Over the weekend, a well-respected former Coalition MP accused the prime minister of “menacing, controlling” behaviour, of bullying and backgrounding against her, and making a calculated effort to get her out of parliament. Why isn’t this major news? Former Chisholm MP Julia Banks – who in August 2018, following the spill that installed Scott Morrison as leader, announced that she would not be standing at the next election, before moving to the crossbench and calling out the Liberal Party’s toxic culture as she went – has revealed further details of what went on during that time in an excerpt from her new book, published in the Nine weekend papers. Much of the limited media attention has so far focused, understandably, on her allegation that an unnamed Coalition MP slid his hand up her thigh during drinks at Parliament House, with questions asked about that incident. But what of the fact that the prime minister tried to silence Banks, with his vicious treatment partly behind her decision to quit the party? Those allegations will be foregrounded again tonight, when Banks appears on 7.30, and perhaps then they will get the increased attention they rightfully deserve. But when will the nation start asking serious questions about the man who leads this country?
In her extract, and in the preview for her upcoming interview with 7.30, Banks goes further than she has previously in describing Morrison’s behaviour towards her in the days and weeks following the spill, describing him as a “constant, menacing, background wallpaper” who used his “intermediaries” to do his bidding. As well as elaborating on the inappropriate advances so often faced by women in politics, Banks lays out exactly what the new PM did to her after he took the reins from Malcolm Turnbull, whom she publicly supported. When Banks decided not to re-contest the election, Morrison personally pressured her not to announce her decision so close to the spill, to avoid making his government look bad. When she agreed to give him the 24 hours he asked for before making her announcement, the prime minister’s office allegedly backgrounded against her, setting the narrative that she was “weak” and “over-emotional”, while Morrison himself showed concern for “Julia” and her welfare in his public-facing press conferences, implying that she was struggling with the strain of it all. (This is a familiar playbook for the PM, Banks notes, comparing her situation to that of Brittany Higgins and Christine Holgate.) Banks says she was then portrayed in the media in a “stereotypical sexist narrative … everything from emotionally weak and precious to an aggressive, attention-seeking bully bitch”. Morrison’s marketing skills appear to have abandoned him lately, but if Banks’s claims are to be believed, they were operating at full capacity when he tried to exert influence over her. He then reportedly tried to pressure her out of parliament, offering her paired leave or the chance to go to New York as the UN delegate, at taxpayer expense, in what Banks saw as further efforts to silence her.
So why haven’t Banks’s claims about the character of our prime minister received greater attention? There is of course the current COVID-19 crisis, and this isn’t the first piece of damning news about the federal government, and specifically the prime minister, that hasn’t been able to get the airtime it deserves because of the pandemic. The car park rorts saga – “sports rorts on steroids” – and Morrison’s UK family history jaunt both struggled to take precedence over major lockdowns and vaccine debacles. There is also the fact that the reports about Morrison’s behaviour have been overshadowed by Banks’s claims of sexual harassment against an anonymous MP, which are utterly galling. Could it also be that Morrison’s apparent efforts to portray her as either “a weak petal” or a “Turnbull puppet” out for revenge against him have worked too well, despite the fact that Banks has never come off as anything other than calm and composed about her experiences?
Banks was an early whistleblower when it came to the culture within the Coalition, and many of her previous claims about parliament’s toxic “boys’ club” environment were vindicated when Brittany Higgins came forward in February, setting off an avalanche of other stories. Banks’s latest claims about the prime minister’s behaviour, if true, paint a portrait of a malicious bully, willing to do anything to maintain his power, including backgrounding, pressuring, lying and manipulating in order to make a woman look weak. (In a statement to the ABC, a spokesperson for the PM said he had “several conversations with her to understand what she was going through” but “absolutely rejects claims about the nature of those conversations”.) Throughout the sexism crisis that engulfed politics earlier this year, Morrison – with his wholesome Christian and “daggy dad” persona – was never seen as one of the abusers or harassers himself, claiming to be blindsided and “devastated” by reports of what women go through. Even in the aftermath of the spill that made him PM, Morrison was eager to portray himself as one of the good guys, a well-meaning individual who rose to the top through luck and talent, not one of the menaces making people cry. Banks’s latest allegations should put a stop to that. The sexism, in case anyone was left in any doubt, stems from the top.