An audible murmur of discomfort ripples through the audience at the Australian National University’s Kambri Cultural Centre as former Liberal MP Julia Banks describes being verbally abused and told she was a “pighead,” by a male Liberal staffer inside her own home.
Her son, who was upstairs studying at the time, was so worried about the tone of the abuse and his mother’s wellbeing, he came running downstairs to check she was alright.
Speaking at her first public event to promote her new book Power Play—a work that delves into the toxic workplace culture in Parliament House and misogyny inside politics—Julia tells host Virginia Haussegger similar verbal abuse occurred on numerous occasions after she won Liberal preselection in the Federal seat of Chisolm. She went on to win the long-held ALP seat in 2016.
According to Julia, one branch official told her she’d be a “fucking hopeless MP” because she refused to lie to constituents. Along similar lines, Virginia pulls out another anecdote from Julia’s book and notes: “One of the young fellows told you to stop acting like a fucking CEO.”
“Yes,” Julia agrees, reflecting that as someone who came from both the corporate and legal worlds, she made the mistaken assumption that “…the Liberal Party would be a slick corporate machine, and would have some semblance of governance.”
According to Julia, nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most horrifying incidents in her book describes the moment Julia found herself in the Prime Minister’s suite with all the other MPs eating and drinking, waiting for a late-night vote. Before she knew it, a male minister put his hand on her knee and ran it up her thigh.
“It was astoundingly brazen,” she recalls, “I just froze.”
After taking a moment to gather herself on that horrific evening, Julia did manage to remove herself from the situation. But she couldn’t sleep that night: “I just thought: ‘Imagine what happens to other staffers or press gallery journalists who don’t have the position of status I have’.”
Since the publication of her book, some journalists have been pressuring Julia to reveal the identity of this man. “I was never going to name the person,” she says and goes on to explain that if she did go public, the perpetrator would likely deny it and she may well come under legal attack for defamation.
“I don’t have the stomach to put myself [and] my family through legal proceedings,” she says.
Then a moment later she reflects: “I’m sure this sort of behaviour happens…in Parliament every single sitting day and night. I have no doubt about that.”
Attracted to the “progressive, centrist views” of Liberal politicians Kelly O’Dwyer, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Julia left her successful career in the legal and corporate worlds and initially joined the Liberal Party back in 2015. After all, the party was calling for more women.
But after her pre-selection in Chisolm, Julia tells the Canberra audience that very quickly, young male apparatchiks swept in and started ordering her around, demanding she stop talking to her constituents about the economy and instead focus on toilet blocks, shopping centres and being the ‘barrel girl’ for local raffles.
Virginia summarises this to the audience as: “Shut up and smile more [and] be a good girl.”
In the face of this pressure, Julia claims she “never stopped advocating” for her principles of multiculturalism and gender equality in the face of the constant pressure from within the party to take more hardline political views.
Despite her passion for quotas, she was asked by those inside the Liberal Party not to publicly mention the “Q-word” because they were “a Labor thing”. In response to her support for marriage equality, she says State Liberal MPs wrote Facebook posts suggesting “these Canberra politicians don’t know what they’re doing.”
In her book, Julia describes Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “menacing, controlling wallpaper”—commentary that has attracted a tonne of attention from the public, the press and the ABC’s ‘Mad as Hell’ comedy program hosted by Shaun Micallef.
By way of explaining what she means, Julia adds that she found the Prime Minister “intense and almost suffocating.”
She tells the audience Scott Morrison’s office tried to control her resignation from the Liberal Party in 2018. He wanted to control the timing of her departure and see her exit speech—both requests that she refused. He told her: “Julia, you can’t do this. You’ve got to wait two months.”
When she again refused, he allegedly said to her on the phone: “Julia, I am the Prime Minister.”
Julia did agree to give Scott Morrison 24 hours to gather himself and write his public statement—something she now realises was a tactical mistake.
She details how the PM’s office used this time to background against her to the media and spin a public narrative that she couldn’t cope and was emotionally unstable. He repeatedly told the press he was “supporting” Julia and “giving her every comfort and support for what has been a pretty torrid ordeal for her.”
In reference to this backgrounding, Virginia jokes: “We all know, thanks to the Prime Minister and others, what a sensitive little petal you are. And how fragile you are”
“And that I can be manipulated by not just [former Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull, [but by] the entire Labor Party apparently,” Julia adds.
Julia Banks’ book Power Play: Breaking Through Bias, Barriers and Boys’ Clubs is out now.