Maverick Liberal Craig Kelly defects to crossbench, vowing to continue to ‘use my voice’ on controversial COVID treatments


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Liberal maverick Craig Kelly has defected to the crossbench, giving Prime Minister Scott Morrison no warning before his surprise announcement to Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting.

Kelly, who strongly promotes alternative, unproven treatments for COVID said: “If I’m to speak out and to use my voice the best I can, this is the best decision for myself and for the people that I represent.”

Morrison recently dressed down Kelly in an attempt to stop him making comments that could harm the government’s campaign to get maximum take-up of the COVID vaccines.

His move takes away the Coalition working majority on the floor of the House of Representatives – it reduces the government to a one-seat majority, including the speaker’s casting vote. But Kelly said he would support the government on supply and confidence and indicated he did not see anything on its agenda that “I’m going to be objecting to strenuously”.

The member for the Sydney seat of Hughes since 2010, Kelly was considered almost certain to lose Liberal preselection, with a grassroots movement mobilising against him. He was saved from preselection challenges by interventions from Malcolm Turnbull before the 2016 election, and Morrison in the run up to the 2019 election.

Kelly told Sky: “I believe one of the greatest mistakes that’s been made in this country and also the world was prohibiting doctors from prescribing ivermectin and also hydroxychloroquine.

“I believe this was a terrible error.”

He denied he was an anti-vaxxer, which he said was just a “slanderous smear”.

“I support the vaccine program, but in concert, to use the words of our highest credential immunologist, these other treatments should be used in concert with the vaccine.”

He said he had an “obligation” to act on his conscience.

Morrison told a news conference he had learned of Kelly’s action “at the same time he announced it to the party room”.

“We had a discussion a couple of weeks ago.

“I set out some very clear standards and he made some commitments that I expected to be followed through on,” Morrison said.

“He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments and, as a result, he’s made his decision today.

“By his own explanation [in the party room], he has said that his actions were slowing the government down and he believed the best way for him to proceed was to remove himself from the party room and provide the otherwise support to the government so it could continue to function as it so successfully has, which he says is something he remains committed to. So I would expect him to conduct himself in that way.”

Asked at his news conference about one of Kelly’s staff, who is under police investigation for alleged inappropriate conduct towards a young woman in the workplace, Morrison said he had long held concerns about the staffer and Kelly had long known “what my expectations were about how he would deal with that matter.”

The staffer denies the accusations. Kelly has previously defended keeping the staffer on.

Later in parliament, when the opposition asked about Kelly’s staffer, Morrison accused it of “wilfully conflating two different matters”.

“There is the long-held concerns that I have had about the performance of a staff member in the member for Hughes’ office. That is based on the fact that my electorate adjoins that of the member for Hughes and they relate to performance measures that don’t relate to the more sensitive issues that have come up more recently.

“When it was drawn to my attention, I drew them to the attention of the member for Hughes when we met together several weeks ago. He undertook to take certain actions in relation to that staff member. That was not followed through on.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Craig Kelly’s defection leaves government with razor-thin majority


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Craig Kelly’s jump to the crossbench leaves Scott Morrison’s government looking like the man who suddenly finds his jacket feels a little thin in the wind.

It still has a majority, but not a comfortable one.

The Coalition’s block of 76 in a House of Representatives of 151 members means it does not possess a working majority on the floor. A vote would be tied if Labor and all crossbenchers opposed it.

Its majority of one includes the Speaker, Tony Smith. He has a casting vote in the event of a tie – one that he would exercise in a procedurally conservative manner, to preserve the status quo.

The Coalition’s position is not like that of late 2018, when it fell into minority government as things unravelled after the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull.

But losing a number makes descent into minority more of a possibility – if some unforeseen event took out another government MP. That would put it at greater risk of losing votes.

Kelly has said that, beyond supporting the government on confidence and supply, he will back it on the program it took to the election.

This gives him room to play up on a few measures, if he feels inclined, for example on any legislation relating to climate.

On the other hand, he would be unlikely to find parliamentary bedfellows on his pet issues.

Given the makeup of the crossbench, the government can be confident of its numbers, even if they’ve become a little more precarious.

