Julia Banks, Teresa Gambaro and Sophie Mirabella (Images: AAP)

Over the last few days, Inq has made contact with the majority of female Liberal MPs who have lost federal office in the last 10 years.

What has emerged is a trail of early warnings of gender problems within the party — and at the same time a lack of action on those warnings.

What also emerged is a mixed-bag of those who are prepared to publicly criticise the party that helped put them into power, and those who aren’t; perhaps, in part, due to party loyalty.

In some cases the Liberal Party has endowed its former members with plum government jobs as part of a career ecosystem that covers backroom jobs, parliamentary representation, access to business networks and, importantly, a range of paid appointments to tribunals, authorities, commissions, advisory committees, boards and the like.

More often than not these plum jobs are at the gift of the party hierarchy with no transparent process and are simply a reward for party service. Canberra insiders point out that all parties do it, but the practice has undeniably accelerated under the Coalition governments of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

There are also telling contrasts in how former members are treated. Sophie Mirabella, who took part in the 2011 “ditch the witch” protest against then-prime minister Julia Gillard, is to take up a powerful and well-paid appointment at the Fair Work Commission. Julia Banks, who objected to gender-driven bullying, was forced out of the party altogether.

It raises the key question of whether or not this form of party patronage — and the lure of post-politics employment — stops insiders from rocking the boat and pushing for change. If so it is a problem of process corruption that is inseparable from the party’s pervasive sexism.

Here are the former Liberals who were spoken to or contacted by Inq.

Queensland

Sue Boyce

There have been clear signals of serious problems with the Liberal Party and LNP’s handling of gender questions in Queensland from as early as 2014, when senator Sue Boyce finished up her stint in Canberra’s upper house.

On the way out she dispensed some home truths to the party. “Once I leave there will be no LNP women in the Senate,” she said. “So I figure I have failed. But so, I think, has our party at both the state and the federal level. It is obvious that if we want more women in cabinet we need more women in parliament. The current 22% figure is just not good enough. Improving this pathetic figure must be the job of every party member and every party employee.”

Since leaving parliament Boyce has taken over full time as chair of her family’s highly successful business. She was also offered an appointment at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) though had done “very little” with the tribunal and not worked on any cases. She felt free to speak publicly on the government’s gender issues.

Boyce told Inq that leadership on female representation needed to come from “the top”. “We hear of a need for ‘women with merit’ but not ‘men with merit’,” she said.

In her view the party needed targets for change, as happens in corporate Australia.

“Why don’t we have a plan to make change happen?” she asked.

Teresa Gambaro

In 2016 one of the few LNP women in the Parliament, Teresa Gambaro, retired as MP for the seat of Brisbane and was replaced by National Retail Association CEO Trevor Evans.

Gambaro has since made it her business to make cultural change to politics from the outside. She is one of a number of senior cross-party women working to foster female representation in politics under Queensland University of Technology’s Pathways to Politics program. A key is to give younger women the confidence to take on what can be a brutal experience.

Gambaro’s main interests now include a family business, a national not-for-profit organisation and a consultancy dealing mainly with corporate clients. She is not reliant for an income on any government appointment and speaks plainly about the need for change.

“The numbers are abysmal,” she told Inq. “There are only 14 women amongst the Liberal and LNP members in the lower house (out of a total of 66 members).”

It’s left her thinking seriously for the first time about the party setting targets.

Jane Prentice

In April 2019 Queensland LNP MP Jane Prentice rose in federal Parliament to deliver the farewell speech she had not wished to give.

“Clearly I am disappointed to be leaving this way,” Prentice told the House of Representatives after losing out on party preselection to a (male) former staffer. She represented her electorate for nine years.

Prentice had a strong message for the House and her party: “Impatient ambition, treachery and lies are now more than ever part of our political fabric,” she said. “For the only response to be, ‘Oh, come on, that’s politics,’ is actually very sad. It is also sad that we are increasingly seeing candidates and elected members whose primary focus is not a desire to serve their communities but to serve themselves.”

Prentice did not frame her preselection loss as a gender power play within the party. But others did. North Queensland MP Michelle Landry, who is still in Parliament, said at the time that she was “totally appalled” at Prentice’s dumping.

“I’ve had young females in the party ring me up saying ‘we’re going to resign, we’ve had enough’, and I said, ‘no don’t — we’ve got to fight this’,” she told the ABC. “We’ve got to build more women into the party.”

Similarly, Queensland MP Warren Entsch called it a “bloody disgrace”.

Prentice started with the Young Liberals and eventually rose to become an assistant minister for social services and disability services. Yet none of this counted when she attempted to revive her political career at the beginning of last year. She failed to win party preselection for a Brisbane council ward.

At the age of 67 Prentice was late last year given a plum role at the AAT as a full time member for five years on a salary of up to $250,000 per year. Then-attorney-general Christian Porter appointed Prentice without any independent interview process and simply asserted it was done on merit.

Prentice declined to speak to Inq about the government’s gender issues.

NSW

Anne Sudmalis

As Queensland flagged its problems going back to 2014, in NSW MP Anne Sudmalis was going through her own pain from the time she was elected to federal parliament in 2013.

