By Stewart Hase  @stewarthase

15 January 2014

The Conservative Revolution was worth reading for two main reasons. The first is that it gives a very clear view into the mind of the extreme Christian conservative. The reader gets to see the thinking, the ideology that drives the political agenda of people like Cory Bernardi. Thus, it is not difficult to extrapolate the type of policies that that politicians of this mind-set will pursue. The second thing I got out of this book is probably based more on my background as an academic and scientist than anything else. It was interesting to read something that purports to provide an argument, that has some pretentions of being scholarly but which fails on both these fronts. The book is full of motherhood statements, unsubstantiated claims, and proselytizing.

The error of simplification is a general theme throughout. Bernardi fails to recognise the complexity of social issues. By not fully researching his topic and considering the science allows him to jump to simple explanations and simple solutions. The sparse evidence that is provided in this book is at the extreme margins of acceptability. While it is reasonable to cherry pick sources that support a case, it is another to use isolated and poor research that goes against mainstream science.

If this work was presented as a first year undergraduate paper Bernardi would be looking at being asked to rewrite or accept a fail grade. This book is an opinion piece. It is not a scholarly work. It is not an essay since it does not argue a case. Rather, The Conservative Revolution provides a set of propositions.

These propositions are largely a rehash of the conservative bible, The Conservative Mind, written by the American writer Russell Kirk in 1953. Like Bernardi, Kirk bemoaned the fact that conservatism had lost its way in the USA to the libertarians and radicals and that the country was in decline. The road to salvation for the people, for the country is a shift to extreme conservatism. Bernardi refers to this as a battleground. This war theme is repeated throughout the book in reference to Marxists and ‘leftists’, our way of life, tradition, the green ‘cult’.

The conservative mind reveres tradition. Kirk, like Bernardi, was a Roman Catholic and saw the need for Catholic teaching to drive political policy and society. So a good deal of this tradition is rooted in Catholic values along with paternalism, private property ownership (as opposed to state ownership), small government, slow change, recognition of human frailty and the natural order (the inherent inequality of life and between humans), laissez-faire economic principles, and the enforcement of law as a counterweight to power. And without any hint of irony, Bernardi adds the claim that conservatives eschew ideology or dogma. At the same time, he is eager to save us from ourselves.

It appears that the real problem began in the 1960s and Australia started to lose its way with what Bernardi calls a social revolution. He fails to mention the fact that during this period, in fact since 1949, Australia was governed by conservative governments right up to 1972 when Gough Whitlam won power. Presumably the successive Menzies, Holt, McMahan and Gorton conservatism was of the wrong sort and we are in need of a revolution now, even in his own party. It is interesting that recent events seem to suggest many in the LNP have distanced themselves from his views, even his Prime Minister.

Bernardi sees the world in terms of baddies and the goodies. The baddies are the left, the radicals and Marxists who would tear down Australia. The goodies are the conservatives whose main role is to protect tradition, the wisdom of the ages, and in a circularity that is astonishing, those things that made Australia what it is today. In between these two groups are the struggling class who are too busy surviving to be bothered with politics except on polling day. The author concedes that this group ultimately decide the fate of society. As the book unfolds we see, however, how they are being bullied and coerced by the ‘leftists’ and salvation can only be achieved by recognising the rightness of conservatism. This is the purpose of the book.

There are four pillars to the conservative revolution. These are Faith, Family, Flag, and Free Enterprise.

Bernardi wants to see a return to Christian values as the basis for a moral code that will guide society. He uses the much used and spurious claim that without the Ten Commandments, humans would be incapable of civil society. The fact that many countries of the world that are not Christian have very civil, family-oriented, moral values. The need for a revolution is based on a decline of faith and inevitable social deterioration. Bernardi sheets back child abuse, criminality, poor health, loneliness, promiscuity and relationship breakdown to a lack of faith. Again he is on a war footing referring to the need for social change to be a culture war. The enemies of a return to faith appear to be: science, which has in Bernardi’s mind been guilty of most of the atrocities of the twentieth century; communism and socialism promoting secularism and freedom of choice; the influence of the left on the media (again with no sense of irony given the role of the Murdoch empire in promoting the conservative agenda and undermining the ALP and the Greens); abortion; public support for euthanasia; the separation of religion and state; the green agenda, including global warming (Bernardi clearly does not believe in climate change); and Islam.

