Margin: Liberal 12.7%
Location: Southern Sydney, New South Wales
The candidates (ballot paper order)
PETER WILLIAM SCAYSBROOK
MATTHEW GARY PALISE
Cook covers southern Sydney suburbs to the south of the Georges River, including Kurnell, Cronulla, Miranda and Sylvania. The electorate was created in 1969 to accommodate post-war suburban development, the area having previously been accommodated by Hughes from its creation in 1955 and Werriwa beforehand (an unrelated seat called Cook covered inner southern Sydney from 1906 to 1955). There has been little geographical change to the electorate since its creation, its boundaries being set by Botany Bay and Georges River in the north and Port Hacking in the south, but its character has transformed from marginal mortgage belt to affluent and safe Liberal. The seat’s inaugural member was Donald Dobie, who had won the hitherto Labor-held seat of Hughes for the Liberals with the 1966 landslide, but he was unseated in 1972 by Labor’s Ray Thornburn. Dobie again contested the seat in 1974 and 1975, suffering a second narrow defeat on the first occasion and winning easily on the second. Thornburn followed Dobie’s example in twice recontesting the seat in 1977 and 1980, but like all future Labor candidates he was unsuccessful. Dobie prevailed by 148 votes when the Fraser government was defeated in 1983, and the closest margin since has been 3.5% in 1993.
Dobie was succeeded upon his retirement at the 1996 election by Stephen Mutch, who had been a member of the state upper house since 1988. Mutch fell victim after one term to an exercise of power by the party’s moderate faction, which at first backed local barrister Mark Speakman, who had been best man at Mutch’s wedding nine years earlier. The resulting dispute ended with the installation of another noted moderate, Bruce Baird, who had been a senior minister through the Greiner-Fahey NSW government from 1988 to 1995. Mutch’s demise greatly displeased John Howard, 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. After reports that growing Right control of local branches was putting his preselection in jeopardy, the 65-year-old Baird announced he would bow out at the 2007 election.
Even before Baird’s retirement announcement there was talk of him being succeeded by Scott Morrison, former state party director and managing director of Tourism Australia. 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, which had been successfully courted by local numbers man Michael Towke. Imre Salusinsky of The Australian reported that Morrison was further starved of support when moderates resolved to resist Towke by digging in behind their own candidate, Optus executive Paul Fletcher, later to emerge as member for Bradfield.
The ensuing preselection ballot saw Towke defeat Fletcher in the final round by 82 votes to 70, with Morrison finishing well back in a field that included several other well-credentialled candidates. However, Towke’s preselection success met powerful resistance from elements of the party hierarchy, whom conservative Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheahan credited with a series of damaging reports in the Daily Telegraph. The reports accused Towke of branch-stacking and embellishing his CV, culminating in the headline, “party split as Liberal candidate faces jail” (a defamation action brought by Towke against the paper was eventually settled in his favour). It was further reported that Towke had been the victim of a whispering campaign relating to how his Lebanese heritage would play in the electorate that played host to the 2005 Cronulla riots (Towke’s surname being a recently adopted Anglicisiation of Taouk). The party’s state executive narrowly passed a resolution to remove Towke as candidate, and a new preselection involving representatives of local branches and the state executive duly delivered victory to Scott Morrison.
Morrison was quickly established as a senior figure in a Liberal Party newly consigned to opposition, winning promotion to the front bench as Shadow Housing and Local Government Minister when Malcolm Turnbull became leader in September 2008 and securing the high-profile immigration and citizenship portfolio when Turnbull was deposed by Tony Abbott in December 2009. He further gained productivity and population after the 2010 election.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.