Former Liberal MP Julia Banks (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Former Liberal MP Julia Banks doesn’t see Prime Minister Scott Morrison winning the next election. Women are abandoning the Coalition in droves, with the government’s primary vote slashed from 41% to 37% among female voters since the last election, amid a series of sexual harassment and assault scandals in the party, and the bungling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. 

“Morrison just sheds his accountability. We saw it in the bushfires, in the vaccine rollout and we certainly saw it in respect to gender equality,” Banks told Crikey in an exclusive interview.  

“Sometimes it takes time but, especially on gender equality, I do believe people have seen through his mismanagement.”

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Banks has been called a “rich bitch” a “bully”, a “nasty” “crazy corporate” woman who needs to be controlled. She’s been repeatedly questioned about her devotion to motherhood, told she “owes” the Liberal Party and alleges Morrison tried to hide her away when she did not vote for him during the 2017 leadership spill. 

In her new book Power Play Banks lays out the controlling, demeaning and bullying tactics in politics — but occasionally falls prey to the snide sexism she seeks to call out. Banks tells Crikey the heightened toxicity and control under Morrison and defends calling out women who bend to bullying.

The whole spectrum of sexist insults

Banks was the only Liberal MP to win a seat from Labor at the 2016 election — her first term in politics after leaving a career as a corporate lawyer. She quit the Liberal Party following the Morrison leadership spill before sitting briefly as an independent until the 2019 election. 

Despite the numerous examples of sexism under Turnbull’s leadership — including one MP arguing allowing Banks to cross-examine CEOs as part of the banking inquiry would come off as “burn the bra aggressive-ish” — Banks said as Morrison rose to power, the culture of the Liberal Party worsened. 

She said Morrison was quick to clamp down on women who called out the Liberal Party’s toxic culture. Lucy Gichuhi, Linda Reynolds, Kelly O’Dwyer, and Julie Bishop each spoke out about bullying following the leadership spill, though soon walked back their claims (aside from Bishop who left politics, followed closely by Gichuhi).

“Almost immediately Reynolds had a meeting with Morrison and all these people who called out the behaviour … and then suddenly she says, ‘we have to handle this internally’ and then she gets promoted,” Banks said. 

“It was almost like Morrison went through them one by one … all the Liberal women who stayed in Parliament, all of them basically went underground.”

Banks said Morrison was fond of reminding her, in a “Trumpesque tone”, that he was the prime minister.

When she told Morrison she was leaving the party, Banks said she was offered a position in New York as a UN delegate, which she believes was an attempt to hide her away.

As she stood her ground, agreeing not to speak to the media for 24 hours while Morrison got his ducks in a row, his team started backgrounding journalists about her. Banks said she started getting concerned calls from friends and colleagues as Morrison labelled her someone whose welfare was at stake. As she stood her ground, the rhetoric shifted, and she was soon labelled as a bully.

“I was taken through this whole sexist spectrum, which went slowly but surely from, ‘she’s weak as a petal’ … to ‘she’s not going to go away, she’s a bully.’” 

Even after she became an independent, she said she had to weed out Liberal Party plants, receiving vile social media threats.

“[Their tactics] went way beyond the normal, traditional dirty tricks that major parties play against each other.” 

Calling out women who ‘defer to the patriarchy’ 

But Banks occasionally resorts to sexist rhetoric herself. In her book, Bank recalls being asked by an opposition male MP during the midwinter ball whether she uses “really strong hair dye” to cover her grey roots. Perturbed, she turns to the woman next to her, who asks which electorate her husband is the MP for. Banks retorts: “I’m the MP here. He’s my handbag, like you are to your husband.”

In another instance following the leadership coup, she describes how a female MP asked other Liberal women into her office for afternoon tea, purportedly to discuss the toxicity of the workplace. 

“[She messaged] with that faux-chirpy Stepford-wife tone of ‘nothing to see here’,” Banks writes in her book. “The last thing I felt like was talking about the boys’ club over a cup of tea and biscuits.”

When pressed on whether this behaviour is symptomatic of the sexist culture in Parliament, Banks said she’s calling out women purporting sexist tropes — especially when it comes to other Liberal MPs.

“There are women in our midst who basically defer to the patriarchy,” she said. 

“I don’t think it’s misdirected rage to call another woman out, who assumes you’re not the MP. I just think you’ve got to call people out, whether they’re men or women.”

Politics is brutal — but we need circuit breakers

Banks has been a long-standing advocate for gender quotas in the Liberal Party, arguing diversity and equality are key to successful workplaces. They’re also key to women’s safety: Banks recounts one incident where MPs were having a late-night drink in Turnbull’s office while waiting for a vote to be called. Another male MP put his hand on her leg and ran it up her thigh. Banks quickly stood up and found another woman in the room and asked her to keep talking to her until the male MP had moved elsewhere. 

“This is critical to everything, and I will argue this until the day I die. If you have gender-equal leadership it does make all the difference, and until we have that we won’t have a healthy workplace culture in Parliament House,” she said.

When asked whether she would advise women to enter politics, Banks hesitated. 

“I would say make sure the leader is aligned to your values, and pick someone you can trust. Pick the party carefully,” she said. She believes more progressive, pro-climate politicians are needed to level the playing field in Parliament.

“The balance of power, I really think that’s the future,” she said.

Banks now runs a consultancy business, is a keynote speaker, and said a return to politics is not off the table. 

Morrison’s office has been contacted for comment.

Power Play by Julia Banks is published by Hardie Grant Books and is out July 7.

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Peter Fray
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