A skilled rower in earlier life, Bernardi knows, as does any competent paddler, that there is nothing illogical about looking backwards to make progress: ‘Conservatism is not backward looking [he says]. It respects the past and looks to the future’. The Conservative Revolution thus encourages adherence to moral principles that have stood the test of time. The author’s argument is that if these values are held firm to, then the conservative can withstand ‘attacks’ (a word Bernardi uses more than once) from the so-called ‘cultural Marxists’, the ‘leftists’.
The Conservative Revolution does not shun difficult (and diverse) topics such as the relationship between church and state, abortion, human cloning, climate change, republicanism, Islam, the role of the transcendent in Australians’ lives or the importance of thriving small businesses for a robust economy. Indeed, the book addresses these topics directly and boldly. This is an unashamedly muscular attempt by a man who believes in the (Christian) moral values he espouses and who, plainly, feels free to speak his mind.
Those expecting to find a book largely devoid of references or based on information sourced predominantly from Tea Party websites, may be surprised to find that Bernardi’s work includes a more than modest number of references to published works. Many of the works Bernardi cites are, however, dated and the author often fails to acknowledge alternative viewpoints. Take, for example, Bernardi’s reference to CS Lewis’ work The Abolition of Man which Bernardi quotes to support his view that all moral order has its genesis in belief in a (Christian) god. (Bernardi refers to a 1973 edition of Lewis’ book; Lewis, however, first published the work in 1943). There are more contemporary publications (eg, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality: 2004) which cogently present the opposite position to Lewis’, none of which is acknowledged in Bernardi’s book.
Bernardi’s Christian views sometimes lead him to overstate his case. One such instance is Bernardi’s account of Australia’s Constitution. According to Bernardi, the Constitution, ‘affirmed our status as a nation … established “under God”’. This finding leads the author to assert that Australia’s ‘constitutional order … has as its central organising principle a liberty that revolves around an idea which transcends individual desire or personal whim’. While the Preamble to the Constitution acknowledges ‘Almighty God’ and the reference to god was, in part, the result of lobbying efforts by Christians, there is no evidence that Australia’s Constitution is founded on a transcendent Being. One might have thought that an experienced lawmaker like Bernardi would have a more accurate understanding of the place of religion in Australia’s Constitution.
Bernardi furnishes many of his arguments with the refrain: ‘This is why we need a conservative revolution’. I had thought I understood what Bernardi had in mind. Namely, by adhering to well established moral traditions, the conservative could revolutionise society by credibly debating (and thereby countering) so-called leftist causes, whether they be gay marriage, republicanism, increased government welfare, tax increases or fairer workplace relations laws. I was, however, puzzled to find later in the book the statement, ‘Revolution is not in our [Australian] spirit …’. Bernardi is referring at that point to the kind of revolution that involves gulags, killing fields or guillotines. The notion of a nation without any spirit for revolution unfortunately left me wondering how much spirit there was in Bernardi’s conservative revolution and whether a better description of his position might be conservative reflections.
MITCHELL LANDRIGAN is a Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law University of Technology Sydney, and part-time PhD student at UNSW Law School.