Lawmaker’s exit weakens embattled Australian govt


CANBERRA • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s (picture) government was further weakened yesterday when a lawmaker quit his ruling Liberal Party and announced she would sit in Parliament as an independent.

In announcing her defection, Julia Banks attacked the direction of the party and the increasing influence of a right-wing faction that toppled former leader Malcolm Turnbull in August.

“Their actions were undeniably for themselves,” Banks said in her statement to Parliament in Canberra. “The Liberal Party has changed, largely due to the actions of the reactionary and regressive right wing who talk to themselves rather than listening to the people.”

The government had already lost its majority in the lower house after being defeated in a special election in Sydney last month, triggered by Turnbull’s resignation from Parliament after he lost the leadership. It is forced to rely on the support of independent lawmakers to pass legislation and survive any no-confidence votes — making it hard to gain policy traction as it prepares for national elections expected in May.

As Banks was announcing her resignation from the Liberals, Morrison was indicating to reporters in another part of Parliament House that his government will fight for another term in office on the back of its economic credentials, saying it will hand down a “surplus budget” on April 2.

“It will be a budget which is the product of the years of hard work of our government,” said Morrison.

A return to budget surplus on the back of increased tax revenues would be the first since the global financial crisis. The government will provide its half-yearly update on the state of the budget on Dec 17.

With voters disillusioned by disunity in the ruling Liberal-National coalition that’s led to policy inertia in areas such as energy security and climate change, the government has a mountain to climb in order to win re-election.

According to the latest Newspoll this week, it trails the main Opposition Labor party by 10 percentage points.

Should that be replicated in the federal election, the coalition would lose about 20 seats and Labor leader Bill Shorten would become prime minister after five years in Opposition.

“Banks’ move is another messy look for a government already damaged by infighting,” said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

“The government looks like it’s heading toward defeat at the election, unless Scott Morrison can somehow perform a turnaround that would have to be miraculous from here.”

In her departing statement, Banks also took a shot at the male-dominated culture of the Liberal Party.

During the week when Turnbull was overthrown, supporters of Home Affairs Minister and leadership aspirant Peter Dutton allegedly tried to coerce and intimidate female colleagues into supporting their candidate.

“Often when good women ‘call out’ or are subjected to bad behaviour, the reprisals, backlash and commentary portrays them as the bad ones — the liar, the troublemaker, emotionally unstable or weak, or someone who should be silenced,” Banks said.

Instead, the hallmark characteristics of Australian women “are resilience and a strong authentic independent spirit”, she said.