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Before being rolled by Scott Morrison for preselection in the safe seat of Cook, Michael Towke was made a clandestine operative for the Liberal right, with Alex Hawke acting as his ‘handler’. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Fresh details in Morrison preselection saga

Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP / Flavio Brancaleone

On a Tuesday night in late February 2007, Michael Towke went to dinner with Alex Hawke. Over steak at the Meat & Wine Co in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, the Lebanese–Australian Maronite Catholic and the Young Liberals’ former federal president met with senior figures from the right wing of the New South Wales Liberal Party.

The group discussed recruiting members into branches in the federal seat of Cook, to wrest it away from the moderates.

Five months later, Towke himself would win a preselection ballot in the seat, beating the rest of the field and setting off a chain of events that would see him publicly smeared, dumped as the candidate, and forced to swing his numbers behind a rival who’d run last – the current prime minister, Scott Morrison. After that, Towke would wind up so disillusioned, he would walk away from representative politics for good.

A Liberal Party member for the previous seven years, Michael Towke had already been signing up people for more than a year – doing it carefully, by the book – when he dined with Alex Hawke. The recruitment, he says, was specifically under Hawke’s instruction.

Back then, Towke was publicly associated with the moderates on the party’s left. But since moving from Redfern to the Sutherland Shire, he’d become quietly disillusioned.

“I had a couple of meetings with Alex Hawke, and he convinced me I was on the wrong side – that what was aligned to my values was the right,” Towke tells The Saturday Paper.

The pair started having secret meetings in 2005, Towke recalls. “We were meeting in cafes, kilometres away [from Macquarie Street] or in private dining rooms so I wouldn’t be seen with him.” In the course of these meetings, Towke became a clandestine operative for the right. “Hawke was my handler.”

Because Towke was seen as moderate-aligned, he did not trigger any alarm when he started signing up members in large numbers. From the outside, it looked like shoring up the incumbent moderate member for Cook, Bruce Baird.

But what was going on underneath was a double double-cross. Moderates were moving against Baird, just as they had ousted his predecessor, Stephen Mutch. They thought Towke was helping them.

The result would see Baird ousted, but with Scott Morrison the ultimate beneficiary and Michael Towke serious collateral damage.

Fifteen years later, on the eve of the 2022 federal election, full details have now emerged of exactly how Scott Morrison came to secure the safe seat and the allegedly dirty tactics that were involved.

The story of what happened to Michael Towke is a tale of ruthless factional politics, favours and payback. It involves using – even bending – rules to advantage particular individuals and the sections of the party to which they belonged. Like everything in politics, it’s a story about power.

 

In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, Towke had done as Hawke asked and boosted the branch numbers so a right-wing candidate could get up – only Hawke wouldn’t say who it would be. Towke had even begun to think he might like to have a go himself. What became clear to him over dinner that night in Darling Harbour was that he had been played.

“He hasn’t got a very good poker face,” Towke says of Hawke.

“When he was asked who the candidate would be, he had such a non-committal response … He didn’t do me the courtesy of letting me know what he was thinking. That’s when I knew something was up.”

The something was Scott Morrison. He was not a member of the right at all, but of the small centre-right faction in the middle. Weeks before, he and his wife, Jenny, had moved to the Shire.

Prior to that, the Morrisons had been living in the electorate of Mitchell in Sydney’s Hills district. Having ended four years as NSW Liberal Party state director in 2004, Morrison was eyeing off federal preselection. Mitchell was a prize seat, the kind you would want if you thought you might have a shot at being prime minister one day.

But Alex Hawke wanted Mitchell for himself. A deal was struck and Morrison was persuaded to move to Cook, where Hawke would help him secure preselection. This was the backdrop to Hawke’s urging Towke to boost branches in Cook. Except Towke had no idea. He decided to run himself.

“It was the ugliest preselection I have ever seen in over 40 years in the party,” says Marie Ficarra, a former state Liberal MP.

“I have never experienced such a character assassination of a member of the party. It just left such a bad taste in the mouths of people who knew Michael Towke. He overwhelmingly won that preselection.”

Towke secured 82 votes. Morrison came last with eight. Towke’s win followed what he believes was a concerted campaign to try to stop him from even running.

A week after Towke lodged his nomination form on April 30, 2007, questions from the state executive began. First, was his place of residence accurate? A month later, after a flurry of correspondence and statutory declarations from Towke, the state director, Graham Jaeschke, confirmed his nomination had been approved.

A fortnight after that, he was called to a meeting at short notice and presented with a statutory declaration from a party member who said Towke had paid for his membership – against party rules. Towke made a declaration that the allegation was false and obtained a corroborating statement from another party member who was present at the time.

Then came questions about his service in the army reserve and the validity of his membership of the Cronulla Returned Services League. On June 20, three days before the preselection ballot was due, Towke was told information had been received alleging he had been investigated by police over an incident in a bar, in which Towke was supposed to have been stabbed. No further details were provided but Towke was given 24 hours to respond.

Through his lawyers, Towke wrote back the next day. He denied the allegation “emphatically” and raised “serious questions” about how the party was handling things. He also noted concerns about what he called “inordinate and unexplained” delays and alleged harassment of branch members.

Towke was not the only candidate standing against Morrison. There were six others: David Coleman, Paul Fletcher, Mark Speakman, Bruce Morrow, Peter Tynan and Roger Gray. At the eleventh hour, the party’s executive suddenly and unexpectedly ruled out some preselectors. On June 22, 2007, the day before the preselection was due, that decision was used as the basis for a legal challenge. David Coleman took the Liberal Party to court, asking it to reinstate the preselectors. In light of the case, the ballot was delayed until July 14.

