Not so long ago individuals got involved in what were termed discussions. Now it is fashionable to speak about conversations — including “a conversation” and “the conversation”. The most effective way to stop any such debate developing is for one party to accuse the other of bullying.
On Thursday ABC radio’s AM program led off with the disagreement between the Queensland government and Indian mining company Adani concerning the proposed Carmichael coalmine in the Galilee Basin in north Queensland. Isobel Rowe reported that Adani has erected a hoarding in Brisbane that reads: “We can start tomorrow if we get the nod today: We’re ready to start work on the Carmichael coalmine.”
No surprise there. Adani is working in the interests of its shareholders and employees in its wish to start mining.
Rowe sought a response from the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Christian Slattery, who accused Adani of bullying the Queensland government.
In recent months the focus on bullying, real or imagined, has turned on the Liberal Party in general and its attitude to female Liberal MPs in particular.
It began after Malcolm Turnbull lost the support of the majority of his colleagues in the parliamentary Liberal Party on August 24 and stepped down as prime minister. In the resulting ballots, Scott Morrison prevailed over Peter Dutton with Julie Bishop coming in third.
It is the Liberal Party tradition that when the leader is challenged a ballot is held soon after. Last August, however, when Turnbull was challenged by Dutton he demanded Dutton’s supporters provide a list of names of a majority of Liberal MPs who wanted a party leadership ballot.
In other words, Turnbull declined to provide for a secret ballot.
In view of this, it is not surprising that Dutton’s supporters worked hard to get 43 Liberals to sign a document. When the necessary signatures were obtained, Turnbull finally agreed to a spill, which he lost.
Julia Banks, the then Liberal member for Chisholm in eastern Melbourne, was the first to allege that she had been bullied during the week of the leadership change. She was a strong Turnbull supporter who identifies with what she terms the moderate wing of the party — others might call the group the Liberal Left.
Banks’s case is spelled out in the (soft) interview she did with Juliet Rieden that is published in this month’s issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, titled “Back off bully boys!”
Banks resigned from the Liberal Party in late November. In her speech to parliament she targeted what she termed “the reactionary and regressive right wing” of the Liberal Party but named no names. Previously she also had failed to name anyone who had bullied her during the leadership changeover.
In the Australian Women’s Weekly interview, Banks specifically criticised Tony Abbott, Dutton and Greg Hunt along with “the reactionary right wing”. But a close reading of the interview indicates that if anyone attempted to influence her vote during the leadership challenge it was those Liberals who supported Morrison, not Dutton’s supporters. They wanted to move her vote from Bishop to Morrison lest Dutton prevailed on the first ballot. It’s called politics.
In the current climate, for a anyone to call a man a bully is a professionally damaging allegation. During a discussion about bullying on ABC Radio Sydney on August 29 last year, The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent David Crowe named Michael Sukkar, Zed Seselja, Andrew Hastie and Tony Pasin as “doing the numbers” for Dutton before adding that he was not making accusations of bullying with respect to them. But he named no other names.
Presenter Richard Glover added: “Maybe one of them did it and the others didn’t; maybe all four of them did it.”
Well, maybe. But, almost certainly not. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 6 last year, Latika Bourke reported that “Dutton’s most active supporters — Michael Sukkar, Andrew Hastie, James Paterson, Jonathan Dunham, Tony Pasin, Zed Seselja and Eric Abetz — told Fairfax Media they never spoke to Ms Banks”.
And why would they? After all, Banks was not going to vote for Dutton — so there was no point in them lobbying her.
Sarah Henderson, the Liberal Party member for Corangamite who voted against the spill motion and was a Turnbull supporter, told The Australian’s Greg Brown on Wednesday that she was treated with “absolute consideration and respect” during the leadership contest. Henderson added: “In my view being lobbied for votes does not constitute bullying.” She was promoted to an assistant minister role by Morrison.
Nicolle Flint, the Liberal member for Boothby in South Australia, said that she has “never been bullied in the Liberal Party”.
In running her line that the modern Liberal Party is hostile to women, Banks told Rieden that she was endorsed for Chisholm only because “no one in her party believed she could win”.
In fact, the Liberal Party provided more than $250,000 in cash and staff assistance for the Chisholm campaign in 2016. Moreover, this was the only seat in Victoria in which John Howard campaigned for the Liberal Party.
It’s true that women are under-represented in the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party. But Liberals are conscious of this and are working on solutions.
In her book Getting Even (HarperCollins, 1999), Anne Henderson documented how the Liberals recruited many talented female candidates in the lead-up to Howard’s victory in the 1996 without quotas. It can be done again.
It’s also true that the Liberal Party had a female cabinet minister (Enid Lyons in 1949) several decades before Labor (Susan Ryan in 1983). And there have been more Coalition women cabinet ministers than Labor women cabinet ministers in the last seven decades. What’s more, women were deeply involved in Robert Menzies’ formation of the Liberal Party in 1944 — in particular Elizabeth May Couchman and her Australian Women’s National League in Victoria.
In her thoughtful article in The Australian on Wednesday, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds pointed out the need to transform the Liberal Party’s organisational processes and culture. This has scant relationship to alleged bullying.