We have to start tackling the self-interest that permeates the halls of the parliament.
We have to address some of the main criticisms that the Australian people have about politics.
So today I want to propose some ideas, some reforms that could be considered to tackle this disillusionment.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t the first politician to criticise governments’ appetite for taxes, but I think he was the first to compare it to a baby: “It is an alimentary canal with an appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” [xii]
Spending other people’s money is always easier than spending your own and this is a trap that responsible governments must always avoid.
At the very least, I think that taxpayers deserve to know how government is spending tax revenue: it’s their money, after all.
Senate Estimates goes some way to do this.
And the Treasurer has made a great start, quite frankly, is his proposal [of a] one-page tax return summary sheet.
But I think we need to go further.
We need a national database that is publicly available, simple to navigate and easily searchable so that taxpayers can see exactly how their money is spent.
As an example, I’d like to know – and I’m sure many other taxpayers would like to know –how we’ve spent $33 billion over the last decade trying to improve Aboriginal communities and failed so miserably.
Transparency will help end the rorts, it will help end the waste and the cronyism in every single area of government expenditure.
We already have the IT infrastructure in place, we know how to do it, so why wouldn’t we do it here?
It’s simple, it’s inexpensive and ultimately will save taxpayers many, many millions of dollars.
It works in the United States and it will work in Australia too.
Earlier I mentioned the primary focus of politics should be service to community.
We now have a mass democracy involving millions of people, looking for leadership in what is a very complex environment.
The individual often feels that their vote isn’t going to make a difference; that their control somehow over the system is being thwarted or manipulated by groups who may not have a rooted interest in the community itself.
Political corruption is not a new phenomenon, it has come to the fore in recent times with the NSW ICAC investigations.
The most immediate thing that we can do, at least from the position of a politician, is to reform the way that political parties receive their funds.
Allowing only individuals to make donations, placing a maximum donation limitcould help bring public confidence back to the way that political parties are financed.
Every voter can then make a donation choice for themselves – a disclosure over the threshold should be publicised on the AEC website within a week of it being received.
There’s simply no excuse for not disclosing in a timely manner.
That way the public can see, almost in real time, what money is going to political parties and from whom.
We also need to address the growing trend for non-taxpaying entities to fund third party election campaigns. Taxpayers already give these entities a public benefit by not requiring them to pay tax so why is it appropriate this this benefit is then used to lobby for their own cause?
It’s not a magic bullet but it would certainly help remove the perception that politics is for sale.
Still on disclosure: there are few things the fourth estate likes more than to splash a front page about politicians’ spending and their own entitlements.
And fair enough too, I say – we should all be held accountable for how we spend taxpayers’ money.
Entitlements are often criticised for their perceived generosity… and the public question whether they’re getting value for money.
Again, it serves to fuel the misgivings people have with politics.
The solution is simple. I would propose we should have a line in the sand on benefits for retired MPs and I think we should have global budgets for current MPs.
On the first point, with an exception for Prime Ministers, once your parliamentary service concludes so should all your taxpayer-funded benefits.
On the second point, streamlining all entitlements into a single budget line item allows the MP to manage it within broad parameters; it should be very straightforward and allows them to apply the priorities they think are important to do their work the best.
We are asking them to run the country after all; surely we should be able to ask them to manage their own budgets.
All expenditure should be itemised, it should be publicly available. That way, the public will know how much each representative is actually costing them. They can reward the thrifty and punish the spendthrift.
Now, as hard as it may be to believe, many MPs share similar views across party lines.
We have to find a way to communicate this to the public.
It’s part of our adversarial system, that we go into battle and that keeps governments to account, that’s a good thing. But the intransigence turns people off.
So I think we need to find [a way for] MPs to break the deadlock, if you will.
In the UK, citizens’ petitions are coordinated through a government website. When they receive a certain number it’s then chosen to be debated on the floor of the parliament.
It will never be voted on but the fact is it allows MPs to pursue items of interest to their electorates and their own conscience free of the doctrines of the current party political system.
Now I’d like, and in conclusion, to turn specifically to the Senate and outline some ways in which I think it can function better and that will also restore the founding principles of federation.
Many people lament the dominance of the party system over the parliament, particularly in the Senate. I’ve seen this over the last eight years.
One thing that springs to my mind was the battle I fought to have a private senator’s bill passed to enhance child protection laws. I introduced that bill because it had been prorogued from the previous parliament in 2009 and I wanted to have it debated as a matter of urgency.
Despite the fact that the bill was a carbon copy of what the Labor Party and the Coalition had agreed to in the year before, Labor supported it in opposition and the then government, the Howard Government, supported it too. The Rudd Government refused to support it.
The excuse? They wanted to introduce the same piece of legislation but just with their name on it. So a year later the same bill passed.
However, there was 12 months there, a 12 month lag where children were not afforded the protections that all the parliament deemed were important.
I saw that as a failing of the major party political process.
So we’re never going to stop the influence of parties in the Senate Chamber.
I think we do have to work to preserve the Senate’s original intention which was to act as a house of review and to provide a division of power through the equal representation of the states.
Former Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, said:
“The fact that the people of the states have voted for the same political parties has not removed this federalist underpinning of the Constitution, although…the rigidity of the party system has weakened its effect.” [xiii]
While it is easy for senators to follow blindly with their party, they must remember they are there as representatives of the people of their states and as a check on executive government.
