A series like Crikey‘s Clown of the Week has two (sometimes competing) duties: to recognise those who go above and beyond in making the world just a little bit worse and at the same time not giving them more oxygen than they deserve.
So it’s fitting that our first candidate of 2021 may have have gone the rest of his career without rating a mention — despite ranking as a worthy winner practically every week since we started handing this thing out.
After all, what have we come to expect from Craig Kelly, a man who first came to prominence by passing on Tony Abbott’s best wishes to a group celebrating Croatia’s time as a Nazi ally during World War II? A man who told the father of three victims of the MH17 disaster that Russia’s role in shooting down a commercial airliner ought to be “looked over” for the sake of good international relations?
He was a certain kind of figure at that point: a gaffe merchant, largely invisible to the general public, serving as a reminder to those who had heard of him of the bizarre, disconnected processes that allow people who apparently can’t access a search engine to find out what Ustashi means, or practise even the most basic courtesy towards grieving fathers, to become elected representatives.
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In his tangle of hard-right obsessions — Battlelines run through a malfunctioning photocopier — Kelly wasn’t especially notable among the flurry of other right-wing chancers who apparently had no job beyond decrying the green left on Sky News.
And so he might have remained, had it not been for two events. The first was the loss of Abbott at the 2019 election, whose views he reliably echoed and whose role as Kelly’s intellectual guiding light was taken up by Donald Trump. The second was the pandemic.
Now Kelly’s ever-more-popular Facebook page is awash with many of MAGA’s greatest hits, from hydroxychloroquine to global cooling to election theft. It’s certainly broadened his appeal well beyond his electorate — a subject to which he has dedicated roughly 19 posts out of more than 2000 in the last year and a half, according to analysis from constituent Tom Kristensen.
Throughout all this, the Liberal leadership has consistently indulged him. Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison both intervened to head off preselection challenges. So what really earns Kelly the title this week is that he’s achieved what none of us thought possible: he appears to have exhausted Morrison’s patience.
First, Kelly appeared on the podcast of celebrity chef turned conspiracy loon Pete Evans. Having equivocated for months over the flurry of misinformation jetting from Kelly’s Facebook page like an out-of-control fire hose, Morrison (with the help of the press gallery) had to give the impression of having done something.
First, he “lashed” Kelly in a phone call. But Kelly persisted. Then, after an embarrassing stoush with Tanya Plibersek, he was “hauled in” to Morrison’s office for a “dressing down”. As Bernard Keane pointed out yesterday, a contrite statement from Kelly has not changed his Facebook page one iota.
Eventually Morrison distanced himself from Kelly in parliament and allowed “senior Liberal Party sources” to muse on the front page of The Australian about the likelihood that the PM would not intervene to save him.
So there’s another reason to we chose Kelly this week. With any luck we may have entered a period where the time in which we could has started to run down.