on why she had to make a stand on the bully boys of Par­lia­ment

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

It’s a room where too few fe­male voices are heard, but when Ju­lia Banks stood up in par­lia­ment on the stroke of noon on Novem­ber 27, days be­fore the Christ­mas re­cess, her words echoed around Aus­tralia in a flash. Ju­lia’s new boss, Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son, wasn’t in the House. Nei­ther were his tight-knit team, who just three months be­fore had so bru­tally re­moved Mal­colm Turn­bull from his job as leader, which is per­ti­nent, be­cause much of what Ju­lia had to say was about them.

Ju­lia con­fesses she was ner­vous.

But she was also res­o­lute. “I was very fo­cused,” she tells The Weekly in a bold and ex­traor­di­nar­ily frank exclusive in­ter­view, speak­ing at length for the first time since she coura­geously blew the whis­tle on what she calls the bul­ly­ing and “mad­ness” at the heart of Scott Mor­ri­son’s gov­ern­ment, and crossed the floor to stand as an in­de­pen­dent.

Ju­lia felt her party and es­pe­cially what she calls “the re­ac­tionary right wing” was “not treat­ing the Aus­tralian pub­lic with the re­spect they de­serve.” She sim­ply couldn’t stand by and throw the sup­port of the people who elected her be­hind this new cab­i­net.

She was also dis­mayed at the treat­ment she had re­ceived by her sup­posed col­leagues, “snip­ing” be­hind her back, spread­ing ma­li­cious ru­mours and then try­ing to shut her up by hus­tling her out of their way with an all-ex­penses-paid post­ing to New York. Enough was enough!

Ju­lia Banks came to Can­berra from a highly suc­cess­ful ca­reer in cor­po­rate law, dur­ing which she raised two chil­dren. She hates the view that women must choose be­tween moth­er­hood or a ca­reer and never even con­sid­ered that she couldn’t have both. “Men have had it all at the same time for years and years, and I think women can, too, but women tend to bear the emo­tional over­load and the plan­ning more,” she tells me as we sit in the liv­ing room of her mother’s home in beach­side Brighton, Mel­bourne.

Ju­lia met her hus­band Mike, a dap­per English­man, when she was the le­gal coun­sel for Kraft Foods and he worked in the mar­ket­ing depart­ment. “He just made me laugh. I was 29 and I knew then he was the one,” she says.

It was Mike who, when they were dat­ing, no­ticed a lump on Ju­lia’s neck and forced her to go to the doc­tor’s. “The spe­cial­ist said it’s ei­ther cancer A or cancer B and we won’t know un­til we op­er­ate and we can’t op­er­ate straight away. If it’s cancer A you won’t be here by Christ­mas. So, I had to wait and it was an aw­ful, aw­ful time,” re­mem­bers Ju­lia.

Dur­ing that “very emo­tional pe­riod” Mike pro­posed. “It was just be­fore my surgery and I said, ‘I don’t want you

“I woke up and the first thing I said to the doc­tor was, ‘am I go­ing to grow old with Mike?’”

mar­ry­ing me just be­cause I feel sorry for my­self’,” she says laugh­ing. “Your whole life flashes be­fore you and I went im­me­di­ately to think­ing, yes, I want to have chil­dren, I want to have a fam­ily, I want all of these things.”

Ju­lia said yes to the pro­posal and then was wheeled into surgery, won­der­ing if she’d make it down the aisle.

“Ap­par­ently, I woke up and the first thing I said to the doc­tor was, ‘am I go­ing to grow old with Mike?’ and he said, ‘yes, you are’. And then I went back to sleep.”

It turned out to be cancer B, a cap­il­lary cancer of the thyroid gland which in­volved hav­ing a com­plete thy­roidec­tomy fol­lowed by ra­dioac­tive io­dine treat­ment. “Be­cause of the treat­ment we were told I had to wait at least 12 months af­ter I got the all clear be­fore get­ting preg­nant. So we put off hav­ing chil­dren for three years and I was 32 when I had my first,” says Ju­lia.

“When I had Sam I was the first fe­male se­nior man­ager in Kraft to have a baby and I re­mem­ber the CEO said, ‘we’re so proud of you!’. Then the HR man­ager, who was ju­nior to me, came into my of­fice and he said, ‘now, you’re go­ing on ma­ter­nity leave so we’re go­ing to can­cel your health in­sur­ance’.