The 76 of us in that chamber have the duty to review legislation and help determine what is in the best interests of the country.
To that end, to enhance the power of the Senate as a house of review, it makes sense to me for the members of the Executive to be derived purely from the House of Representatives.
That way, a senator’s primary function would be to sit in the house of review representing individual state interests in accordance with their political philosophical leanings.
In the end, any senator desiring to run for Executive is free to seek a House of Representatives seat.
It’s another way we could reinforce the guiding principles of the Senate.
A second one, and this one I know is undoubtedly controversial with many of my colleagues, is that fact that we should consider having term limits for senators.
As I mentioned earlier, politics is a chance to serve, it shouldn’t be regarded as a professional career.
Quite frankly, I agree with political scientist Professor Mark Petracca when he argues the idea of a ‘professional politician’ runs against the very nature of being a people’s representative.
Professionalism seeks hierarchy, there’s distance between the expert and the client, which is needed in many vocations like lawyers and doctors but distance from the voters isn’t a virtue in politics.
It’s like what Barnaby Joyce said in his first speech in the House of Representatives:
“two things happen [when you get into] this building: you gain weight, and you lose touch…You get embroiled in the machismo of the debate in the chamber, which may collect the interest of [the press] but not the respect of the public.” [xiv]
Term limits would ensure that senators would be focused on improving legislation to improve the country.
It once again would become a public service rather than a political career.
I haven’t that much research on term limits in Australia, but there has been examination of them in America, where they’ve been found to inject ‘new blood’ into the political process and one commentator said: “Term limits reward real-world experience over backroom experience.” [xv]
I’m not criticising existing or previous long-term serving senators. They’re an inspiration, they’ve done an extraordinary job. I’m just looking to the future to think how can we refresh and renew people’s faith in the role of our parliamentarians.
So in conclusion, today I do want to make an announcement. I want to make an announcement that I want to form a movement; a movement within Australian politics, if you will. A movement to try and regain some of that trust that has been lost.
The ideas I’ve outlined here today are simply that: ideas.
It’s not about my conservative views.
It’s not about the left, it’s not about the right, it’s about doing what I think is right.
It’s about opening up a conversation within the beltway to reflect the views from outside the beltway; discussing ideas that will help restore our faith in the political system, our parliament, our MPs and our political parties.
Indeed, I’m accustomed to this: I may end up being the only member of this movement.
But I would say all it takes is one person.
I do not deign to compare myself with that famous ‘Modest Member’, Bert Kelly; he was modest after all.
I want to use him as an example of what can be achieved when one person stands against the accepted dogmas of the time.
Kelly stood alone in the opposition to protectionism in the ’60s and ’70s.
He didn’t have many supporters in the party room when he first started.
But he stuck to his guns because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Former deputy PM Jack McEwen famously once chided Kelly in parliament, saying that he had “so much to be modest about.” [xvi]
All politicians, myself included, have much to be modest about.
So I am not here claiming that I am immune to the failings of politicians or that I’ve got all the answers; quite the contrary.
But in an environment where people crave honesty from their representatives, on many occasions I have proven that I am willing to put principles above politics and conviction above convenience.
Disillusionment with politics is growing; results overseas and even our own elections are reflecting that.
We need to respond to it sooner rather than later.
That means we can’t shy away from [the] important questions that the Australian people want answered.
It means facing up to those questions, offering a position that is not more of the same.
Because more of the same has only led us to where we are today.
And in the eyes of the public, that’s simply not good enough.
[i] Michael White, ‘Political anger and apathy a reflection of voter ‘kidiocy”, The Guardian UK, 27.12.2013
[ii] Romaldo Giurgola (architect), Houseatwork, Parliamentary Education Office, 2001, p. 90.
[iii] Paul Kelly, ‘Politics in crisis and a nation in denial’, The Australian, 2.7.2014
[iv] As reported in The Spokesman-Review, 4.1.1964, p. 1
[v] Katharine Murphy, ‘Give us more dissent in politics’, The Guardian, 22.6.2014
[vi] Rand Paul, Remarks prepared for delivery, 13 June 2013, http://www.paul.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=853
[vii] Paul Kelly, ‘Politics in crisis and a nation in denial’, The Australian, 2.7.2014
[viii] ‘UKIP will rock cultural elite’, The Australian, 24.6.2014
[ix] Matthew Goodwin, ‘Ukip’s rise is no flash in the pan’, The Guardian, 26.5.2014
[x] Antony Green Election blog, ‘Record vote for minor parties at 2013 federal election’, ABC website. 17.11.2013
[xi] AEC website, 2007 election results, First preferences by candidate – SA and AEC website, 2013 election results, First preferences by candidate – SA.
[xii] Full quote: “The American taxing structure, the purpose of which was to serve the people, began instead to serve the insatiable appetite of government. If you will forgive me, you know someone has likened government to a baby. It is an alimentary canal with an appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” Ronald Reagan, Remarks before a Joint Session of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa, 11.3.1981, as cited in Reagan Foundation website, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan-quotes-detail.aspx?tx=2104
[xiii] Harry Evans, ‘Federalism: an idea whose time has come?’, Samuel Griffith Society Conference, March 1997.
[xiv] Maiden speech, 14.11.2013
[xv] Patrick Basham, ‘Term Limits: A Reform that works’, Democracy Institute, 2011, p. 12
[xvi] Hansard, 17.3.1970.