It is horrifying to read Bernardi’s attack on Muslims. Again, it is clear he has not done his homework. Despite referencing several Islamic holy texts he has not read them, otherwise he would not make the claims that he does. He uses certain Islamic fundamentalist behaviour as examples of mainstream Islamic belief and blames the behaviour on religious texts. Bernardi engages in his own holy war by pitting Islam against Christianity. But the evidence and the argument are false. He claims there can be no moderate Muslim. Cory Bernardi has obviously never been to Malaysia or Indonesia for that matter, which has the largest Muslim community in the world. And where Catholicism is recognised officially as a religion.

His attack is extremely disingenuous. It is similar to arguing that all Catholics condone paedophilia given the actions of a few deranged priests. This section alone should be a major concern to all fair-minded and well travelled Australians.

With respect to the second pillar, the Family, Bernardi espouses the traditional family unit as essential to the good of Australia. The family unit, for him, consists of mum and dad, and the kids. Dad is head of the household, the authority figure and breadwinner. He draws on the ancient role of men as hunters to justify this traditional role for men, the provider. Mum’s job is to look after the kids. Well, most of the time because the husband needs to be out there with his sons engaging them in robust physical activity, showing them how to be real men. No doubt this involves hunting with a bow and arrow, clubbing wildlife to put food on the table, and initiation ceremonies.

Bernardi blames the sexual revolution of the 1960s for the increase in parenthood outside of marriage, single parent families, the push for same-sex marriage, surrogacy and gay promiscuity. Even the ABC gets a jersey for supposedly supporting ‘environments that are less optimal for children’.

Again, with no hint of irony, he states that the ‘lefties’ only choose evidence that supports their claim for a more tolerant and diverse community. At the same time Bernardi uses newspaper quotes from highly conservative sources such as Justice Coleridge, a UK family court judge who was asked to step down due to his outspoken views on marriage, the risk of single parent families and even unwed parents. Single anecdotes of abuse by non-traditional families are used as evidence. Incest rates in traditional families, child sexual abuse in the church, physical abuse in marriages and other atrocities are not mentioned as reasons to doubt the sanctity of marriage.

Bernardi makes special mention of single parent families and, in particular single mothers. Making again the error of simplicity, Bernardi points the finger at the single parent family as a cause of criminality, citing a number of very selective sources. This is used as part of his argument that there is only one kind of family that matters. What is clear from the actual research in this area is that the social reasons for criminality are incredibly complex. Studies never show a single cause for criminal behaviour and certainly not being in a single parent family. If single parenting is found to be problematic the relationship between it and social problems has a very small variance. This means that there are many other factors playing a role. Statistics is obviously not Cory Bernardi’s strong point. Just as important are how the child is treated by parents, the impact of aggressive and abusive fathers, attachment and family processes, for example.

According to Bernardi, ‘Competent social policy should be drafted by those who understand the primacy of natural law’. Not science, not good research but those with a conservative view based on Catholic dogma. He goes on to state how the ‘natural law’ is undermined by leftist ideology. The school breakfast program run by the Red Cross gets a special mention as undermining the traditional family role. Presumably the children who get fed under this scheme because the family cannot provide should go hungry.

The third Pillar is the Flag. Here we see the hoary old chestnuts, the importance of our constitutional monarchy and of our British heritage as demonstrated by the Union Jack on our national flag.  The argument put by Bernardi is that this relationship has provided us with security in the past and will do the same in the present. This stance ignores history by forgetting the damage to Australia that our paternal relationship with Britain has had. It ignores the future in that our immediate sphere of influence is Asia, not Europe. Australian patriotism is Britain’s patriotism in Bernardi’s world. In an astounding contradiction, however, he states that, ‘… we should never compromise Australia’s national interest upon the altar of international pressure’. Should we mention the Australians that died on the battlefields of Europe, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan? It goes without saying that Bernardi is not in favour of Australia becoming a republic. For him this would be a radical experiment fraught with danger. He argues that the constitutional monarchy is essential to democracy. I wonder if the USA would agree.

In this section Bernardi renews his attack on global warming by criticising our involvement in international bodies responsible for acting on climate change. His argument for removing our international involvement is based on a speech by Edmund Burke from 1774. He forgets that we now live in a much smaller world than the one Burke inhabited. In effect, the national self-interest is placed above international involvement. Laudable but not when the problem is an international one.

Picking another populist topic migrants come in for special mention. He rolls out the old John Howard mantra that migrants need to adopt Australian values and culture on the basis that our values have stood the test of time. The only Australian cultural values that have outlived those of most other countries of the world are Indigenous. Bernardi goes on to argue that the Constitution should be unchanged for the simple reason that it is old, that we have prospered as a result of it, that such documents should be enduring. No matter that it may not be workable in a world that is rapidly changing. But this is the conservative view, the maintenance of tradition no matter the consequence.