Sudmalis served two terms, finally calling time in 2019 after what she told Inq was “a gender power play” at electorate level. She said she was a victim of ego-driven bullying, betrayal and backstabbing.

“It was not by federal colleagues but state colleagues,” Sudmalis said. “It was absolutely gender-based and it was a painful situation for six years.” That situation became very pointed for the Liberal Party as it parachuted in Warren Mundine as the replacement candidate.

Sudmalis doesn’t want her story to get in the way of the younger women she sees as spearheading change, so is reluctant to speak of her battles. But she predicted that the movement now underway would change “not just the political landscape with respect to government but also the cultural landscape across Australia”.

Asked if she had any government appointments which might hold her back from speaking frankly, Sudmalis let out a laugh. “I don’t,” she said, “but even if I did I would say what I thought.”

Karen McNamara

Karen McNamara was also elected in the Abbott victory of 2013. She served one term in the lower house. Later, in 2017, the Turnbull government appointed her as a member of the AAT for a period of seven years.

McNamara did not answer Inq’s request for comment on the party’s current gender issues.

Louise Markus

Louise Markus lost her seat in 2016, after more than a decade in parliament.

By the end of 2016 she had been appointed by the federal health minister as chair of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a part-time position with total pay of $84,000 a year.

Inq was told Markus was “not available” for comment.

Victoria

Julia Banks

Julia Banks was elected in 2016 but quit the party in 2018 to become an independent following the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull. Banks was one of a number of Liberal women who came under heavy pressure from male colleagues to elect their factional candidate, rather than the only female candidate Julie Bishop, as Turnbull’s replacement. At the time Banks declared respect for women in Australian politics was “years behind the business world”.

(The Turnbull episode proved to be briefly climactic. Jobs minister Kelly O’Dwyer reportedly said the party was viewed as “anti-women” and South Australian Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi said the party had to “stop beating up our women”. Yet there was no change.)

Banks has repeated her critique of the Liberal Party. In a recent column she wrote that Parliament House was “a place with a toxic, masculine, anti-women workplace culture, which has flourished in the last two years in particular, like house mould. It has flourished because it is not properly dealt with.”

Banks describes herself as a businesswoman, lawyer, and governance, risk and crisis management expert. She has no known government appointments and appears to have been given no favours.

Helen Kroger

Helen Kroger, a lifelong Liberal Party member, lost her Senate spot at the 2013 election.

Kroger was made a part-time member of the AAT in 2017. She was also appointed as chair of commissioners for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, a part-time role with an annual salary of $77,000 per year.

In an email to Inq Kroger disagreed that the promise of a post-politics role might act as a disincentive to “rock the boat”.

“No,” she wrote, “freedom of speech is a basic tenet of (the) Liberal Party.”

Kroger pointed out that she had been “public in [her] observations” about allegations affecting the Liberal Party, calling it “disgraceful behaviour of a small minority [which was] casting a shadow over the whole Parliament”. She said she supported the inquiry into workplace culture.

Helen Coonan

Helen Coonan retired from the Senate as a senior Liberal in 2011. Since then she has occupied major corporate roles, including executive chair of Crown Resorts and chair of the Minerals Council of Australia. In 2018 she was appointed by the government as non-executive chair of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.

Coonan “politely declined” Inq‘s request for comment.

Sophie Mirabella

Sophie Mirabella was the only sitting Liberal member of the House of Representatives to lose her seat at the 2013 election.

In 2011, Mirabella fronted a protest against the Gillard government, appearing with Tony Abbott in front of a “ditch the witch” sign, and another banner labelling Gillard as then-Greens leader Bob Brown’s “bitch”.

Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill has accused Mirabella of making disparaging remarks towards women while in politics. “She referred to [former Labor minister Kate Ellis] by saying ‘here comes the weather girl’,” Senator O’Neill reportedly told Parliament.

Mirabella was appointed to the board of the Australian Submarine Corporation in 2013 with a director’s fee of just over $71,000 a year. Last week it was reported that she had been chosen by an on-leave Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter as one of five new commissioners to join the Fair Work Commission. (Mirabella has been working with iron ore billionaire Gina Rinehart.)

Mirabella’s pay will be $387,000 if appointed a commissioner and $470,000 if she is made a deputy commissioner.

The NT

Natasha Griggs

Northern Territory MP Natasha Griggs lost her seat in 2016. She was later appointed by the Turnbull government as the administrator of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, covering Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Griggs was on leave and not available to answer Inq’s questions this week.

Inq approached former foreign minister Julie Bishop’s office for comment but got no response. We also attempted unsuccessfully to get through to former Victorian MP Kelly O’Dwyer as well as Sophie Mirabella.

As Inq was researching this article, the following happened: federal Queensland LNP member Andrew Laming was revealed as a serial harasser of women, including taking an “upskirt” photograph of a woman bending over in a store. He is now on medical leave and will not contest the next election. In NSW, National Party MP Michael Johnsen has resigned over allegations he assaulted a sex worker (allegations Johnsen denies) and sought to have sex services in the Parliament.

These add to earlier cases including that of Victorian National Party MP Andrew Broad who resigned in 2018 after it was revealed he had a secret “sugar daddy” liaison with a woman while in Hong Kong on official business.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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