Julia Banks, the Liberal member for the highly marginal Melbourne seat of Chisholm, has announced she will quit at the election, calling out bullying within the party and saying her constituents backed Malcolm Turnbull.
The blow comes as an early poll, reported in the Daily Telegraph, in former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, from which he will resign on Friday, shows it could be vulnerable to a strong independent.
Chisholm is on a margin of about 3% after the redistribution.
Banks’ announcement is another indication that the disruption and bad feelings caused by the ousting of Turnbull continue to wrack the Liberal party.
The bailing out of a woman member will also add to the perception the Liberals have a serious “woman problem”, with a much lower proportion of female MPs than Labor has.
Banks, who entered parliament in 2016, says she has received hundreds of emails and calls from constituents.
“Their voice has been very clear. They wanted Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership as Prime Minister to continue. They wanted Julie Bishop to remain as our Deputy Leader and Foreign Minister. So did I”, she said in a statement on Wednesday.
“I have always listened to the people who elected me and put Australia’s national interest before internal political games, factional party figures, self-proclaimed power-brokers and certain media personalities who bear vindictive, mean-spirited grudges intent on settling their personal scores. Last week’s events were the last straw”.
She said her constituents knew she would always call out bad behaviour and wouldn’t tolerate bullying or intimidation. “I have experienced this both from within my own party and from the Labor Party”. The latter reference was to Labor pursuing her over whether she was entitled to Greek citizenship.
Several Liberal women complained last week of bullying during the leadership battle.
Western Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds denounced the internal tactics in a speech to the Senate. “I do not recognise the bullying and intimidation that has gone on,” she said on Thursday.
Banks said she would always stand up for equality regardless of people’s heritage, gender or sexuality.
“The scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation continues against women in politics, the media, and across businesses.
"In anticipating my critics saying I’m ‘playing the gender card’ - I say this. Women have suffered in silence for too long and in this last twelve months the world has seen many courageous women speak out. To young women and men reading this announcement – I say I’ve only ever aspired to inspire. If I’ve inspired any one of you to have leadership courage - that will sustain me”.
UPDATE: Morrison says he is giving Banks “comfort”
In the wake of Banks’ bullying allegation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared he was giving her “every comfort”, while Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger said that in politics “people do speak strongly”.
Morrison said he had discussed the Banks matter with the Minister for Women, Kelly O'Dwyer.
O'Dwyer said in a statement that bullying anywhere was “totally unacceptable”.
Morrison, campaigning in Sydney’s west, told a news conference: “What is important right now is Julia’s welfare. I know she is going to take a bit of time out between now and when parliament comes back. My first concern is for her welfare and wellbeing.
"What am I doing right now? I’m supporting Julia and reaching out to Julia and giving her every comfort and support for what has been a pretty torrid ordeal for her.
"I will continue to consult with my colleagues about ensuring that there can be no question about the culture of the Liberal party. There should not be and certainly under my authority there would have been absolutely nothing of that sort taking place.”
O'Dwyer said that Banks, in a neighbouring seat to hers, was “a terrific member of the Liberal team and a good friend.
"I deeply regret the decision that Julia has made today to not recontest the seat of Chisholm and the circumstances that have led to her decision to leave politics,” O'Dwyer said. “Bullying in any workplace, whether on the shopfloor, or in our nation’s Parliament, is totally unacceptable”.
Kroger said he was “not quite sure who” Banks was referring to in her allegation of bullying. “We haven’t received any complaints ourselves down here in the Victorian division about any behaviour that would concern us,” he told Sky.
“I’ve spoken to a number of people since the ballot. None of them have said they were bullied or intimidated. This is politics. People do speak strongly to one another.”
On the matter of preselection threats, Kroger said “No one could’ve been threatened because we’ve endorsed everybody [in the lower house]. I’m not sure who it is, probably not a Victorian.”
But the Victorian party still has Senate preselections outstanding, and there has been speculation over efforts to have senator Jane Hume dropped down the ticket.
Outspoken Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly said Banks had done the wrong thing. “You’ve got to roll with the punches in this game.”
Malcolm Turnbull in a letter sent to his Wentworth constituents has referred to “recent shocking and shameful events - a malevolent and pointless week of madness that disgraced our parliament and appalled our nation.”
Turnbull said: “I have always said that the best place for former PMs is out of the Parliament, and recent events amply demonstrate why”.
Crossbencher Cathy McGowan, independent member for Indi, and Morrison spoke on Wednesday about her position while the Wentworth byelection is on.
She said any motion of “no confidence” moved in parliament would not have her support during the byelection. The government has lost its one-member margin in the House because it does not get a “pair” from Labor to offset the loss of a number with the departure of Turnbull.
McGowan later said good governance and stability was vital following the disruption of the past fortnight.“Now is not the time for further disruption,” she said in a statement. “When the new member for Wentworth is elected to the parliament I will sit down with Prime Minister Morrison again and we will resume our conversation.
"As is my practice, I will continue to look at every piece of legislation on its merits and vote accordingly,” she said.
“I am grateful to all the people who have contacted my office and offered comments. I welcome other constituents who want to share their thoughts,” she said.
Meanwhile on another front, Tony Abbott has accepted Morrison’s offer that he become special envoy on Indigenous affairs. He said he would focus on getting school attendances up.
“I suppose the thing that I would do is bring the authority of a former prime minister to the task. If you’ve done the top job you can bring a lot of horse power to any other job,” he told 2GB.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra