Wednesday, 4 December 2019
A month or so ago I turned 50 and my mother gave me my secondary school reports. To be frank, reading them only highlighted just how incredible it is that I am actually a senator at all. The teachers' comments were basically code for 'Your son is an opinionated pain in the backside.' Not much has changed, some might think. It was clear that I was a rebel of sorts, albeit I didn't have much of a cause at the time. That changed, of course, in the mid-1980s, when one of my teachers invited a few of us to attend our first ever political fundraiser. The real drawcard on the flier was a fully stocked fridge included as part of the admission price. 'Cool!' I thought. At 16, a political fundraiser and all the beer you can drink—what more can you ask for? So we paid our money and we turned up, only to find out that Fully Stocked Fridge was actually the name of a band, and the beers were frightfully expensive. It was only after that that I realised it was a fundraiser for the Socialist Alliance. I discovered my cause: the falsehoods of socialism. They were on full view. I remember it to this day.
Don't worry, this is not going to be another speech about the failures of socialism or a lecture on climate change, Marxism or the evil of higher taxes. You shall be spared another sermon on the institutional failings of government and why we need to feed the freedom machine. You've heard my comments on these too many times before, and some of you could probably repeat them verbatim. Instead, tonight I would like to reflect on what has been the experience of a lifetime.
When I first came into this place, in May 2006, I joined three great political friends. Nick Minchin was and continues to be a generous mentor. He is here with us today. Nick taught me the art of how to get things done in this place. He taught me when to push hard and when to let go. Actually, that's not true; I picked up the pushing hard bit, but the letting go might need a bit more tutelage, Nick!
Another is of course Alan Ferguson, a former Senate President. Alan piqued my interest in the workings of the Senate and he taught me that, no matter what level of responsibilities we may be entrusted with by others, our roles are equally important in this place. Alan and I agreed on nearly everything, but one day we found ourselves sitting on opposite sides of the chamber on a matter of conscience. His side won that ballot by a single vote. I have to tell you it was very confronting to be voting against my great friend, but it reaffirmed to me the importance of recognising that just because someone has a different point of view to you, it doesn't make them your enemy.
The third was Liberal Whip Jeannie Ferris. She was a bit of a legend. She was tough, she was very funny and she was the canniest of political operators. Jeannie unfortunately died of ovarian cancer whilst serving in office during my first year here. We had a day of condolences and many genuine and heartfelt contributions were made, and the Senate adjourned as a matter of respect. But the next day the machinery kicked into gear once again as if nothing had changed. That was my greatest and most important political lesson. That experience demonstrated to me that none of us here is indispensable. Sure, we hold important positions, but we are only temporary custodians of those positions, and it is critical for all of us to use our time here as well as we can and protect the institution that allows us to be here—our wonderful parliamentary democracy. That institution doesn't function without the contribution of so many. For those of us here, we see the toil and the sacrifice others make so that we can do our thing, and sometimes even appear good at what we do. So tonight I want to record my heartfelt thanks for the most amazing working experience that any Australian can aspire to.
In saying that, I've got to deal with the elephant in the room: on 4 May 2006 I was selected as a Liberal and on 4 December 2019 I leave as an Independent. Others will make up their own minds about the events that transpired, and I know not a single mind will be changed by anything that I say today or at any other time. However, suffice to say, I made choices that I thought were necessary and in the best interests of the country. Those choices were very difficult for me and for my family. They were painful for many friends and colleagues. It's fair to say I lost both during the events of 2017. But those that remain mean infinitely more to me than those that I lost. My thanks go to the men and women of the Liberal Party for the opportunity that they provided to me. For whatever it's worth, I've done my best to uphold the principles upon which that great party was built. And while our paths diverged, my traditional Liberal values never changed. It gives me great pleasure to see that those values are somewhat stronger in the party now than they have been in recent times. I hope that continues. I hope it continues to be the case, and I wish the Prime Minister and the coalition every continuing success.
But back to those who really matter and make our roles easier here. The Senate team, under the leadership of the Clerk, Richard Pye, do an amazing job. Their calmness and forbearance is the stuff of legend and they can always be relied on in a crisis. Of course, I've experienced one or two crises in my time here myself. I recall one such emergency, a dire time when I needed to iron a shirt. It was in my first weeks here. I asked the Black Rod if I could borrow an iron and an ironing board. As always, they obliged. They provided that iron and ironing board. I'm delighted to announce tonight that tomorrow morning, after more than 13 years of faithful service, I shall be returning both to the Black Rod.
Now, this chamber doesn't function without the tireless work of the attendants, who I think should receive a medal for the fortitude with which they perform their roles, and for putting up with us. I couldn't give them a medal, and instead I chose to distribute chocolate frogs every fortnight to help keep them sweet. Secretly—are you listening to this?—I was hoping they'd reciprocate and deliver a daily gin and tonic during question time, but so far no such luck! To John and the team, you are amazing. You have been incredible. You have made me feel so welcome. And just a little reminder: you've got one more day to make my dream come true.
