It must surely pass for one of the softest political interviews in Australia this century so far. The reference is to the discussion between ABC 7.30 political correspondent Laura Tingle and former Liberal Party and independent parliamentarian Julia Banks. The interview took place on 7.30 on Monday to coincide with the publication of Julia Banks’ book, Power Play.
What was extraordinary about the occasion turned on the fact that the whole segment occupied close to 21 minutes of a half-hour program and Tingle made it possible for Banks to speak for close to 90 per cent of the time. This for a person who was a backbench member of parliament for three years between July 2016 and May 2019 and who never occupied a senior position within a political organisation.
Viewers would have got a good idea of what was to come when, early on, Tingle referred to “the leadership coup in 2018 against Malcolm Turnbull”. Soon after, Banks referred to the “coup week” in August 2018 when Turnbull was replaced as Liberal Party leader by Scott Morrison. By the way, Turnbull has endorsed Power Play as “real, raw, human and forensic”.
But there is nothing forensic about the reference to the events of August 24, 2018, as a “coup”. All that happened is that Turnbull lost the support of a majority of his parliamentary colleagues and was replaced by Morrison. In September 2015, Tony Abbott lost the support of his parliamentary colleagues and was replaced by Turnbull. On the other side of politics, Julia Gillard prevailed over Kevin Rudd in June 2010 and Rudd reversed the situation in June 2013.
This is properly called a leadership change in the Westminster system of government. It’s not a coup. It’s understandable why Banks was upset that Turnbull was no longer prime minister after the party ballot of August 24, 2018. But so were some other of her colleagues who remain committed to the Liberal Party today and support its current leader.
It is a matter of record that Banks would not accept the leadership change. Soon after Morrison became Prime Minister, Banks announced that she would not contest her seat of Chisholm in Melbourne’s east at the next election. She also claimed, without a shred of evidence, that her preselection had been threatened in 2018.
Then on November 27, 2018, Banks abandoned the Liberal Party and joined the Independents on the cross bench – effectively placing the Morrison administration in minority government status. In the event, Banks ran as an independent in the seat of Flinders against Health Minister Greg Hunt in May 2019. Hunt retained his seat comfortably and Banks won just over 13 per cent of the primary vote.
This is hardly the kind of brilliant political career that would normally warrant a 21-minute interview on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster in the course of publicising a book.
It’s just that Power Play is not a political memoir in the traditional sense. Rather it’s an attack on the Prime Minister whom Banks told Tingle is “like a menacing controlling wallpaper”. Tingle, who is on the record as having accused Morrison of leading a government by “ideological bastardry”, did not demur.
Power Play presents the author as someone who saved the Liberal Party under Turnbull and then became its victim under Morrison. The back cover declares that “after winning the ‘unwinnable’ seat that secured the Coalition government a majority in 2016, Julia Banks shocked Australia when she announced she would stand as an independent MP in 2018, having experienced a workplace culture in the country’s centre of power – designed by men for their dominance”.
It’s a myth that Chisholm was unwinnable in 2016. For years, it has been a swinging seat. However, Tingle accepted the Banks view that the Liberal Party organisation thought that Chisholm was unwinnable in 2016. How then to explain that the Liberal Party spent around $150,000 on the campaign in cash and staff costs? And how to explain that Chisholm was the only Victorian electorate where former prime minister John Howard campaigned in during the 2016 election?
After she moved to the cross bench Banks declared, including to Juliet Rieden of the Australian Women’s Weekly, that “several MPs on the right wing had used bullying tactics” in the 2018 leadership contest. But she never named a single person – and some of her female colleagues denied that this had occurred. Why would anyone bother? Banks’ first choice was Turnbull, her second Julie Bishop and she showed no sign of changing her mind.
On 7.30, Banks told a story about the day she quit the Liberal Party and the attempt made by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the senior Victorian Liberal, to get her to change her mind. Banks related that he gained entry into her office by “banging on my door”. Banks said that while she was talking to Frydenberg “I realised that he was live texting Sky News because I could see everything I was saying coming up on the television screens”.
Banks told Tingle, “it was quite an extraordinary time”. Sure was, apparently. As Frydenberg was talking to Banks, he was texting Sky News where someone was instantly putting her words on the screen while she was watching. Not much eye contact during this conversation, it would seem.
The most damaging part of Power Play occurs in Chapter 8 where Banks alleges that, while at a meeting in the Prime Minister’s wing, a “senior cabinet minister” moved his hand “deliberately to my inner thigh and then further up my leg”. Turnbull was prime minister at the time – but she did not report the incident to him and she will not name the perpetrator now.
And so it has come to this. By refusing to name her alleged groper, Banks has cast an accusatory shadow over all the senior male cabinet ministers at the time. And 7.30 thought it appropriate to put this allegation to air about an alleged anonymous offender during what was essentially a book promotion.