The final pillar is Free Enterprise and one modelled on Laissez-Faire. Bernardi is a conservative capitalist. His argument is that capitalism will raise people out of poverty. But capitalism needs a moral backbone, provided by faith and traditional values: benevolent capitalists. The interests of the individual, as opposed to the community or collectivism as it is called in the book, are at the centre of the conservative view. Lower taxes, reward for personal achievement, personal choice and self-motivation are the requirements for a richer society. Needless to say this means a diminution of the welfare net. Survival of the fittest is the underlying principle. In a style typical of the book Bernardi takes his critique of the left several bridges too far and lets his vitriol get the better of him. The ‘lefties’, it seems, are responsible for the misery of countless millions in the West in the twentieth-century and across the whole globe. It’s the politics of envy apparently that is the root problem of the ‘progressives’ with their desire to redistribute wealth, to focus on the community.

The ‘leftie’ position that checks and balances need to be in place to safeguard the interests of workers, that people can be exploited is given short shrift by Bernardi. We have to remember that our entrepreneurs in this conservative world of his have a strong Christian moral backbone. Surely there is no way that the good conservative would exploit workers or the community for that matter.

As a means of increasing incentives for workers and employers alike, Bernardi calls for negotiation of working conditions between the two. Conditions will change depending on economic circumstances. Thus, it is better for people to work for next to nothing rather than be unemployed. No need for government to intervene, Smith’s ‘invisible guiding hand’ will ensure good for all: that is, the market will rule. However, as Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist quipped that the reason the invisible hand is invisible is that it is not there!

In Bernardi’s world you either sink or swim with no life jacket at the ready. If you’re poor then, inevitably, it’s your fault. It is enlightening to see him drawing on the words of Adam Smith and the ‘Wealth of Nations’ to support his argument for a 21st century Australia. That Smith’s ideas have long been shown to be pretty well irrelevant to our modern world escapes his conservative mind completely.

Also borrowing from Smith’s doctrine about tax, Bernardi calls for lower taxes on business to encourage entrepreneurship.

In his discussion about freedom, educational institutions come in for special mention. It appears that our education campuses are populated by Marxists who manipulate and push ‘leftist’ views. Again, Bernardi uses the term war to describe this attack on western values and traditions. Unsubstantiated anecdotes of the persecution of conservatives in university courses by academics are provided as evidence. Furthermore, reading, writing and arithmetic have been replaced by a broader curriculum. Bernardi makes the astonishing claim that the teaching of Christianity has been banned in public schools and replaced by a celebration of Islam. Furthermore, primary school children are being manipulated by the green ‘cult’ (his word not mine) through the teaching of climate change. It appears our educational institutions have become places of indoctrination, subverting conservative traditions.

So, what will the world we inhabit look like if this conservative mind wins his war? A close relationship between church and state so that Christian values drive not just society but government policy. The right to life will exist solely with the state and not with women: legislation enabling abortion will be repealed. Marriage will be between a man and a woman only. Families not conforming to the tradition of a married couple plus children cannot expect assistance from government. Inequality will be recognised as a normal state with less welfare assistance at all levels. Laissez Faire economic principles will rule enabling open slather for business-the market will rule. There will be no intervention by government in the event of a financial meltdown akin to that of 2008. Workchoices will be resurrected. A standard, state determined, curriculum and a voucher system will be introduced. Specialised schools based on ideological grounds will be encouraged and funding will be based on enrolment: read the rise and rise of Christian schools and conservative curricula. Public education funding will be reduced. There will be increased interference by government in university teaching and funding of research that does not serve conservative interests. The Sabbath will become sanctified. There will be less concern for the environment and no concern about climate change. Increased isolationism as we focus more on internal matters and avoid international affairs and interests. A more controlled ABC probably by a reduction in funding and removing that nasty ‘leftie’ influence.

This book shows Cory Bernardi to be an ideologue. As a result his capacity for intelligent debate, reasoned decision-making, creative thought, compromise and negotiation is seriously impaired. There is no middle ground for this man in a world where the middle ground is where good government policy is often developed. One can only hope that those within his own party will continue to recognise how deeply flawed is this man’s ideological position. If they are were not concerned before they should be after reading this book.

Read more The Conservative Revolution book reviews