There are many others here who make this place what it is. The security team have been fantastic, the Comcar drivers superb and Dom, Tony and the rest of the crew at Aussies have never failed to make every morning that little bit brighter. My thanks go to them all.
Outside of this place, there are so many that play an active role in helping us to do our jobs—some that are not acknowledged, but to me they're important. The team at the AFP have been just amazing during some rather challenging times. They were always there, willing and able to assist my family and my staff. I cannot thank them enough for the comfort and peace of mind they've provided over the years. Similarly, Ben and the team at MAPS in South Australia have been a delight to deal with, and they've always responded to our many queries with great patience.
May I also thank each and every one of you in this chamber who have served here past and present. It has been a pleasure to serve with you all. The political battles have been glorious in victory and in defeat. My gratitude extends even to my opponents, who, it may surprise some of you to know, are not all confined to the opposition side of the chamber! You have all forced me to develop the characteristics I admire most in others: resilience and accountability. Whilst on occasion you may have drawn a little bit of blood, overall it was your opposition that made me stronger and more determined.
To the many new friends that I've made in my time here, thank you. Not long after I started, a small group of us forged the strongest of bonds over our opposition to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. I suspect that the complete account of that bond will never be publicly known, but it withstood all the tests that were thrown at it by the vicissitudes of politics. We had an enormous amount of fun and I think we really did change the course of political history. It's also fair to say that some subsequent events and individual decisions strained the ties that bound us so tightly, but I will never ever forget the solidarity we showed to each other during an extraordinary time. It started as the G4—Mathias, Michaelia, myself and David Bushby. It later became the G8, when others joined us. Then, of course, we teamed up with a couple of Nats to make things really interesting.
There aren't many of that original group left in this place, but the friendships with Mitch and Fiona and David and Barnaby and Brett and Stephen endure today. To Eric and Connie and Scott who are still here, thank you for your friendship. There are, however, a couple of the original 'awesome foursome' who are will still here. To the sister I never had: Michaelia, thanks for being such a good sport about pretty much everything. I knew our friendship was unbreakable when you actually took me to a vegetarian restaurant and I forgave you for it! Mathias, you have been the coalition's Rock of Gibraltar—or whatever the Belgian equivalent is—my friend. You deserve all the success you've enjoyed in this place, and I wish you and your family every best wish for whatever the future holds.
There have been plenty of other mates on both sides of the chamber, the political divide, over my years here, but one is particularly notable because, to be frank, he was a centrepiece of one of my most successful political campaigns. It involves a friend of mine from the other side, and that's Senator Farrell. It's fair to say that Don Farrell has had an interrupted tenure in the Senate, and during his wilderness years, when others had forgotten him, I was the Senate keeper of the 'Farrell flame'. Nary a question time passed without me calling for his return and asking Labor, 'What would Don do? ' As a cheer squad of one, I have to tell you even I was surprised when he actually got back, but it has been good to have you back, Don. I only wish a few more on your side felt the same way I do!
Some people are going to say it's a bit strange that firm friendships are forged across the political divide, and it's enough to say that the nature of politics mattered less than the content of our character in those friendships and the respect that we've had for each other. For someone who doesn't like being lied to—I probably picked the wrong business—of all the people I grew close to in this place, never did any of them do me the discourtesy of not telling me the truth. They never scarified our friendship for political expediency even under very trying times. For that alone they have my respect.
After 30-odd years in this political game, I like to think I've got a pretty good eye for the political potential of others, and I have to say that I like what I see from so many here in the Senate. To them I say: be bold, be strong, be honest with your colleagues and be true to yourself and know that, when your time comes, like it has mine, you will only ever regret the things you chose not to say. If only I'd known that all those years ago, you can imagine the result.
To the troops of the fourth estate, where do I start? I naively thought that knowing so many of you from my days as a publican might prove for a smoother ride. After all, I came here privy to all the secrets you spilled after the truth of a pay packet invested in wine generated. Fat lot of good that did me though! In fact, I think that you knowing that I knew what you were really like simply seemed to focus your aim on me. Yes, you know who I'm talking about up there, but, rest assured you're not alone; there's a large contingent, there are plenty of your contemporaries in that same boat. It hasn't been a dull ride for either of us, if I might say, but, looking back through the files of media and political outrage that I seem to generate so readily, what caused such angst in years past has now become the subject of much more rational discussion. The rise of China, the impact of migration, the challenges to our social mores, climate change, the culture wars, Islam, fathers, mothers, marriage, border protection, burqas, Hillary Clinton and even Donald Trump—I could go on and on—all caused such a kerfuffle for offending those who have so little to worry about that they actually worry about very little. Yet, despite the clear differences in our world view, I've enjoyed the company and camaraderie of so many of those working in the gallery. They are overwhelmingly professional and committed to their craft.