“I said, wait a minute, can­cel my health in­sur­ance? He said, ‘yes, you’re hav­ing a baby, you’re not sick so you won’t be en­ti­tled.’ I was ap­palled, that was part of my pack­age and to cut a long story short, I went into the CEO and he said, that’s just ridicu­lous and they changed the rules.”

Ju­lia says hav­ing Sam changed her life but not her de­sire to work. “I imag­ined that I would be one of these moth­ers who just rev­elled in it, but I re­mem­ber in about my third month of ma­ter­nity leave with Sam I thought, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got to do some­thing more. If I have to have one more cof­fee and cake morn­ing with ba­bies...”

Seven­teen months later, Ju­lia was preg­nant with Emma and by that time she knew work­ing and moth­er­hood went hand in hand for her. When she joined phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Glax­oSmithK­line, Ju­lia worked for a fe­male CEO who was brought out to Aus­tralia from Europe and “her key ob­jec­tive – or KPI – was to bal­ance the gen­der im­bal­ance in the or­gan­i­sa­tion”.

Ju­lia says she saw quo­tas in ac­tion and sud­denly there were more women in her work­place in se­nior po­si­tions. When later she en­tered pol­i­tics, she knew that fight­ing for gen­der equal­ity would be one of her driv­ing am­bi­tions.

Can­berra, here I come!

Ju­lia first en­tered the House as the shiny new Lib­eral mem­ber of Chisholm in Septem­ber 2016, a seat which had been in La­bor’s hands for 18 con­sec­u­tive years. No one in her party be­lieved she could win – in fact, that was why they hap­pily handed the seat to this plucky party new­comer, a cor­po­rate lawyer and mother of two with crazy no­tions about fe­male em­pow­er­ment. But back then they didn’t know

Ju­lia Banks.

Ju­lia’s maiden speech cham­pi­oned the ur­gent need to ad­dress gen­der equal­ity and the im­por­tance of “au­then­tic fem­i­nism”, and was full of pas­sion and prom­ise. It also sin­gled out her mum, He­len, now 80, for in­spir­ing her to reach for the stars and teach­ing her to never be de­pen­dent on any­one. For the women of Aus­tralia from all po­lit­i­cal di­vides, it was like a win­dow had opened in the sti­fling male-cen­tric House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. And for those in what Ju­lia calls “the sen­si­ble cen­tre”, here was a voice of rea­son that also hap­pened to be fe­male.

Ju­lia’s ap­proach to her new job was clear. She had cam­paigned by blitz­ing her elec­torate, speak­ing per­son­ally to any­one and ev­ery­one, lis­ten­ing to their con­cerns and telling them what she stood for. As the daugh­ter of Greek mi­grants – Ju­lia’s mum was raised in Wil­liamstown by Greek par­ents and her father Phil came out to Aus­tralia aged 15 with­out a word of English – she had per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of the racism that many in her di­verse elec­torate face. At school, Ju­lia re­calls be­ing “re­ally hurt” when a boy called her “a wog” in the play­ground, and adds when her grand­fa­ther came to Aus­tralia and opened a fish and chip shop,

“he was told never to speak Greek in the street be­cause he would be bashed”.

She says her fam­ily, “didn’t have much money but had a lot of love”, and her par­ents scrimped and saved to ed­u­cate Ju­lia and her brother.

Ju­lia, now 56, headed to Can­berra “a par­lia­men­tary novice” with “a lot to learn”, filled with pas­sion and ex­cite­ment. But she quickly re­alised be­ing heard was go­ing to be an up­hill bat­tle, es­pe­cially in a party with a slen­der one-seat ma­jor­ity. “The party room was not what I ex­pected. I spoke up many times and par­tic­u­larly on pro­grams about women I’d get the eye roll from the right-wing re­ac­tionary group.”

So, when those re­ac­tionar­ies seized con­trol, Ju­lia knew she couldn’t stay. She was in par­lia­ment to rep­re­sent the people, not tow the party line, es­pe­cially when that line had shifted sig­nif­i­cantly to the right. “I’d al­ways been very open about my mod­er­ate views. My views are very so­cially pro­gres­sive,” she ex­plains.

Un­der this new Lib­eral agenda, Ju­lia felt she had no choice but to take those who voted for her to the cross­bench, where she could more ef­fec­tively rep­re­sent them as an in­de­pen­dent.

But this wasn’t the only rea­son for her dra­matic ac­tions. Ju­lia was in­censed by the lead­er­ship coup to re­move Mal­colm Turn­bull, and not just the fact of it but how it had played out.

“It was all driven from Tony Ab­bott’s op­po­si­tion,” says Ju­lia. “Tony Ab­bott, Peter Dut­ton, Greg Hunt – that whole pro­gram to knife Mal­colm was driven by and led by them.”

