Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger was dismissive yesterday of Julia Banks’ claims about bullying within the Liberal Party. “We haven’t received any complaints ourselves down here in the Victoria division about any behaviour that would concern us so we are not aware of exactly what Julia is talking about,” he said. “This is politics. People speak strongly. People raise their voices, well so they should if great matters of state are at play.”
Former senator Helen Kroger, who heads the party’s women’s council, was equally dismissive. Politics was a “rough and tough game”, she said, adding pointedly, “politics is clearly not for everyone”.
“Not for everyone.” Participating in our democracy is “not for everyone”.
Banks’ announced departure and the reaction to it — NSW MP Craig Kelly also told her she should “roll with the punches” — has been seen in the context of the Liberal Party’s widely acknowledged problem in attracting women. The party now once again offers two middle-aged white men as its leader and deputy leader and the party’s most senior woman has retired in disgust to the backbench and may well leave politics altogether. That the Liberals aren’t within cooee of achieving the level of female representation in their ranks that John Howard managed 20 years ago is a damning indictment of the kind of culture and values of the party’s divisions. That female MPs were bullied during last week’s leadership idiocy will plainly do nothing to help that.
But what of the wider issue of political participation by all of us? Australians have been turning their backs on politics for decades. First we stopped joining political parties. Then we started voting for minor parties. Then many of us began submitting informal votes, or not voting at all, or not registering to vote. In 2016, turnout dropped more than two percentage points to 91% despite compulsory voting. Turnout fell a further seven points at the recent Braddon by-election into which both sides poured massive resources.
Politics not being for everyone is clearly a sentiment that many potential voters increasingly agree — they don’t think it’s for them either.
Banks is a particular loss because she had a successful career before deciding to have a crack at politics. She decided to serve not because she wanted a job, or had only ever worked in politics and didn’t know what else to do, but because she wanted to improve her country. Ditto Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull can sit enjoying his harbour view for the rest of his life and still die a wealthy man but he wanted to serve. Yes, of course, part of that was his unbridled ambition to be prime minister. But how many other figures in recent politics have had a successful career before public life? It used to be the rule. Now it’s the exception.
People should indeed be passionate about politics. But that’s different to the bullying and harassment that goes on in the major parties. There’s passionate advocacy for a cause, and there’s threatening people or trying to intimidate them, and if you can’t tell the difference, or you think the difference can be glossed over as “rough and tumble”, then you are guaranteeing that fewer people will be interested in entering politics — especially successful people who have plenty of things to pursue in other fields should they so desire. As Katharine Murphy showed in an excellent piece last year, politics is a toxic enough workplace even without bullying.
But the Krogers know all this perfectly well. Why, then, be so dismissive? As factional leaders and powerbrokers within the Liberal Party, they also know that managing a political party is much easier if it is smaller and more docile. Having large numbers of people join a party because they genuinely want to participate, rather than as a factional stack, complicates life. And even more so if people who are talented, successful and independent-minded join. They’re even harder to control and a greater threat to powerbrokers. In our system of guaranteed public funding for parties, they don’t need large participation to be successful. And encouraging participation is inimical to their interests.