That takes me to some of the people who mean the most to me outside of this place. My parents Jo and Leon have lived this amazing journey with me from day one. I actually think they experienced the highs and lows more vividly than I did, but they were always there to offer support or an extra pair of hands whenever it was needed. My brother Marcus, a second-generation publican, has always provided a safe haven from politics over a steak during our regular lunches. I have also been blessed with some incredibly loyal and true friends. The fact that they've never wavered during the turbulent times in my political career demonstrates how loyal they are. One poor chap keeps having his Wikipedia entry edited with the line, 'He's a lifelong friend of Cory Bernardi,' added to it. This is just a cruel attempt to stifle his corporate career. I know now that he's a true mate because he's stopped trying to delete it. To Gal and Carmen, Andrew and Liz, Bill and Imelda, Dusko and Di, Tom and Myriam, Simon and Ginia, Vaughn and Carolina, Terry and Donna, John and Di, Mel and Morry, Marg, Lyn and John, and Tony and so many more: thank you for being there during the good times and the bad times. I only hope that I have been as good to you as you have been to me.
Speaking of good, how good are my staff? My hiring policy was always to provide an opportunity to those who were looking for a break, and to cultivate talent. The first-time jobseeker, the career changer, the uni student, the later-in-life job entrant all were welcome if they could handle the three iron rules of engagement in the Bernardi office: No. 1, yes, it really is all about me; No. 2, I didn't say it was your fault, I just said I'm going to blame you; and, No. 3, which I'll have to listen to today, crying in front of me doesn't make anything better. Some survived and thrived in such an environment, but at least they all knew what they were getting into. Many have gone on to hold political office themselves or excel in their chosen careers post politics. Every single one of them has left a lasting impression on me, and I consider myself to be very fortunate to have shared the experience of working with them. But two special mentions must be made. The first is to Shari Savio, whose youthful ambition of working for the History Channel is still a work in progress. Instead, she's been making a little bit of political history with me for the past 10 years or more. Shari has always been an amazing person. Optimistic, happy, loyal and generous, she has this masterful way of softening whatever blow she has to deliver. It usually begins like this: 'I know what you're trying to do, Cory, but'. If only I'd listened more often—hey, Shari?—who knows what might have been. I'd like also to pay tribute to Chris Browne, who pretty much joined me in the very beginning in this place. It's a credit to him and his talent that he has now risen to a very senior position in the government. Chris, you're an outstanding individual and I wish you the very best.
Speaking about standing, my two amazing sons are with us today. Oscar and Harvey were only six and four when I started here. Now they are university students, and just looking at them makes me want to burst with pride. Boys, I know there have been some difficult times for you because of my work here, but your strength and your character in dealing with the burdens unfairly placed upon your shoulders is testament to the boys you were and the men you have become. I'm so very proud of you both, and I only hope you will look back on my contribution here and think the price that you've been asked to pay has been worthwhile.
That brings me to the most important individual in my life, my wife, Sinead. A lesser husband would have baulked when his wife told a Labor-leaning journalist that the secret to our successful marriage is that we are both actually in love with the same man. But not me! No, no, no—I commend Sinead for her honesty, her insight and her good humour! Sinead is the most amazing person I know. She continues to be my best friend and my confidante in all things. As a wife and a mother, I could not have asked for any better. And during my political service, the only time I detected any real despair from Sinead was when I got a desperate phone call late one evening saying she had to send the new puppy back because it was too much work and making such a mess. I quietly explained to her that with puppies, like with politicians, the chaos and noise eventually pass and things will soon return to normal. I can tell you all that the dog is now fine, but the husband might need a little bit of extra training! Sinead, thank you for everything. I would be nothing without you.
During my time in this place, I seem to have had my hand in in a number of notable events. That wasn't always by design, but, always knowing that our time here is finite, I simply never wanted to walk lightly through these corridors wondering, 'What if?' Looking back, I'd like to think I took Kipling's words to heart in that here I met both triumph and disaster and treated those two imposters just the same. That said, it isn't for me to pass judgement on my contribution over the years. However, I do want to conclude by reflecting on the very nature of success. Each of us will have different measures of what it means to be a success, but, when I think about the difficult life of modern politics, if you can get through it without harbouring malice or discontent you have achieved success. If you can end your time here with more firm friendships than when you began, that too is a good measure of success. And if you can leave the Canberra bubble with your marriage stronger, a family you are truly proud of, and completely at peace with yourself, that to me is the ultimate measure of success. Friends, I have been blessed to have been part of this place since 2006, and I walk away with all of these treasures and many, many more. For that, I thank the people of South Australia, I thank the Liberal Party and I thank my friends and my family. I thank every one of you, and every day I give thanks to God. Thank you.
Honourable senators: Hear, hear!