Ju­lia de­scribes a party riven by fac­tions and per­sonal ego trips which just wasn’t what she’d signed up for. She also quickly re­alised that too many mem­bers of the Lib­eral Party re­sorted to bul­ly­ing and in­tim­i­da­tion to get their way. The re­volt was gath­er­ing pace with se­cret phone calls fly­ing around the party. And hov­er­ing in the back­ground was then Trea­surer Scott Mor­ri­son.

“The woman is [ made out to be] ei­ther a liar or she’s over-emo­tional.”

“Ev­ery­one was get­ting calls” says Ju­lia. And the What­sApp chat group which Ju­lia was part of, and orig­i­nally started as a drinks in­vite for mod­er­ates, was be­ing used to spread mis­in­for­ma­tion. Sev­eral MPs on the right wing used bul­ly­ing tac­tics to per­suade people, in­clud­ing Ju­lia, to vote dif­fer­ently. “We got the di­rec­tion to move our votes from Julie [Bishop] to Scott [Mor­ri­son].” The ar­gu­ment was that votes for Julie Bishop would split the op­po­si­tion and Peter Dut­ton would win.

“I said no, I’m vot­ing for Julie in the first round, and then I had people sent to me and phone calls, try­ing to move my vote.” The in­tim­i­da­tion for Ju­lia and oth­ers in the party was re­lent­less. “The thing that hap­pens with bul­ly­ing is people were afraid. They started be­com­ing re­ally con­cerned that

Peter Dut­ton was se­ri­ously go­ing to win. Men and women were be­ing ha­rassed and bul­lied.”

Ju­lia was hor­ri­fied. As far as she was con­cerned, “if it wasn’t go­ing to be Mal­colm it had to be Julie. She’s 20 years in the par­lia­ment, lauded as the best for­eign min­is­ter in the world, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills of a ge­nius, and a woman. Se­ri­ously, a true Lib­eral and we knew Julie Bishop was La­bor’s worst night­mare. I thought if it loses by one vote and it’s Peter Dut­ton then I’ll quit straight away.”

In that first vote Julie Bishop re­ceived 11 votes, with 38 for Peter Dut­ton and 36 to Scott Mor­ri­son. When af­ter the second vote she was faced with Scott Mor­ri­son as the new Prime Min­is­ter, Ju­lia went into shock. “I felt dev­as­tated.”

The fi­nal straw

Ini­tially Ju­lia thought she should suck it up and try to make it work, but very quickly she re­alised that wasn’t pos­si­ble. “With all the reprisals and snip­ing I couldn’t do it,” she says.

“It would be disin­gen­u­ous of me.”

“They tried to talk me out of it. They wanted me to de­lay it so there would be the cliche of, ‘I’m leav­ing for per­sonal rea­sons’.”

Ju­lia’s speech in the House pulled no punches. She talked of “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.”

She said, “last week’s events were the last straw” and added, “I will al­ways call out bad be­hav­iour and will not tol­er­ate any form of bul­ly­ing or in­tim­i­da­tion.”

Ju­lia was be­sieged with calls of sup­port, but al­most im­me­di­ately a pic­ture started to build in the me­dia which she says came di­rectly from mem­bers of the new gov­ern­ment.

“There was, ap­par­ently, back­ground­ing that I was an emo­tional wreck.” Back­ground­ing is when a politi­cian talks to the me­dia off the record with “help­ful” back­ground ma­te­rial that they won’t be di­rectly quoted on.

Ju­lia says people from in­side and out­side the party started a vi­cious cam­paign against her. “[MP and Dut­ton sup­porter] Craig Kelly said, ‘she needs to roll with the punches’. [For­mer se­na­tor] He­len Kroger said, ‘Hmm, per­haps pol­i­tics isn’t for her’. So it was all like ‘she’s a weakie’.

“I’ve seen it in the busi­ness world, where the woman is ei­ther a liar or she made it up or she’s do­ing it for pub­lic­ity or no­to­ri­ety. She’s emo­tional or she’s over-emo­tional,” says Ju­lia.

As the me­dia storm con­tin­ued,

Ju­lia was of­fered a par­lia­men­tary United Na­tions sec­ond­ment to spend three months in New York. “I saw that for what it was. It was def­i­nitely to si­lence ... I ac­tu­ally said, ‘will you tell the bully boys to back off or

I’m headed to the cross­bench’.”

