Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Kelly a crass bencher
Craig Kelly has quit the Liberal Party to sit on the crossbench. For now.

Image of federal member for Hughes Craig Kelly, who has quit the Liberal Party

Federal member for Hughes Craig Kelly has quit the Liberal Party. Image via ABC News

The Liberal Party was today granted a brief respite from rape and sexual misconduct allegations dominating the headlines, with the announcement that “rebel” MP Craig Kelly would go from backbencher to crossbencher, quitting the party to become an independent. But it wasn’t exactly welcome news. The move puts the government one vote away from losing its majority, with 76 MPs but only 75 votes on the floor (assuming they continue to supply the speaker), up against 75 others, though Kelly says he will continue to support the government on confidence and supply. It’s not just bad for the numbers; Kelly will now be free to express himself (well, as soon as his one-week Facebook ban lifts, later today), further jeopardising the government’s vaccine strategy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference that he and his government would not be distracted by the news. “If there’s one thing that Australians have learnt about me and my government is we’re a pretty focused bunch,” he said. It was the kind of day #auspol watchers live for.

Kelly told Sky News he resigned with a “heavy heart”, but he could only speak “frankly” and “fearlessly” from the crossbench, and he reportedly told the Coalition party room he had to “stay true” to what he believes in. And what he believes in has been well documented on his influential Facebook page: the member for Hughes has spent months promoting unproven alternative treatments to coronavirus, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and has thrown plenty of doubt over the vaccines, while likening the wearing of face masks by children to child abuse (there’s also been references to “global cooling”). Kelly was eventually “dressed down” by the prime minister earlier this month – though not before appearing on high-profile anti-vaxxer Pete Evans’s podcast – and he then committed to supporting the vaccine rollout. But it seems he just couldn’t do it anymore. Perhaps he couldn’t in good conscience serve under a man who had been so publicly vaccinated.

Kelly may have also read the writing on the wall, with the prime minister unlikely to step in and save him from a Liberal preselection challenge at the next election, as Morrison has done previously. Challenges are set to come at Kelly from many directions, with fed-up local Liberals marshalling to replace him and fed-up independents canvassing for an alternative. It’s unlikely Kelly himself will win as an independent, with 71.4 per cent of his surveyed electorate finding his social media posts “irresponsible” or “very irresponsible”. It’s clear his time in Hughes is coming to an end, so he’s decided to use his remaining time… “fearlessly”. By talking about ivermectin.

It’s great timing for Kelly, just as his Facebook page returns, but it’s not great timing for the government and the vaccine rollout, which began on Sunday. An unshackled Kelly will be feeling even more empowered to spruik his alternative views – we might be about to find out just how extreme those views really are. There will be no more recourse for the government, no more “dressing downs” when he goes too far, as he surely will. But hey, at least there’s now one less abuser in the Liberal Party ranks, with Kelly taking his alleged sex pest senior aide with him. Though if you think they wouldn’t dare try to claim his resignation as a sign of them doing something about an issue they’ve been aware of since August 2020, you would be so, so sadly mistaken.

Kelly has heaped praise on the prime minister, insisting he will continue to provide confidence and supply, but he’s certainly put the government in a precarious position, needing at least one crossbencher (or the speaker’s tie breaker) in every vote. He’s increased his own power in the process. And he’s made the other crossbenchers more powerful too, with each of their votes more crucial – and their bargaining more potent.

Could there be some extra power for Barnaby Joyce in this too? Eyebrows have been raised over the fact that the former (and hopeful) Nationals leader was in Kelly’s office when news.com.au came knocking just after the announcement. Kelly’s potential addition to the party would give Joyce the numbers for a spill. The Nats have been keen to sign up Kelly, a natural fit, for some time, but he would lose much of his newfound power if he rejoined the Coalition – not to mention his freedom to say whatever he wants.

Kelly insists he’s becoming an independent, texting Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell to say, “I will sit on crossbench for the remainder of the term.” But then what? It’s unlikely he will be re-elected in Hughes, which will probably be run between a nominated Liberal and a left-leaning independent, like Wentworth and Warringah before it. Some believe he might be planning on getting involved in a conspiracy-theory Senate bid – he would certainly bring a lot of star power. Old mate Pete Evans has already signed up to run for the Senate with former One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s The Great Australian Party.

For now, however, Kelly will probably continue to vote with the Coalition on most things, while leveraging some votes to push his agenda. But there will be no restraints (if ever there really were) upon him and his bizarre Facebook page, and even less oversight (if ever there was any) of the alleged sexual harassment that goes on within his office. With the strength of the QAnon campaign likely to grow, the fact that Morrison has all but ruled out a 2021 election suddenly seems like a good thing. Today is indeed an extremely #auspol day: ludicrous, captivating and ultimately extremely depressing.

“Of course, Dutton need not bother to learn about the principles he needs to follow: the Commonwealth has no ICAC equivalent that would investigate corruption.”

Former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris says Senator Bridget McKenzie and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton put democracy at risk with their pork-barrelling.

“It is true that it is the single largest increase in the JobSeeker payment since the mid ’80s, year-on-year, that is true. But I think the more relevant feature to focus on is its percentage of the minimum wage. It brings up from 37.5 per cent to 41.2 per cent.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks up the generosity of increasing JobSeeker by $50 per fortnight – or $3.57 per day – noting that it’s the biggest increase since the 1980s. That’s… not a good thing.

‘I was a staffer, and so was my perpetrator’
Eighteen months ago, Dhanya Mani spoke to the press about being assaulted while working as a Liberal Party staffer. This week, she reflected on how little has changed – and how culpable the prime minister is for that.

The number of known coronavirus-related deaths counted in the United States, though the true number is thought to be significantly greater.

“In a policy paper released on Tuesday, the NFF makes the call for renewable energy to be part of new investment to address the $3.8bn annual shortfall in infrastructure in regional Australia. The paper, which makes no mention of coal or nuclear energy supporting jobs in the regions, comes as the Nationals push for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to invest in those technologies.”

The National Farmers’ Federation has called for a pandemic recovery regionalisation strategy, saying renewable energy zones must be “at the centre of any regionalisation agenda”.

The list

“From 1948 to 1960, there was guerrilla war in Malaya. The residents – Chinese, Indian, indigenous Malays and the remaining British – knew it as The Emergency. In our popular culture we don’t see these lives, which were just as valuable, just as permanently broken as any of those from Europe. Fragile Monsters (Viking), telling these tales, splicing them with spirits, demons and magic, setting them in precarious psychological and physical territory, speaks to things past that remain entirely present.”

“Right now, in the school-shopping season, 11- and 12-year-olds are doing weekend coaching classes in preparation for entry exams, while their parents circle schools in group tours – good marks and good values on their shopping lists. It’s not what I remember from Year 6.”

“The Tamil family from Biloela being held on Christmas Island were granted yet another ‘reprieve’ in their battle against deportation this week, with the Federal Court rejecting two appeals – one from the government and one from lawyers for the family. The outcome, being billed as a ‘win’ for the family, leaves them in the same exact limbo they were in before – unable to be removed from Australia while the process remains ongoing, unable to return to Biloela as things stand. There are still two paths available to them – the legal and the ministerial – although neither seems probable, given that a change of heart by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is their best hope. But could the latest decision prove to be a political turning point?”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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Morrison backs away

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The blame game

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