Among the other candidates, only Paul Fletcher and Michael Towke agreed to join the case. Fletcher backed Coleman but party officials persuaded Towke to argue against them and in favour of the party’s position, which was that the court had no jurisdiction. He hired a lawyer at his own expense and presented arguments in the party’s defence. Unexpectedly, the party reversed its position at the last moment and deferred to the court – to Towke’s astonishment and dismay, given the expense he had incurred.

The court found in Coleman’s favour and the preselectors were reinstated. The situation returned to the status quo, with the only change being that the preselection was delayed. Towke believes that was all the party wanted. The Liberal Party would eventually reach a legal agreement with Towke in which he was paid $33,000 – reimbursement for his legal costs.

After the court case, a new preselection date was set in Cook – July 14 – but Michael Towke’s problems continued. He and others subsequently detailed in statutory declarations what they allege went on.

They say Morrison began backgrounding certain preselectors against Towke, telling them they could not preselect a person of Lebanese heritage in Cook, where the Cronulla riots had occurred two years earlier.

In one such declaration, preselector Scott Chapman said Morrison told him Towke was “being investigated” by the Liberal Party and that many “allegations” had been made.

Chapman’s declaration says Morrison told him Towke’s Lebanese background would cause “a swing against the Liberal Party in Cook”.

According to the declaration, Morrison told him there was a strong rumour that “Michael Towke is actually a Moslem”. Chapman was one of those Morrison subsequently thanked in his first parliamentary speech.

Towke believes his decision to anglicise his original surname – from Taouk to Towke – in 2005 helped fuel the “rumour”. The Sydney-born Towke says he did it “to fit in”.

He says, “You’re damned if you do – you try and fit in – and damned if you don’t. Whatever I would’ve done, they would’ve screwed me. Because it was Morrison’s seat. They needed Morrison to have the seat and that was it.”

This week, Prime Minister Morrison denied the allegations, calling them “outrageous” and “malicious slurs”. Morrison offered to also sign a statutory declaration – but only if someone launched court proceedings. A string of Morrison’s colleagues, several of them women, also spoke out in his defence, as did Lebanese community leader and long-time friend Dr Jamal Rifi, who said the allegations did not align with his knowledge of Morrison’s character. For his part, Towke said he had received a text message from a cabinet minister saying “I believe you” and to “do what you need to do, just be careful”.

After Towke won his preselection in 2007, a concerted smear campaign began. Towke sued The Daily Telegraph for defamation and the matter was eventually settled in his favour. In the meantime, amid the controversy, the Liberal Party cancelled the preselection result.

Towke’s disendorsement stunned many in the NSW branch. Among them was Catherine Cusack, now a NSW upper house MP and one of those who spoke out against Morrison this week, criticising his funding response to the recent floods and calling him a bully.

“I cannot emphasise to you how much we can rip each other to pieces in the Liberal Party, and left and right will do that regularly,” Cusack told The Saturday Paper. “But if someone wins a preselection, that’s it. Fair and square. Disendorsing an endorsed candidate was always out of bounds.”

Cusack says the Cook preselection was a new low in factionalism and that “every MP is now alarmed about their preselection”, fearing they could suffer the same fate. “The way the constitution was abused in that case shocked everybody. What you see in the Liberal Party today – this is absolutely not what we are or who we used to be.”

Under relentless pressure and with a barrage of damaging stories appearing, Towke reached an agreement with the Liberal Party in which it declared he was, in fact, a fit and proper person. In return, he agreed not to contest the reopened preselection.

For reasons that have not been explained publicly, previous fellow frontrunners Paul Fletcher and Mark Speakman, and David Coleman who mounted the legal action, also did not recontest.

Towke was also pressured, in what he says were private threats to further damage his reputation, to swing his numbers behind Morrison. Exhausted and defeated, he did so.

“It was literally a living nightmare and very surreal at times,” Towke says now. “It was almost like it was happening to someone else.”

Assured Morrison would be good for the right faction, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells also lobbied conservatives in Morrison’s favour. He won.

Coleman and Fletcher were subsequently preselected in other seats – Fletcher in Bradfield, in Sydney’s north, and Coleman in Banks, in the west. Both now serve in Morrison’s ministry. Mark Speakman entered state parliament and is now the NSW attorney-general.

Fierravanti-Wells subsequently employed Michael Towke. Her career has not flourished like the others’.

 

The statutory declarations detailing Morrison’s alleged 2007 comments to preselectors – published for the first time by The Saturday Paper last week – weren’t made until 2016. They were sworn just days before The Sydney Morning Herald published a profile on the man who was by then the treasurer. It was titled “Scott Morrison’s relentless rise to power”.

The day the piece appeared, Michael Towke posted a biblical quote on Twitter.  “‘And ye shall know the truth & the truth shall set you free’ John 8:31.” In the post, Towke tagged Morrison’s Twitter account and included a link to the newspaper profile, which made a brief mention of Morrison’s alleged backgrounding against him. He added one more tag: #RacismStopsWithMe.

Towke still gets invited to Liberal Party functions in Cook, where he remains the president of one of Morrison’s local branches. He stays in it to keep the branch alive and to “support the people who supported me and still support me”.

Reflecting on that, he adds: “Loyalty deserves loyalty.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Exclusive: Fresh details in Morrison preselection saga".

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

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