And so, at noon on Novem­ber 27, Ju­lia stood up in the House to an­nounce her de­ci­sion to cross the floor. She out­lined the need for an in­de­pen­dent whistle­blower sys­tem within Can­berra for politi­cians to re­port, “mis­con­duct of those in power with­out fear of reprisal and ret­ri­bu­tion”. And it was clear to all what she was talk­ing about.

When Scott Mor­ri­son fi­nally spoke to Ju­lia on the phone at 4pm that day, his biggest con­cern seemed to be that Ju­lia didn’t have any per­sonal issue with him. As Ju­lia sees it, he didn’t want blood on his hands, he didn’t want to be held ac­count­able for the coup.

“When I was a child Mum was al­ways the one who stepped in for me.”

When I ask Ju­lia her thoughts on Scott Mor­ri­son, she de­scribes him as tra­di­tional and a deeply re­li­gious man. “I think John Howard is his men­tor and it was only two years ago, the week be­fore my maiden speech, I re­mem­ber when John Howard said, we will never get to 50-50 rep­re­sen­ta­tion in pol­i­tics be­cause women fo­cus on their car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ... I think that view is quite en­trenched.

“Most of the men in the Lib­eral Party, their wives don’t work. They’re at home with the kids,” she says. “Now I don’t have an issue with stay-at-home mums but I do in the sense that I be­lieve all women should ... en­sure their fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence ... and not to be de­pen­dent on any­one.”

Mum, my role model

Ju­lia learnt this at an early age from her mum, He­len Lo­lat­gis, who she says has al­ways been her role model. While her two brothers be­came doc­tors, He­len was forced to give up her dream of be­ing a nurse be­cause, “it wasn’t the done thing for a girl to be away from home” says Ju­lia. In the end, iron­i­cally, He­len worked as the med­i­cal re­cep­tion­ist in her brother’s prac­tice.

“I re­mem­ber Dad didn’t want her to go to work. But Mum wanted to pro­vide us with things like a pri­vate school ed­u­ca­tion, which couldn’t have hap­pened with­out her work­ing as well. When I was a child she was al­ways the one who stepped in, be­cause Dad [who died in 2007] was very tra­di­tional. I can re­mem­ber when I was go­ing through the ca­reers book with Mum and I said, ‘Mum, I want to be a jour­nal­ist or a lawyer’ and she said, ‘well, that’s what you should be’.”

When she was young, Ju­lia re­calls her dad Phil work­ing long hours as a waiter. “He worked so hard and I used to re­ally worry be­cause he used to take the train at night home from work. I re­mem­ber I used to wait to go to sleep un­til I heard his key in the front door. I was scared about what might hap­pen to him.”

Ju­lia’s hus­band, ex­ec­u­tive re­cruiter Mike, her “great life love”, was ini­tially shocked when Ju­lia said she was go­ing to leave her high-pay­ing job as a le­gal coun­sel and run for par­lia­ment. But now he is to­tally sup­port­ive and her “rock” in ev­ery­thing she does.

With the elec­tion in spit­ting dis­tance and ru­mours swirling that it might be called as early as March, I won­der if Ju­lia will change her mind and stand as an in­de­pen­dent. “I just need time. It’s been a re­ally in­tense year. I need the summer to de­cide my fu­ture ca­reer path,” she says. Ju­lia feels that her Lib­eral Party has been high­jacked by the right wing and she has been del­uged with people who agree with her and want mod­er­ate voices in the House.

When Ju­lia’s daugh­ter Emma was born she made her a prom­ise. Emma is now 22, and study­ing for her Master’s in Busi­ness and Mar­ket­ing at Mel­bourne Univer­sity. Her brother Sam, 23, is also there study­ing Medicine.

“It was the first night af­ter she was born and I was just hold­ing her and I said, ‘I love you and I prom­ise I’ll do what­ever I can to make the world a bet­ter place for women, for you,’” Ju­lia shares.

She has al­ready de­liv­ered on that prom­ise but I strongly sus­pect she feels she still has work to do. Watch this space!

Left: Ju­lia and Mike and (below) with kids Sam and Emma; pre­par­ing her maiden speech; grad­u­at­ing from uni with par­ents He­len and Phil.

Ju­lia and her mother, He­len, at Mel­bourne’s Brighton Beach where they reg­u­larly go walk­ing to­gether.

Above, left and right: Ju­lia with for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull, and for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter, Julie Bishop. Right: pic­tured af­ter her res­ig­na­tion. Opposite page, bot­tom: Ju­lia and her mum, circa mid-1960s.

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