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After 15 years without answers, a series of statutory declarations finally reveals how race and allegations of  ‘criminal’ activities were used in Scott Morrison’s controversial preselection. By Karen Middleton.

‘Actually a Moslem’: The true story of Morrison’s ruthless preselection

Scott Morrison outside Parliament House, Canberra, midweek.
Scott Morrison outside Parliament House, Canberra, midweek.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Scott Morrison looked like losing a preselection contest for the seat of Cook in the Sutherland Shire when he allegedly told key party members that a popular rival was rumoured to be “a Moslem” who would damage the party’s chances. It was 2007, just two years after the Cronulla riots.

Statutory declarations signed in 2016 – nine years after the preselection and two years before Morrison became prime minister – allege that he told certain preselectors they could not afford to have a person of Lebanese background represent them in the conservative seat.

Morrison also allegedly described his key opponent, who was Catholic, as “a Moslem” and suggested there were many “allegations” against him and that he was “being investigated”. The frontrunner for that preselection was Michael Towke, a conservative Catholic community leader and long-time Liberal Party member. An Australian of Lebanese heritage, Towke had lived in the shire for a decade. He had recruited hundreds of new members to the party in the lead-up to the vote, persuading some in the party he was aligned with its Left wing but actually recruiting for the conservative Right.

 

Nine years after Morrison was installed as the candidate in a controversy that saw Towke forced to bow out, at least two former delegates who voted in the preselection signed statutory declarations about conversations they’d had with Morrison ahead of the vote. The Saturday Paper understands at least one, dated April 2016, was written and signed when a journalist began making inquiries about events leading up to the preselection.

In the declaration, the delegate describes meeting with Morrison ahead of the vote, at Morrison’s request, to discuss the preselection contest.

“During that meeting, Scott Morrison informed me that Michael Towke was ‘being investigated’ by the Liberal Party, and that numerous ‘allegations’ had been made against Mr Towke,” the declaration states.

The delegate’s declaration suggests Morrison did not discourage them from sharing this assertion, only that his name be kept out of it. “Mr Morrison said that he ‘could not be quoted’ in relation to this information, if I chose to share it with others,” the declaration says. “Also during that meeting, Scott Morrison told me that, if Michael Towke were to be preselected, there would be ‘a swing against the Liberal Party in Cook’, because of Mr Towke’s Lebanese background.”

The declaration says Morrison referred to Towke’s religious faith. “Also during that meeting, Scott Morrison informed me that there was a strong rumour about that ‘Michael Towke is actually a Moslem’,” the declaration says. “Mr Morrison again said that he could not ‘be quoted’ in relation to this information.”

The Saturday Paper is aware of other conversations Morrison is alleged to have had with delegates. One former delegate describes Morrison saying that Towke was “not a suitable person for Cook”, which they understood to mean that “Towke wasn’t acceptable because of his Lebanese background”.

The Saturday Paper is also aware of correspondence dated June 2007 in which a party official queried Towke’s assurance that he had never been involved in an incident in which charges were laid, and asks Towke to respond the next day to rumours that he had been stabbed in a pub brawl.

In his own declaration, dated April 2016, the contents of which The Saturday Paper has seen, Michael Towke says that just before the July 2007 preselection vote he received a number of calls from local preselection candidates.

“Some of them had either just recently met with Scott Morrison … or they had spoken with someone who had recently met with him,” Towke’s 2016 declaration says. “They informed me that Morrison was appealing with them to not support me based solely on the rationale that my family heritage was Lebanese. He was adamant and explicit that a candidate of Lebanese heritage could not hold the seat of Cook, especially after the Cronulla riots.”

Towke’s declaration says Morrison had also advised these delegates that “I was being investigated by the Liberal Party for a number of criminal and immoral activities, all with racial overtones, and all of which turned out to be completely fabricated and have no basis of truth whatsoever”.

In July 2007, Michael Towke won the Cook preselection, securing 82 votes to Morrison’s eight, but moves were immediately under way to overturn that decision.

A campaign to undermine Towke ensued, including in the pages of Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph. Towke sued for defamation and two years later the newspaper offered a settlement, which Towke accepted. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting Morrison was the source of those rumours against Towke.

In the short term though, the New South Wales Liberal Party executive invalidated Towke’s victory, overturned the preselection result and prepared to run it again.

The pressure took a toll on Towke and his family. He signed a legal deed with the party’s then state director, Graham Jaeschke, agreeing not to recontest the preselection in return for the party’s state executive passing a resolution clearing his name. Morrison was installed instead.

The existence of the statutory declarations came to light this week during an excoriation of the prime minister’s character by Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Fierravanti-Wells lost her own preselection battle last weekend, being dropped to an unwinnable fourth position on the Coalition ticket after 17 years in the senate.

Two hours after the government unveiled its federal budget, Fierravanti-Wells used parliamentary privilege to give a blistering personal assessment of Morrison, who she blames for the defeat.

“He is adept at running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds, lacking a moral compass and having no conscience,” Fierravanti-Wells told the senate. “His actions conflict with his portrayal as a man of faith.”

Fierravanti-Wells said Morrison’s factional lieutenant, Alex Hawke, was his “consigliore”.

“In my public life I have met ruthless people. Morrison tops the list, followed closely by Hawke,” she said. “Morrison is not fit to be prime minister and Hawke certainly is not fit to be a minister.”

