Tony Abbott was desperate. With just over two weeks to go before the May 2019 federal election that would decide his political fate, the former prime minister was in a place that had been his comfort zone for the past 25 years. The Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club, in the heartland of his Warringah electorate, was the venue for a live Sky News debate.

But there was no comfort for Abbott on this occasion, as he blustered his way through a question about climate change with his independent opponent Zali Steggall making the case for ambitious reduction targets as he cast doubt, again, on the science. People in the audience jeered their local member. It looked bad for Abbott. As he knew too well, lose the “Queensies” as the local beachsiders are known, and you’re likely to lose the election.

Yet not everyone was jeering the former PM. One loyal supporter, a long-term Warringah resident in his mid-60s, stood against the tide. His name is Michael Cooke.

In a Facebook discussion of the Sky debate, Cooke described barrister-turned-candidate Steggall as a “total fraud,” adding: “You should have been at the Queensie Surf Club to hear her crap.”

In separate Facebook posts, Cooke took on those who doubted the record of Tony Abbott. “Stop spamming,” he responded to a Steggall supporter who pointed to a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece arguing it was time for Abbott to go. “U r full of it so like I said stop trolling.”

Inq has discovered that Cooke kept up his Facebook attacks on Steggall and her supporters on at least 10 different days up to and after the May 18 election, using the Facebook discussion pages of the Manly Daily, the local paper in the electorate. Descriptions Cooke applied to Steggall and/or her behaviour include: “total fraud” … “crap” … “false” … “cult queen” … “fake climate warrior” … “weird”.

Cooke described children who attended a climate change protest in front of Tony Abbott’s office as a “climate alarmist cult organised by GetUp” which was “the insidious US import”. The school children, he posted, were “political pawns for GetUp/Steggall”. The attacks were personal and angry.

As well as being a fierce Tony Abbott loyalist and social media enthusiast, Michael Cooke is a full-time senior member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

He was appointed first to the Migration Review Tribunal/Refugee Review Tribunal in 2014, during Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister, before being shifted to the newly expanded AAT in 2015. Here, he now works in the tribunal’s migration and refugee division, where he rules on appeals from Department of Home Affairs visa decisions in a position that commands prestige, power and an annual salary of up to $385,000.

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Unlike most of the tribunal’s senior members, Michael Cooke has no legal qualifications. His early work experience includes time as a Qantas steward where, at the age of 33, he was selected to accompany Pope John Paul II on the pontiff’s return flight after touring Australia in 1986. “What can you say about this guy? Definitely one of the greatest moments in my life,” Cooke later wrote.

Cooke’s publicly accessible Facebook page provides a window into the worldview of someone whose statutory role is governed by a conduct guide requiring that an AAT member’s actions are “not biased and do not give rise to an apprehension of bias”, conduct their private interests “so as to avoid situations which would bring the AAT into disrepute”, and should “avoid any activities, interests or associations which may undermine public confidence in the impartial performance of their Tribunal responsibilities”.

On Facebook, Cooke follows groups that include CPAC Australia (the right-wing organisation which recently hosted leading Brexit figure Nigel Farage, among others), Breitbart (the US alt-right news site), Monash Forum (an anti-renewable energy grouping of conservative politicians), Advance Australia (a libertarian political organisation that campaigned against Zali Steggall for the seat of Warringah), Fox TV host Sean Hannity and conservative Sky television host Paul Murray.

Cooke also follows ‘Tony Abbott’s Support Page’ and ‘I Stand with Tony Abbott’ on Facebook, pages dedicated to the political vision and works of the former prime minister.

Inq sought comment from the AAT on Cooke’s social media posts about Zali Steggall.

In a short written statement, a spokesperson said members were expected to observe the AAT Conduct Guide, but refused to comment on whether Cooke had breached the guidelines, or if his Facebook posts undermined the tribunal’s independence and integrity of the AAT.

The AAT also refused to comment on a recent High Court ruling that a public official posting material online, particularly on social media websites, should assume that “at some point, his or her identity and the nature of his or her employment will be revealed” even if they posted anonymously.

Michael Cooke with Pope John Paul II (2)
Michael Cooke serving Pope John Paul II on his Qantas flight out of Australia.

Cooke shares religious as well as political ties with Tony Abbott. Both attended Jesuit-run schools on Sydney’s north shore.

By the late 1990s, Cooke was accompanying Abbott on electorate duties. Dr Peter McDonald, then an independent member of state parliament, told Inq that Cooke was Abbott’s “seat warmer” at local functions — “he was an acolyte of Abbott’s”, he said.

In 2000, with Tony Abbott a minister in the Howard government, Cooke landed a job at the Migration Review Tribunal and, later, the Refugee Review Tribunal where he was employed as member for a decade.

A published description of Cooke’s qualifications in one of the tribunal’s annual reports is notably short on detail: “Michael Cooke was previously an adviser to a Federal Minister,” it reads, without naming Abbott. “He has also worked as a flight attendant (International) with Qantas Airways, a steel worker in Wollongong and as a school teacher in Western Sydney. He has had a long-term interest in immigration and has had an involvement with Manly Warringah ethnic communities.”

Inq twice approached Michael Cooke for comment about his social media posts, but he did not respond. Inq is not suggesting, or has any evidence to suggest, that Cooke is anything but a competent member of the AAT.

Peter Fray

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