My ongoing effort to spice up the election guide with preselection argybargy has recently led me into the quagmire of Cook, where the Liberals finally settled on a candidate last Thursday after months of factional brawling. The drama began in April when Bruce Baird, who turns 66 in February, announced he would not seek another term. A former minister in the Greiner-Fahey state government, Baird had himself come to Cook in eventful circumstances. He was installed as a compromise candidate in 1998 after one-term member Stephen Mutch was challenged by Mark Speakman, a local barrister who had been best man at Mutch’s wedding eight years earlier. Baird’s nomination was a victory for his moderate faction over a member described by Irfan Yusuf as a small ‘c’ conservative. The demise of Mutch did not please the Prime Minister, who pointedly failed to promote Baird at any point in his nine years in Canberra. It also did not help that Baird was close to Peter Costello, and was spoken of as his potential deputy when fanciful leadership speculation emerged in early 2001.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Baird’s retirement was influenced by the prospect of a preselection challenge from the Right, which was exerting growing control over the Cronulla and Miranda branches. There had already been talk Baird would be succeeded by Scott Morrison (right), former state party director and managing director of Tourism Australia. Morrison left the latter position last year after a falling out with Tourism Minister Fran Bailey; a travel industry news site talks of rumours the Prime Minister promised Morrison support in Cook as payback for agreeing to go quietly. According to Steve Lewis in The Australian, Morrison boasted glowing references from a who’s who of Liberal luminaries, including Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, former Liberal president Shane Stone, Howard’s long-time chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos, and Nick Minchin, the Finance Minister and another close ally of Howard. However, it quickly became clear that such support would not avail him without the backing of the Right. Unfortunately for Morrison, much of the Right’s local strength was achieved by courting energetic local numbers man Michael Towke, who was himself intent on running. Imre Salusinsky of The Australian reported that Morrison was further starved of support when the Left resolved to resist Towke by digging in behind its own candidate, Optus executive Paul Fletcher.
Towke went on to defeat Fletcher in the final round by 82 votes to 70, with Morrison finishing well back in a field that included PBL executive David Coleman (who had the backing of Left-aligned state party president Geoff Selig), economic consultant Peter Tynan, 2004 Barton candidate Bruce Morrow and the aforementioned Mark Speakman. Towke’s success over what Imre Salusinszky of The Australian described as a Rolls-Royce field of candidates enraged opponents of the Right’s growing ascendancy, and doubts soon emerged as to whether the party’s state executive would ratify his nomination. Allegations of wide-ranging branch-stacking activities soon filled the media, as did reports of extravagant claims in his CV concerning his barely-existent security business. Towke had also said he had quit the ALP at the age of 18, but other documents emerged to suggest he was a member at 23. There was also talk of a whispering campaign surrounding Towke’s Lebanese heritage (his surname is a recently adopted Anglicisation of Taouk), and how this would play in the white-bread electorate that played host to the 2005 Cronulla riots. With the Prime Minister’s voice joining the anti-Towke chorus, the 22-member state executive voted to remove him by 11 votes to nine, with two abstentions.
This did not resolve the issue of Right control of local branches, which would still have been the decisive factor in any straight preselection re-match. It was reported that the seat was set to go to state upper house MP Marie Ficarra, a close ally of Right powerbroker and fellow MLC David Clarke. Ficarra’s Legislative Council vacancy would in turn be filled by Scot MacDonald, the party’s rural vice-president. MacDonald’s nomination for Senate preselection earlier in the year was rejected by the party’s nomination review committee, a body designed to vet candidates on grounds of character or ethics. This decision was reportedly prompted by Senator Bill Heffernan’s fierce lobbying at the direction of the Prime Minister, who wished to protect Left faction incumbent Marise Payne. However, Towke instead agreed to a deal in which a new preselection process would involve only those who had nominated the first time around, in return for the dropping of disciplinary action against him (which perversely enabled him to sit on the preselection panel).
The new preselection saw Morrison defeat Peter Tynan by 26 votes to 14, from a panel consisting of 26 representatives of local branches and 17 of the state executive. Imre Salusinszky reported that Morrison owed his win to Right delegates from the executive who persuaded local branch delegates to fall behind him. Fletcher and Speakman withdrew at the last minute, while Morrow ran but failed to secure any votes.