Julia Banks: Liberals pay a high price for their unholy merger with the hard right

Scott Morrison’s historic censure over his multiple ministries and his ‘sorry not sorry’ defence speech played out this week on the back of a disastrous Victorian election result for the Liberal Party.

Morrison’s speech will be an endpoint of his legacy – a trail of destruction of the party forever linked to a man who abused his power and undermined our democracy.

An ethical, trustworthy leader who has a high regard for good governance only has to ask themselves one question: What is the right thing to do?

That is a question obviously Morrison rarely asked, and a question where no number of biblical quotes and references to faith and religion will provide the right answer.

In 2018, three months after the leadership coup against Malcolm Turnbull – in which Morrison and Peter Dutton were ringleaders – the Victorian election result was a so-called ‘Danslide’ for the Labor Party.

The election result last Saturday was an obvious sequel.

Julia Banks Daniel Andrews
The Victorian election result was another devastating one for the Liberal Party. Photo: AAP

Path of self-destruction

I don’t say this with the benefit of hindsight. I say it with the benefit of having had a front-row seat to the Liberal Party’s path to self-destruction.

The journey on this path began in the Victorian Liberal Party, built up speed and went into full force in 2018.

By the time of the federal Liberal leadership coup, it had become clear the powerful right-wing forces in Morrison and Dutton’s crew had completed a merger with Victorian Liberals.

That right-wing takeover had fully integrated into a merged entity that had a blunt force. I personally felt its full brunt in the form of political thuggery and attack – but its impact was far greater than just on me.

The coup was one of the main reasons for the 2018 Victorian election result.

As the most senior Victorian Liberal, then federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg urgently coordinated a ‘crisis review’ meeting for federal Victorian MPs in Canberra.

I declined the invitation because I knew what they didn’t – that it was to be my last day as a member of the Liberal Party. A day later I announced my resignation and moved to the crossbench to serve the remainder of my term as an independent MP.

However, we all got an insight into what was discussed. It was reported in the media that former employment minister Kelly O’Dwyer pulled no punches and stated that Victorians regarded the Liberal Party as “anti-women, homophobic, climate-deniers”.

Little did Australians know that those prescient words would also characterise the Morrison government, as it had already merged with the Victorian Liberals.

Meetings and marriage equality

Throughout the marriage equality plebiscite campaign, I strongly advocated for the ‘yes’ vote.

During this time a state Liberal MP, based in my electorate of Chisholm, arranged a meeting at my office under the guise of “discussing local issues”.

But his simmering anger became evident soon after 30 second’s worth of pleasantries were exchanged.

“You’ve got to stop talking like this about marriage equality,” he loudly demanded.

“You and Turnbull – you’ve got to stop all this. You’re going to ruin it for all of us.”

Mildly shocked but measured, I shot back: “Us? What do you mean ‘ruin it for us’?”

He gave me an eye roll in frustration.

“Me, for starters,” he replied, and then he rattled off the names of other Victorian-based MPs and a couple of self-proclaimed Liberal powerbrokers.

I shot back again: “I’m here representing my electorate – not you lot.”

Julia Banks
By 2018, it became clear that the powerful right-wing forces in Morrison and Dutton’s crew had completed its takeover of the Liberal Party. Photo: AAP

With that, and some more pleasantries – aloof ones this time – the meeting came to an abrupt end.

The marriage equality legislation was passed in 2017 – and, to add insult to the injury of the state MP and his fellow marriage equality opponents, I was proudly one of seven federal MPs, known as “the 100 per centers”, who voted for the legislation without amendment.

Soon after, in early 2018, it seemed that the floodgates had been opened as new Liberal members started entering my electorate and social media research revealed that many of them were self-declared Pentecostalists, Mormons, or from minor right-wing parties such as Family First.

This resurgence in membership coincided with rumours swirling that members of the religious right were mobilising to challenge me and other moderates at the upcoming preselections ahead of the 2019 federal election.

The state MP I had met who was anti-marriage equality, his Liberal member supporters and his mates – including some of his neighbouring Victorian federal MPs – were big fans of Morrison, Dutton and their ilk. All were proudly right wing. Most were climate deniers, ultra-religious and anti-same sex marriage, anti-abortion, and deeply prejudiced about women who worked outside the home.

Free lunches

The March 2018 Victorian state council meeting reminded me of an image of Morrison that surfaced just before the 2019 federal election, where he was raising his hands in prayer at a gathering of Pentecostalists. But the state council meeting wasn’t held in a church.

Busloads of people arrived. Some of the party faithful, like me, were shocked at these arrivals.

I asked one of my fellow moderate colleagues who they were.

“The Mormons, Pentecostalists – the religious right. You know – the stacks (aka branch-stacked members),” he said.

Like school kids on an excursion, they were all handed a cardboard lunchbox of sandwiches (which were reserved for these bus passengers only). But as they say – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

As if in exchange for lunch and a free bus ride, their vote was intended to ensure the right-wingers of the party were elected to the leadership positions of the all-powerful administrative committee.

Fast forward to 2022, and the Victorian Liberal Party’s election campaign was dominated by attacks and negativity bolstered by the Murdoch press.

Yet, every other day we were learning that the Liberals had preselected or preferenced racists, misogynists, the ultra-religious, homophobes or anti-vaxxer climate deniers.

Most of the state Liberal MPs in Chisholm were victims of the 2018 ‘Danslide’. The state MP (anti-marriage equality spokesperson) survived.

He was the last man (they were all men) standing – until the latest state election.

Reviews and reflections

In their self-assessments, reviews and reflections, the Liberals seem to talk to themselves, about themselves, and defend their actions rather than face reality.

The only ‘reality’ review the Liberals need do is to acknowledge that the events of 2018 embedded the path to their self-destruction.

There was the leadership coup and ousting Turnbull, plus Morrison’s leadership, and the extreme tribalism from right-wing mergers and takeovers. And also important was the historic election of Dr Kerryn Phelps to the seat of Wentworth and my move to become an Independent, which created a centrist power on the crossbench.

These developments all paved the way for the election of the metro federal teal independents and for the state election teal candidates to make previously safe seats marginal.

And as for Morrison’s censure, not only will the votes of the 50 federal MPs who opposed the motion be recorded in Hansard, but the images of them shaking hands, backslapping and embracing the disgraced former PM will forever remain a disturbing historical record.

Julia Banks is a former federal MP, a lawyer, leadership consultant and author of Power Play: Breaking through bias barriers and boys’ clubs