Rebel Nationals would love to recruit Kelly to their party, to get an extra vote in the cause of removing Michael McCormack from the leadership. But Kelly sees himself as an “independent Liberal”; anyway, he’d have nothing to gain by joining the Nationals (which of course would restore the Coalition numbers).

The government is determined to portray Kelly’s departure in the most positive light it can find. “Good riddance”, is the official informal line.

With his passion for spruiking ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, unproven treatments for COVID, Kelly has been deeply irritating for Morrison. The Prime Minister recently called him into his office for a dressing down, after Kelly’s spectacular corridor clash with Tanya Plibersek.

He wanted Kelly to shut up. Instead Kelly, the zealot with the contrarian cause, is now more than ever on a mission to promote those controversial drugs.

This is the second defector to catch Morrison on the hop.

In 2018 word came of Julia Banks’ desertion when she was on her feet in the House of Representatives. Morrison was giving a news conference at the time.

Kelly on Tuesday only showed his hand in the party room. He said he wanted to tell his colleagues first. But perhaps there was a touch of tit for tat after that bawling out.

For Kelly’s part, he had the choice of an attention-grabbing exit from the Liberal party, or being dispatched from his seat by the preselectors, who would have ensured he’d not be the Liberal candidate at the election.

What harm can Kelly do the government do now?

He can cast an anti government vote now and then.

He can shout his views on COVID treatments and climate change. But he’s done that often enough. Arguably, at least in the mainstream outlets, when he is not talking as a rebel Liberal, what he says on COVID will get less attention. He’ll just be one crossbench voice.

He is signalling he is likely to run as an independent at the election. If he does, he wouldn’t poll well and it’s doubtful his presence would do much harm to the Liberals in his Sydney seat of Hughes.

In what’s a painful fortnight for the government, an element of the Kelly story fed into its problems with handling allegations of rape and sexual misconduct.

A staffer in Kelly’s office, Frank Zumbo, is being investigated over claims of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace (which he denies).

When this matter was raised with Morrison’s office last year by a local reporter via email, it did not answer her.

Morrison on Tuesday said he had spoken to Kelly about both this matter and the staffer’s performance. But Kelly has kept the man on.

The government had a significant win on Tuesday when Facebook agreed, in a deal involving the Coalition making some changes to its legislation, to lift its ban on republishing news on its Australian site.

Any other time, that would have made it a very good day.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who has been under sustained pressure over her 2019 handling of the Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, entered hospital in Canberra on Wednesday morning.

A statement from her office said she “will take a period of medical leave.

“This follows advice from her cardiologist relating to a pre-existing medical condition.” The statement said the hospitalisation was “a precautionary measure”.

Reynolds had been due to address the National Press Club on Wednesday, the same day Higgins is due to lodge her formal complaint with police against the alleged perpetrator of the assault against her, which she says took place in Reynolds’ office in March 2019.

Higgins tweeted her best wishes to Reynolds.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Craig Kelly triumphs in the ‘outwit, outplay, outlast’ game of Survivor


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Rebel right wing Liberal Craig Kelly is a paradox – a man who
chronically lacks the numbers but possesses the power to force prime
ministers to protect him.

On Monday, fresh from a G20 where he was less than feted, Scott
Morrison heavied a few moderates on the NSW Liberal executive. A
wobbly cross-factional deal to preserve Kelly held together.

In the process former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s nose was
bloodied. Turnbull had tried to persuade the moderates to veto the
endorsement – which would have pushed Kelly to a preselection ballot he’d have lost.

Turnbull’s foray was counter-productive, for the party and himself.
Moderate backbencher Trent Zimmerman told the ABC that “Malcolm’s intervention made it hard for the executive to do anything other than what they did”.

Though once Morrison’s authority was on the line, the executive could do little but what he wanted.

It was very different from 2016 when Turnbull urged support for Kelly,
writing that he had “a fine reputation for standing up for his local constituents and was unafraid of taking on controversial issues”.

Back then, pressure from Turnbull led Kelly’s opponent Kent Johns to
agree not to stand for the preselection.

Johns kept up his branch numbers and prepared for another tilt. But
lightning struck twice.

In a tweet on Monday that seemed remarkable for its restraint Johns,
who is a NSW Liberal vice-president, said, “While disappointed, I
respect and accept the Party’s decision, and will continue to serve
the Party and proudly campaign for the re-election of the Coalition
Govt”.

