7 Sep 2018

Australian politics: 'Nasty' tactics during Liberal Party spill revealed

5:25 pm on 7 September 2018

Fresh details have emerged about the "nasty" standover tactics employed by some of the Australian Liberal Party "insurgents", as they tried to build support for Peter Dutton during their failed leadership coup last month.

Australia's former home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, faces the media at a press conference in Canberra on August 21, 2018.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton faces the media at a press conference. Photo: AFP PHOTO / SEAN DAVEY

Sources have told the ABC that during the "horrible, bruising week", Mr Dutton's backers would enter colleagues' offices uninvited, and sometimes first thing in the morning, and refuse to leave unless they signed the petition to bring on a spill.

One MP said it was only after a "terse exchange" that their colleague agreed to leave.

But that pressure continued on the floor of Parliament where Mr Dutton's supporters would target MPs during divisions and try and force them to add their name to the petition.

The then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had just raised the stakes in the leadership crisis by demanding to see a petition with 43 names on it - a majority of the partyroom - before he would pull the trigger on a spill.

The ABC understands Liberals were also told their preselection would be at risk unless they backed Mr Dutton's challenge and, on the day of the spill, were pressured to show their - supposedly - secret ballot paper to another MP to prove which way they had voted.

One MP told the ABC that a specific colleague had been assigned to check their ballot inside the party-room meeting on the Friday.

Mr Dutton ended up losing the leadership ballot to the compromise candidate, Scott Morrison, 40 votes to 45.

In the fallout from the torrid affair, Victorian Liberal MP Julia Banks announced she would quit at the next election following the "bullying and intimidation" she faced, while her Upper House colleague Lucy Gichuhi has threatened to name and shame the worst of the culprits.

The South Australian senator was already aggrieved at her party, having been relegated to an unwinnable spot on the state's Upper House ticket, and at least one of her colleagues fully expects her to follow through on the threat.

Other female MPs including Sarah Henderson and Linda Reynolds are also understood to have faced pressure during the tussle over the top job.

Adding some weight to the claims, Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer said she had spoken to both male and female MPs and that "it is clear to me that people were subject to threats and intimidation and bullying".

Some of Mr Dutton's backers, including young conservatives Andrew Hastie, Michael Sukkar, James Paterson, Zed Seselja, Tony Pasin and Jonathon Duniam, have denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the alleged bullying.

Senator Seselja said while he saw no evidence of intimidation, he was not dismissing the allegations.

"I think it's important they're properly considered," he said.

The 'woman problem'

The Liberal Party has long had a "woman problem" but female MPs are often reluctant to talk about it, fearing a possible backlash from their preselectors and male colleagues.

Having lost the deputy Liberal leadership, Julie Bishop weighed into the issue this week, telling her party it was unacceptable that women make up less than 25 per cent of the party's federal ranks.

And she conceded the leadership spill had prompted a discussion on the "bullying, intimidation, harassment and coercion" by federal politicians and "unfair unequal treatment of women".

"It is evident that there is an acceptance of a level of behaviour in Canberra that would not be tolerated in any other workplace across Australia," she told an event in Sydney.

"When a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don't say 'toughen up princess', say 'enough is enough'."

But that is not a uniform view.

Conservative Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells denied suggestions of bullying and intimidation while the party's Federal Women's Council chair Helen Kroger dismissed the complaints, saying politics was not for everyone.

Just 22 of the Coalition's 107 federal politicians are women and at the next election, that number will almost certainly go backwards.

Unless she can be convinced otherwise, Ms Banks will not recontest, Senator Gichuhi's political career will almost certainly come to an abrupt end, Queensland LNP MP Jane Prentice has lost her preselection and another three female MPs are sitting on a margin of less than 3 per cent.

Having dismissed quotas and affirmative action, the party is taking some steps to even up its gender representation, including a Liberal 'fighting fund' to help bolster campaigns for female candidates.

But last month's leadership coup appears to have emboldened at least some Liberal women to speak out.


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