Part 3, Of Mice and Machinemen


In the first and second parts of this three-part series on the Liberal Party’s controversial 2007 Federal preselections, John Hyde Page looked at where the Prime Minister sits in the Party’s current factional scene, and showed how Howard and Bill Heffernan tried and ultimately failed to control the outcomes of major NSW preselections.

In this, the final instalment, Hyde Page tells how Michael Towke a former ALP member cum Right-wing branch stacker extraordinaire won the candidacy for what was once a safe Moderate seat, and wonders what this year’s preselections will mean for the Liberal Party’s future.

This year was not the first time that Cook had featured in the press. In fact, Cook has special historical significance. The preselection tussle that occurred there back in 1998, between Stephen Mutch and Bruce Baird, is an important milestone in the creation of the contemporary Liberal Party and literally set in train the sequence of events that brought the Right to power in NSW.

In 1998, the leaders of the Moderate faction, flushed with power and self-importance (because at the time they were in control of the Party, which they regarded as a testament to their own political skills), decided they would break with the long-standing practice of not attacking incumbent MPs and replace Stephen Mutch, the Member for Cook, with a Moderate. In doing so, they were not only prepared to disregard an appeal from the Prime Minister but also flagged a fundamental shift in the Moderate faction’s organisational conduct from soft-treading to head-kicking.

This decision, and the underlying change of which it was a reflection, had a plethora of consequences. For one thing, it gave the Right their most effective weapon: the claim that Moderates were a bunch of saboteurs, and enemies of John Howard.

Also, by deciding to re-conceptualise the internal affairs of the NSW Division as a kind of warfare with winners and losers and partisan nastiness the Moderates created an environment for which they were deeply unsuited: an unpleasant and inhospitable landscape that would scare away all but the most fanatical ideologues; a competitive arena in which group cohesion and long-term planning would be at a premium. In other words, they alienated their own support base, and exacerbated the collapse in the Liberal Party’s membership. This in turn made branch stacking and intimidation far more viable as political strategies not least for the Right, which turned out to be far better at both.

It was a high price to pay for a single seat in the House of Representatives. The more so because Bruce Baird the Moderate who replaced Mutch as Member for Cook never got beyond the backbench. And by 2007, Baird was ready to step down.

Quite possibly, the Right looked upon it as a chance to reverse historic injustice.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

In the Cook preselection, as in Mitchell, the Right’s approach was designed to create confusion amongst its opponents. There was more talk in the media about the ‘centre’ Right and the ‘hard’ Right, with the suggestion that only the latter was backing Michael Towke. The ‘centre,’ supposedly, was in favour of Scott Morrison, a former State Director of the NSW Liberal Party, who was billed as having cross-factional support in the preselection. Once again it was made to look as if the Right didn’t know what it was doing. And again, the waters were muddied.

Towke’s defects take a long time to recite in full, and at the time of writing still more of them were coming out, so the litany can only be incomplete. It’s enough to reprise what has been said in the media to get the general cut of the man: he used to work as a bouncer; has changed his name at least once; lied three times in his preselection nomination form; used to be a member of the Labor Party; and stacked literally hundreds of members of the Lebanese community into Cook branches in possible breach of the Party rules.

Then there’s Morrison; an instantly recognisable Liberal Party archetype, past examples of which have included Remo Nogarotto and Greg Bartels: the jargon-spouting private sector ignoramus who for no particular reason gets chosen to run the Party. Morrison was largely responsible for the 2003 and 2007 NSW State election campaigns, and both were catastrophic. That said, they were apparently not a big enough hint to Morrison that his destiny lay far away from Liberal politics.

Self-proclaimed status as a political guru, and the ability to drop names of the various Liberal parliamentarians he’d served as State Director, meant that Morrison was well-suited to be used by the Right as a fall guy. He was a ‘front-runner,’ or so it was said in the media not necessarily more talented than any of the impressive field of Moderate candidates, but most likely to be acceptable to all sides after the elimination of Towke, whose support was restricted to the ‘hard’ Right (whatever that was).

The Right was able to keep this story in circulation right up until the day of the preselection. Witness the Sydney Morning Herald:

Today’s preselection for the safe Liberal Federal seat of Cook , based in the Sutherland Shire, is expected to boil down to a fight between three candidates representing the Left, Right and middle of the NSW Party. Mark Speakman, a barrister, who is from the Left, Michael Towke , of the Right, and Scott Morrison, the former NSW Liberal Party State Director, who has cross-faction support, are among the seven candidates vying for the seat.

As political smoke-screens go, it worked a treat; making it far easier for Towke to get through to preselection day without too many questions about his past being raised in the media or anywhere else, because nobody could be bothered scrutinising a man who wouldn’t necessarily win.

Still, Towke needed more than this. Even very close to preselection day, he still had not been given a clean bill of health by the NRC and the State Director of the Party was harassing him with questions about his resume (which he had to rather artlessly avoid by refusing to take the State Director’s phone calls).

The possibility of another NRC veto was thus present and might explain another interesting episode, the connection of which to Cook was missed by the media.

On 29 June Charlie Lynn, a Right-wing member of the NSW Upper House, announced that he wanted to make a move to Federal politics by challenging Pat Farmer for preselection to Macarthur. Lynn’s numbers in Macarthur were, he claimed, ‘rock solid’ and the Right would back him against Farmer. Other Right-wing sources quoted in the media confirmed this.

The reason this was odd is that it occurred after nominations for Macarthur had already closed. Furthermore, the Right-controlled State Executive almost instantly cast a unanimous vote to re-endorse Farmer and foreclose any possibility of Lynn challenging. Odd. Odd. Odd.