Before the last election supporters of Kelly were quoted as warning “a
challenge against him would send the message the party is becoming a
version of the Labor Party.” Kelly’s backers never let up on referring
to Johns’ Labor background.

This year, the times suited Kelly. The right is strong within the
party. And with the Morrison government now dealing with a hung
parliament, the risk that a disendorsed Kelly could defect to the
crossbench, and run as an independent, loomed large.

Morrison asserted on Thursday that the possibility of Kelly going to
the crossbench had “never been the subject of our conversations.”

It didn’t have to be – the threat has hung in the air for months –
although Kelly has been all over the place in his comments.

For example in May the ABC reported Kelly was “understood to have told local members that he will resign from the Coalition and sit as an independent, if the ‘higher powers that be’ do not secure his
nomination’. But he’s now told Sky News he will remain a Liberal no matter what happens.”

Kelly is a favourite of the right wing commentariat.

In 2016 Alan Jones said: “Let me say to Kent Johns and anyone else who’s thinking of standing for the preselection out there and to put a torpedo under this bloke. You’d better pull your head in, Kent Johns. Because I’ll tell you what: if you put your head up, there’ll be a hell of a story that’ll be told about you, Mr Johns.”

On Sunday night Sky’s Paul Murray went through Turnbull’s tweets on the Kelly preselection, branding them “lies”.

Kelly has had a special place on Sky, with so many appearances his
colleagues joke he must have a sleeping bag there.

As chair of the Coalition’s backbench energy and environment
committee, a spruiker for coal, and close to Tony Abbott, Kelly ran a
constant and unhelpful commentary on the Turnbull government’s attempt
to get an energy policy together.

He helped kill the NEG (and thus Turnbull’s prime ministership) – he
was one of those threatening to cross the floor if the associated
legislation on emissions went ahead.

Turnbull is correct when he says that overriding a local preselection
contradicts the recent push by the right of the party for a more
democratic structure.

This point isn’t negated by the fact that the preselection panel Kelly
would have faced was a transition one – changes that have been made to
the system are not fully operating yet. It would have been a more
democratic preselection than the executive deciding to have no ballot
at all.

It is reasonable for some Liberal women, and others, to compare
the treatment of Kelly with that of Jane Prentice, a moderate from the
Queensland LNP.

When she lost a preselection in May, there was no special fix, despite
the fact she was an assistant minister. Prentice did not threaten to
go to the crossbench. She’s now quietly on the backbench serving out
her term.

There are multiple messages in the Kelly affair. They are about the
power of the right; the willingness to abandon process (the closeness
to an election is no excuse – the Kelly preselection should have been
held months ago), and the desperation of the Prime Minister.

Postscript: In the Senate on Monday Labor’s Glenn Sterle asked members
of the public observing proceedings, “How many people in the gallery
respect your politicians? Put your hand up if you do.” No hands went
up.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turnbull versus Morrison in Liberal crisis over Craig Kelly


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison faces a major Liberal party crisis after Malcolm
Turnbull moved to torpedo the Prime Minister’s plan to protect the
preselection of controversial rightwing backbencher Craig Kelly.

Morrison wants the NSW Liberal executive to re-endorse sitting NSW
federal members so Kelly does not have to face a ballot in which he would be defeated.

Kelly has threatened to run as an independent if he loses preselection
and also at times has left the way open to go to the crossbench.

The Coalition is already in minority government after the loss of
Wentworth and last week’s defection of Julia Banks.

Kelly has lost the support of his local branch members, and the
moderates have the numbers to remove him. His preselection opponent,
Kent Johns, has been under pressure to pull out of the race – as he
was persuaded to do before the last election to save Kelly.

Kelly was one of those who scuppered the National Energy Guarantee, in
the party meltdown that ended Turnbull’s leadership. He is a constant
presence in Sky and used his appearances to undermine the Turnbull
position on energy.

After hearing of the save-Kelly plan Turnbull immediately began
lobbying moderate executive members not to agree to the
cross-factional deal. When his lobbying reached the media, he took to
Twitter.