The outspoken senator lost her position on the senate ticket to Jim Molan, currently in the senate having filled a casual vacancy, but who had assured some in the party that he would not recontest.

Morrison has long wanted Fierravanti-Wells gone after she became a loud critic of him personally and of his government, having been dropped from the ministry. And after being forced out of the preselection race, Towke worked for Fierravanti-Wells.

In response, Morrison dismissed Fierravanti-Wells’s claims as the disgruntled protest of a senator who had been dumped. “I understand she’s disappointed,” Morrison told Perth radio 6PR. “I understand she’s been disappointed in the past when other prime ministers haven’t put her in the ministry or in roles that she would have liked to perform in. But in politics, on occasion, people have disappointments, and so I obviously don’t agree with her assessment.”

Former prime minister John Howard also downplayed Fierravanti-Wells’s allegations. “Connie’s had a good run,” Howard told Nine newspapers. “She lost and she was unhappy. What happened with her preselection produced a predictable reaction.”

Howard similarly dismissed comments from One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who backed the Liberal senator’s claim that Morrison was a bully. “I haven’t seen any evidence that he is a bully, that he’s arrogant or any of that. Forceful? Well, anybody who gets to be the leader of a political party is forceful,” Howard said. Hanson said Morrison was “not a prime minister for the people”. On Wednesday she told the parliament: “He is a bully and I back the senator up completely with that. He is a bully because I have experienced it myself. He is a man [who says] ‘You do it my way, or there’s no way.’”

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie agreed. “I have no doubt that he is a bully,” Lambie told Nine on Thursday. “I’ve dealt with him one on one.”

Morrison and colleagues have recently demanded Labor leader Anthony Albanese establish an independent investigation into allegations that senior Labor frontbenchers bullied the late Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, who died recently of a heart attack, aged 52. Albanese has rejected the proposal.

During her parliamentary remarks, Fierravanti-Wells said she was advised that there were “several statutory declarations to attest to racial comments made by Morrison” ahead of the 2007 preselection contest that “we can’t have a Lebanese person in Cook”.

On Wednesday, Morrison told 2GB radio that her allegation was “absolute rubbish”. When The Saturday Paper put more detailed questions to Morrison’s office, based on allegations in the statutory declarations, a spokesperson pointed to the radio interview. “As prime minister there are lots of people who disagree with you, there are lots of people who say all sorts of things about you,” Morrison told 2GB. “It comes with the job. You’ve got to have a thick skin and you’ve got to be able to focus on the things that matter most to Australians.”

A former Liberal member for Cook who supported Towke during the preselection, Dr Stephen Mutch, told The Saturday Paper that Towke had exhibited “a charisma, intellect and personal skills far superior … to the other failed candidates”.

“The disgraceful failure of the party to support the democratic choice is a great loss to public life in Australia. The scuttlebutt that surrounded his ethnicity showed an element of racism in the party, none of which was shared among local members in Cook, I might add.”

Mutch is not the author of any of the statutory declarations. He lauded Fierravanti-Wells’s remarks in parliament, saying her “complaints resonate very well with me”.

“I am no longer a member of the Liberal Party because of the democratic deficit in the NSW division,” Mutch told The Saturday Paper. “Plebiscites are held for show when the results are predictable. Otherwise, they are avoided. To ensure democracy in the party, preselections need to be supervised by an external independent body, a role unsuited to the High Court. At a time when people in Ukraine are dying for democracy, the concept has become a sick joke in the NSW division.”

At the request of Morrison and Hawke, the federal executive has recently intervened to install candidates in a series of house of representatives seats, after Hawke refused to complete the process to choose candidates democratically.

Hawke was also involved in Morrison’s preselection. Originally, Morrison had his eye on the also safe outer-metropolitan seat of Mitchell, on Sydney’s north-west fringe, but so did Hawke, the former president of the NSW Young Liberals, with whom Morrison had worked closely as NSW state Liberal Party director.

Hailing originally from Bronte in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, but willing to move to Mitchell in the hills district, where the Pentecostal Hillsong church has a stronghold, Morrison was persuaded to turn elsewhere instead – to Cook – and leave Mitchell free for Hawke.

There was a push to help Morrison with the campaign for preselection, but Towke’s rapid and successful membership drive saw him defeated. According to some of those involved at the time, Morrison’s supporters began working immediately to have the result set aside.

Speaking on KIIS FM radio just after Morrison became prime minister in August 2018, former Labor senator Sam Dastyari revealed that Liberal emissaries of Scott Morrison had approached him, as a then operative in his party’s state headquarters, for a “dirt file” on Towke, who had briefly been a Labor Party member.

Dastyari said he had been amazed at how the Liberals had “weaponised it” to run a smear campaign.

“I’ve seen a lot of dirty things in politics,” Dastyari said in 2018. “I’ve never had the Liberal Party come to us and ask for dirt to fight one of their own internal political opponents.”

In the interview, Dastyari called it a political assassination. He offered Towke a public apology for his own role in the affair and suggested Morrison should do the same.

“I would never underestimate Scott Morrison because I would never underestimate a guy who would turn to his political opponents to take out one of his own,” Dastyari said.

“A guy that would do that would do anything. And, mate, this is not a guy to be underestimated. I mean, if you’re going to do that, right, there is no line that you won’t kind of cross.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "‘Actually a Moslem’: The true story of Morrison’s ruthless preselection".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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