Now, Charlie Lynn is not the brightest member of the NSW Parliament. His prime motivation
for staying there, one suspects, is that it gives him of a warm place to sleep each night. But even Charlie Lynn is probably aware that if you want to challenge an incumbent MP, and your numbers are ‘rock solid,’ the time to do it is before nominations close. He is probably also aware that you generally don’t announce a late preselection challenge to an incumbent MP unless you’ve checked to see that the Right-wingers on State Executive will re-open nominations for you.

So what are we to conclude?

It seems pretty obvious that the prospect of a challenge in Macarthur to Pat Farmer, one of John Howard’s favourite MPs was conjured up by the Right in order to smooth the way for Towke.

Lynn’s announcement, which was almost certainly stage-managed by the Right-wing leadership, carried the implied threat that if the NRC used Towke’s shady background as an excuse for blocking his nomination, then the Right would re-open nominations for Macarthur and run a candidate who did not have a bunch of skeletons in his closet (was, in fact, a Liberal MP) and couldn’t be blocked at NRC without a major public brouhaha.

Howard probably interpreted the gambit accurately, got in contact with the Right, and at some point between publication of the Macarthur story and the State Executive’s unanimous motion to re-endorse Farmer, a deal was done. Then the NRC pronounced Michael Towke a fit and proper person to contest Liberal Party preselection.

From that point on, Cook unfolded in a manner strikingly similar to Mitchell. On the day itself, all the members of the Right were there, looking remarkably united and behemoth-like and not in the least bit interested in cross-factional golden boy Scott Morrison, who received just 8 of 152 votes cast and was eliminated in the first round of voting. It was then just a matter of the half-dozen Moderate candidates fighting furiously amongst each other for votes through successive rounds of balloting while the Right remained a solid bloc throughout until, at the end of the fourth round, Michael Towke was declared the new candidate for Cook, 82:70.

It then fell to the Prime Minister to phone Towke and congratulate him on the win as if the win was not the last thing Howard wanted while the Moderates went out to drown their sorrows, making solemn vows to be less incompetent in the future and to ensure their defeats no longer occur on such a grand scale.

Funnily enough, the latter prediction may prove to be accurate. Moderate defeats in the future are unlikely to occur on the same scale as Cook because there just aren’t any significant jewels left in the Moderate crown. There are still a number of State seats that could be lost, but unless something odd happens in Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney, the Moderates will probably never suffer a disaster of comparable proportions again.

But make no mistake: Cook is a disaster. Cook was the nec plus ultra of the Moderate faction; the one seat that they were assured of never, under any circumstances, losing. It was a seat where they were highly organised, there was hardly any Right-wing opposition, and supposedly they knew what they were doing. How it happened is therefore a question of more than passing interest.

The Moderates lost their majority among the Cook branches, paving the way for the Right’s 80:72 victory, through one of the oldest Right-wing tricks in the book. A couple of years ago, the Miranda branch (controlled, interestingly enough, by one of the key Moderate protagonists from Stephen Mutch’s 1998 execution) gained a keen new member, a young Mr Taouk (who later changed his name to you guessed it Michael Towke).

Almost instantly upon joining, Taouk declared to his Branch President a strong interest in ‘helping’ the Moderate faction build its numbers. Would the president be keen for Taouk to sign up a few of his Lebanese friends and family members? He would? Excellent.

Embarrassingly enough the Moderate operative, who in this way welcomed Taouk/Towke’s 300 friends and family members into a safe Moderate branch, can’t even claim to have acted in good faith. Taouk/Towke’s previous involvement in various branch stacks around the NSW Division was already widely known at the time he joined Miranda, and had the Moderate operative done even five minutes’ research he would have discovered that Taouk/Towke had just finished helping Malcolm Turnbull and the Right sign up 1500 people in the seat of Wentworth, where they demolished yet another Moderate MP, Peter King.

The reason he decided not to ask around about Taouk/Towke (which in the contemporary Liberal Party is rather like putting a loaded revolver in your mouth) is a very Moderate one. He didn’t ask was because he didn’t want anyone else to know that Towke existed he wanted to take personal credit for any growth in the Miranda branch’s membership.

Two years later the unthinkable had happened, and the Right had actually managed to win Cook.

Don’t you just want to cry with laughter?

And so another set of Liberal Party preselections pass into the annals of history. The major themes were incompetence in the Moderate faction, and clear-eyed ruthlessness on the part of the Right. Both Cook and Mitchell were triumphs for the Right; although the seeming realisation by Canberra that ‘triumphs’ like this are also disasters for the Party portends interesting developments in the future.

As this story is written there appears to be a decent chance that John Howard, who until now has exercised his influence solely through Bill Heffernan and other intermediaries, may come out into the open and insist that Michael Towke be denied formal endorsement by the State Executive next Monday.

If he does, we will then see if the Right, which through this whole process has shown a preparedness to defy the Prime Minister’s proxies, is also willing to defy the Prime Minister openly and in full view of the press and nation. How Howard would respond to this, and whether there are still enough odds and ends in the NSW Division for him to develop a counterpoise to an intransigent Right wing should this be what he wants to do are all matters for interesting speculation.

Ironically, however, it is almost certainly academic speculation because the Liberals are looking at an absolute rout at the next Federal election; the sort of defeat that wipes a Party out for a generation.

It is possible the opinion polls are wrong, and it is possible they will change. But right now preselection for a safe Liberal seat looks like an opportunity to spend 10 years as part of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

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