In a series of Sunday night tweets he said: “Today I learned there was a move to
persuade the State Executive to re-endorse Craig Kelly as Liberal
candidate for Hughes in order to avoid a preselection – in other words
to deny Liberal Party members in Hughes the opportunity to have their
say.”

He said he had spoken with “several State Executive members to express
my strong view that the Party’s democratic processes should operate in
the normal way especially after such a long debate in the NSW Liberal
Party about the importance of grass roots membership involvement.”

“It is time for the Liberal Party members in Hughes to have their say
about their local member and decide who they want to represent them.”

“It has been put to me that Mr Kelly has threatened to go to the cross
bench and “bring down the Government”. If indeed he has made that
threat, it is not one that should result in a capitulation. Indeed it
would be the worst and weakest response to such a threat.“

Turnbull said he was “strongly of the view that the normal democratic process should proceed.”

The Australian reports that Turnbull told one executive member, NSW Minister Matt Kean, that if Kelly moved to the crossbench it would “force Morrison to an early election and that will save the Berejiklian government”.

Turnbull had said that when he was PM he and Morrison had agreed to a
March 2 election – before the state poll later in March – but Morrison
was reneging.

The Liberals believe that whichever government faces the people first
in NSW will get a double whack from angry voters. Morrison indicated
last week that the election would be in May after an April 2 budget.

Another NSW rightwinger, senator Jim Molan is arcing up over his
dumping to an unwinnable position on the Senate ticket. Molan is also
looking to Morrison to do something about his position.

“Let’s see what he does, but I’m not here to be taken for granted,”
Molan told 6PR on Sunday.

“I would make the arrogant statement that the Liberal Party needs me
more than I need the Liberal Party.”

UPDATE Kelly survives after Morrison appeal

The NSW Liberal executive has voted to save the preselection of rebel
MP Craig Kelly after Scott Morrison personally lobbied key executive
members.

Morrison, who only landed in Canberra on Monday morning after his trip
to the G20, rang several executive members to appeal to them not to
follow Malcolm Turnbull’s strong urging to veto a deal to endorse Kelly.

The key four executive members to be persuaded to abstain were moderates Wayne
Brown, Harry Stutchbury, Chris Rath, and Sally Betts.

It is understood that Morrison said that while he wanted them to
support the motion for re-endorsement, if they couldn’t do so they should abstain for the good of the government.

The government feared that Kelly – who was among those who destroyed
Turnbull’s energy policy and his prime ministership – would run as an
independent at the election and go to the crossbench in the meantime
if disendorsed.

He had left the way open to do so.

Kelly, who would have lost an ordinary preselection because he did not
have local support, was part of a job lot of federal members endorsed
by the executive after Morrison’s efforts on Monday.

In a statement, a spokesman for the NSW Liberal party said it had “re-endorsed John Alexander OAM MP as our candidate for Bennelong, Jason Falinski MP as our candidate for Mackellar, Craig Kelly MP as our candidate for Hughes, and Lucy Wicks MP as our candidate for Robertson.” It did not mention Craig Laundy who is still making up
his mind whether he wants to recontest. All other NSW MPs have been re-endorsed.

Earlier Turnbull, after intensive private and public lobbying on
Sunday, said on Monday it would be “the antithesis of good government”
to give into Kelly’s threats – if he had made them.

But assuming he had made threats “that is the worst and the weakest
reason not to have a preselection process”.

He said even if Kelly went to crossbench the numbers would not be
there for a successful motion of no confidence against the government.

Turnbull said he had planned to have an election on March 2, ahead of
the NSW election later in March.

Many NSW Liberals believed “it would be in the party’s interest for the federal government to go to an election before the NSW government’s set election date of 23 March. “He described the Berejiklian government as “outstanding”.

If the Morrison government faced the people first Berejiklian could
“go to the polls and be judged on her record rather than being hit by
the brand damage that arose from the very destructive, pointless,
shameful leadership change in Canberra”.

“I know there’s been this proposition put around that no one’s really
interested in the leadership change or the internal machinations of
the Liberal party. The fact is they are and it has done a lot of brand
damage to the Liberal party.

“That’s something the party is going to have to work through. But
there’s no point being mealy mouth about it or pretending that that
damage hasn’t been done”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.