Still reeling from the devastating results of last week’s Victorian election, the Liberal party suffered a second blow this week, this time by one of its own federal MPs, as Julia Banks, the federal Member for Chisholm announced her decision to quit the party and sit through the remainder of her parliamentary term as an independent, effective immediately.
In a shock speech at midday on Tuesday, she told Parliament she had to leave the Liberals because of the “dark days” of the leadership spill in August and would decide her future in the new year. Asserting her position as a “centrist,” the MP stresses in her announcement that it is the Liberal Party that has changed, adding her voice to the criticism addressed to the party as a whole, regarding its shift from the centre to the right. In her emotional speech the Chisholm MP expressed, once again, her frustration over the party’s treatment of women and disunity over energy and climate change.
“Equal representation of men and women in this Parliament is an urgent imperative which will create a culture change,” she told the chamber.
“Across both major parties, the level of regard and respect for women in politics is years behind the business world.
“There is also a clear need for an independent and whistleblower system as found in many workplaces to enable reporting of misconduct of those in power without fear of reprisal or retribution.”
Ms Banks also particularly targeted the party’s “reactionary right wing”, which led the “brutal” coup against former PM Malcolm Turnbull; at the same time, she accuses other MPs for “trading their vote for a leadership change in exchange for their individual promotion, preselection endorsements or silence”.
Despite assuring the government that she will give confidence and supply, her decision to move to the crossbench will definitely pose a problem for Scott Morrison and the Coalition, which is now left with 74 out of 150 seats, confirming its status as a minority government and exposing it to embarrassing defeats on legislation.
Evidence of the level of discomfort created to the Coalition by Julia Banks’ defection to the crossbench came when Deputy Liberal leader and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – the most senior Victorian in the Coalition – cancelled his planned trip to the G20 economic forum in Argentina this weekend amid the fallout from the Liberals’ state election loss and Ms Banks’ defection.
It is understood that the next weeks will be crucial for the government’s survival, given that it has lost guaranteed votes for things like suspending standing orders, referrals and legislation. It is likely that Julia Banks will now trade her support to the government with specific actions on issues and causes she supports, such as the removal of children from the Nauru detention camp, or the establishment of a national integrity commission.
But the Labor might also count on her vote, particularly when it comes to Peter Dutton’s referral to the high court, under section 44 of the constitution concerns, which is now seeming like a very likely scenario.
It is unclear whether the Prime Minister was aware of this announcement, but it certainly cast a shadow over his surplus budget announcement.
Scott Morrison told the parliament that he would deliver the federal budget on 2 April, which all but confirmed that the election will be held in May. As for whether Julia Banks will recontest her seat, she left it open saying that she will wait till the new year, before she makes a decision about her “future career path”.
Her former colleagues were speculating on Wednesday she could run as an independent in her seat of Chisholm, challenge Health Minister Greg Hunt in Flinders or backbencher Michael Sukkar in Deakin. In any case, should she run as an independent, she might pose a significant threat to the Liberal Party’s ambitions, given that she managed to win the marginal seat of Chisholm from Labor in 2016, with minimal funding and little support from the Victorian Liberal Party, a source of tension in the past with state party president Michael Kroger, who is now under extreme pressure – along with state party director Nick Demiris – after last weeks’ election.