“I hate Scott and I don’t trust him, but I’m staying for the fightback – you should too.”
“This women thing – don’t you think you’ve got a better chance of fixing it from the inside?”
These were the words of well-meaning Liberal MPs who were trying to persuade me to change my mind about not contesting the next election.
It was just days after the leadership coup against Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, when Scott Morrison became the new prime minister.
I knew there was no way I could be true to myself and stand alongside Morrison and campaign with him. But I was intending to sit it out quietly, until the next election. Fake it. Stay on the inside, as a Liberal MP.
But three months under Morrison’s leadership represented the most gut-wrenching, distressing period of my entire career; it included attempts to discredit my mental health, to destroy my professional reputation and patriarchal bargains to get me out of the Parliament or to stay silent.
So I quit the Liberals and served the remainder of my term as an Independent MP.
At a media conference this week at the start of the current election campaign, Morrison said: “It’s not a popularity test. You go to the dentist. It doesn’t matter if you like him or not, or like her or not. But you want to know that they’re good at their job.”
But if you go to the dentist and they’re bad at their job, you find another dentist. One who is good at their job. And a good leader of their team. A person you can trust.
In all my corporate experience of crisis management I know that nothing will reveal good or bad job performance in a leader as much as a crisis.
And it’s revealed first to those who work closely with them. Someone who will see at close range the real person, whether they can be trusted.
Someone who will show up, act quickly, accept that perfection is the enemy of the good. Be accountable and not duck and weave, spin or blame shift.
During the Black Summer bushfires just over two years ago, our country burned. Vast expanses of our cities and regions were engulfed in smoke.
We despaired at the reports and images, while photos emerged of Morrison in full holiday mode in Hawaii, giving a thumbs up, standing next to his friend with beer in hand. When he grudgingly returned, he said “I don’t hold a hose”.
“Lives are at stake today and he [Morrison] is just obsessed with political point scoring.”
“Morrison is a horrible, horrible person. He is actively spreading lies and briefing against me re fires” [and he is] “more concerned with politics not people”.
This was reportedly said in text messages sent at the height of the deadly bushfires to an unnamed cabinet minister by former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Berejiklian said she “cannot recall” saying this, but she does not deny it.
Let that sink in. That’s what was happening to a Liberal premier at the hands of Morrison in the context of her leading her state in a catastrophic emergency.
Catherine Cusack, a long-standing Liberal MP, last week publicly stated Morrison was “a ruthless bully who schemed at the expense of flood victims”. Her integrity and the fact she cares deeply for her community was laid bare.
“Morrison has a reputation for telling lies,” said former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“He [Morrison] is a hypocrite and a liar from my observations and that is over a long time. I have never trusted him, and I dislike how he earnestly rearranges the truth to a lie,” said current Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, in relation to the alleged cover-up of Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape in a cabinet minister’s office.
Budget night was derailed with Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells saying, “[Morrison] is a bully with no moral compass”.
Whether it’s in the context of the bushfires, the vaccine ‘stroll out’, a lack of rapid antigen tests, his government’s major reputational issue with women, or factional disarray – the common theme is disunity. And Morrison.
But he is the master of “controlling the narrative”.
That was my experience, and that of others from within the party.
There’s the backgrounding, the lies, the ducking and weaving, the announcements and platitudes which go nowhere. And zero accountability.
When he’s challenged, his brazen response will often be along the lines of, ‘it’s not my narrative’, or ‘that’s the narrative others put on you. It’s not a narrative that I share’.
But the ‘others’ Morrison is referring to are more often than not from within his own party, not his natural opponents in the Labor Party.
He once added: “It’s not the narrative that I necessarily get when I’m out and about.”
He did get out and about together late last year with Katie Allen MP in her seat of Higgins. Historically, one of the safest blue-ribbon seats in the country, held by two former Liberal prime ministers.
Around the same time when Allen, a medically qualified practitioner, supported Morrison’s advice that we would “stare down the virus”.
Allen, a self-described “big fan” of Morrison, looked on as he got a haircut, before they both made gnocchi together in a nearby cafe.
Some weeks later, around the corner from Morrison’s new-found barber shop in Higgins, long queues of people lined the main street for unavailable rapid antigen tests. A scene replicated across the country.
In the meantime, COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire, making for a different type of black summer for millions of Australians.
During his election pitch this week, Morrison’s core message, and those of his MPs, is moulded around it’s “better the devil you know”.
In five weeks’ time, we’ll know whether enough people on the outside have seen as much as those from within the Liberal Party, to know that the PR spin and performative public life politics don’t always guarantee this. Or another miracle.
‘… they do say they love me, they’re not so happy with Scott. There’s no doubt about that.”
“There’s no doubt I’ve got more popularity probably than he does [in Higgins].
“[But] I say to voters, ‘What about Albo? Who is he?’ They actually don’t like him any more [than Morrison].”
So, is it a popularity test, or isn’t it? And is it time to find a new dentist?
Julia Banks is an author, businesswoman, keynote speaker and former federal Liberal-turned-Independent MP