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