ALEX MITCHELL. Does this ring a Bell? (Justinian 21 March 2019)

The backstory of Justice Andrew (Taco) Bell’s role in helping Schmo Morrison grab the seat of Cook … Wheels within wheels … Memories of the Cook preselection rort … The PM’s Muslim baiting goes back to the beginnings of time … Career paths on the up-and-up … Alex Mitchell comments 

The appointment of Sydney barrister Andrew Bell as president of the NSW Court of Appeal rekindles memories of the tremendous ruckus in the NSW division of the Liberal Party more than a decade ago.

In 2007 Morrison entered his name for Liberal preselection for the safe Federal seat of Cook based on the Sutherland Shire south of Sydney.

As the former Liberal state director, Morrison held excellent credentials to be the pre-poll favourite. He had letters backing his candidacy from Prime Minister John Howard (right-wing faction) and departing Cook MP Bruce Baird (the “wet” faction).

However, the well-regarded local candidate Michael Towke, a Lebanese Catholic, won easily. On the first ballot, Towke scored 82 votes while Morrison was eliminated with just eight.

The fiercely parochial pre-selectors of the Shire voted for Towke because he lived and worked in the area, while Morrison was regarded as an “outsider” who was raised in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Towke’s candidacy was duly announced to the media and his supporters unveiled a campaign for the seat, which they fully expected him to win at the November 2007 election.

Then, quite quickly, a Liberal “revolt” erupted via “exclusive” headlines on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

Unnamed people from the Liberal Party’s right-wing faction joined an anti-Towke campaign with lurid quotations about his alleged “Leb” links.

Coming in the middle of rumblings about another Lebanese-Australian identity, Eddie Obeid, a media witch-hunt erupted. There was the added background factor of the 2005 clashes at Cronulla between Lebanese youth and white boys from the Shire – stirred on by broadcaster Alan Jones, among others.

Towke: CookedMorrison rejected any knowledge of muckraking or playing the race card. “It’s just offensive,” he said, which is the same response he is now giving to the claim in 2011that he urged the shadow cabinet to make political capital out of Muslim immigration because of the inability of these migrants to “integrate”.

Since then, the sources for this report in The Sydney Morning Herald have not backed away from the story.

By July 2007 newspapers and commercial radio shock jocks were demanding a fresh preselection, insinuating that the original preselection decision had been “stacked” by Towke’s Christian Lebanese supporters.

Telegraph headlines came thick and fast: Liberal ballot scandal in Howard’s backyard (July 18, 2007); Towke future on hold (July 21 ); Party split as Liberal candidate faces jail (July 22); and Towke lied, but just by degrees (July 25).

Legal action was commenced in the Supreme Court before Justice George Palmer to secure a second ballot. Under immense pressure, Towke withdrew his nomination to concentrate on a defamation action against Nationwide News, publisher of the Smellograph.

Supported by a barrage of publicity, the Liberal’s right-wing candidate, Scott Morrison, won the recalled preselection ballot and then the seat at the 2007 election, which of course the Howard government lost.

One of the barristers retained in the case to argue for a second ballot was Andrew Bell SC (as he then was). Morrison was well-pleased with his game-changing advice.

Meanwhile, Mark Speakman SC, was beginning his climb into politics via the State seat of Cronulla which falls within the boundaries of Morrison’s federal seat of Cook.

In March 2011, when Premier Barry O’Farrell’s State Coalition stormed to victory in a landslide, Speakman entered State Parliament as the new MP for Cronulla replacing another barrister Malcolm Kerr.

Speakman quickly joined the Coalition ministry and eventually landed the top law officer’s job with deft courting of both left and right factions. In January this year, 10 days after Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the appointment of Court of Appeal president Margaret Beazley as the state’s 39th governor,Speakman announced that Dr Andrew (Taco) Bell, would be her replacement on the court.

Speakman did not stint in trowelling out Bell’s record of excellence:

“Dr Bell is one of Sydney’s leading barristers, with 24 years at the bar. Among the many accolades won by Dr Bell during his stellar career are his dual University Medals at Sydney University, his Rhodes Scholarship in 1990, his first place in the postgraduate  Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford University and his doctorate from Oxford. He took silk in 2006.” 

Bell’s own five page bio was soon doing the rounds, pillaged from the Eleven Wentworth website, replete with a colour photograph of the gourmand with plenty of details of his laurels, achievements and learned articles.

There was a stint as deputy chair of St Paul’s College Council at the University of Sydney, 2004-2012; editor of Bar News, 2005-2012; counsel for the Rinehart children in various permutations of the family trust litigation; and chairman Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea Inc, 2009-2016.

Michael Towke’s defamation action against the Daily Telegraph meandered through the Supreme Court for more than 12 months.

During pre-trial discussions Towke was offered $110,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement. He rejected the proposal saying: “They demonised me. I wanted to confront them in court.”

When the offer was rejigged to include payment of his costs and an open court apology, he accepted.

At this point, Towke’s personal story became better known. He had attended Marcellin College in Randwick, (motto: The Eternal, Not the Transitory). State ALP leader Leader Michael Daley is a former president of the school’s ex-students’ association.

At Sydney University, Towke received a first class honours degree in engineering plus a BA and won the Alan Davis Prize for sociology.

He also earned an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management and joined the Army Reserve. Since the age of 15 he had been volunteering for “Vinnies” and later became president of the Sylvania conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

In the Sutherland Shire among the political backroom boys he was often mentioned as a “perfect” parliamentary candidate, for either Labor or the Liberals.

At the time of the pre-selection ruckus, Towke was employed as a telecommunications engineer. He may have settled his defamation action but he remains angry that the ordeal was damaging for family and friends.

Scott Morrison has condemned race hate in the wake of the massacre in two Christchurch mosques. As immigration minister in the Abbott government, Pentecostal  Morrison was architect of the “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy and he relished his role in the government’s divisive “stop the boats” campaign.

As for Mark Speakman and Andrew Bell their career trajectories have by no means plateaued. Tom Bathurst won’t stay on as NSW CJ forever and Bell is well placed to move into the chief’s chair. If Morrison loses the election in due course he will shuffle off from parliament and create the long awaited vacancy for Speakman to enter federal politics.

Journalist Alex Mitchell is a former state political editor with the Sydney Sun-Herald and president of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery 2001-2007. He is now a freelance writer on politics and media 

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