In his decade as a Liberal MP, the member for Hughes has dialled up the crazy and emerged as parliament’s leading proponent of conspiracy theories on climate change and COVID-19.
And through all of it he’s had the backing of the party, survived two successive preselection challenges, been supported by two prime ministers, and watched as the good people of the Sutherland Shire returned him with comfortable majorities.
How has Kelly been able to post through it all and remain a Liberal MP for so long?
A dive into the backbencher’s pre-history suggests he’s been the beneficiary of plenty of dumb luck. But that luck seems to have finally run out.
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The Hughes problem
When Scott Morrison talks about his “quiet Australians”, he means people who live in the division of Hughes. Nestled in the southern Sydney mortgage belt and covering the less nice bits of the Sutherland Shire, Hughes was a Labor stronghold before Danna Vale made it synonymous with John Howard’s battlers. Since then it’s only really been close in the 2007 Ruddslide.
Hughes is the sort of place where a regular bloke with no connections to politics, who’d spent the past two decades running the family furniture business and raising kids, could somehow get himself preselected. Kelly only joined the Liberal Party 12 months before the 2010 election.
“I’ve seen the direction the country’s heading in and my family told me to stop complaining about the way things are and put my hand up and have a go,” Kelly told the Liverpool Leader.
Perhaps Kelly was drafted in because with the seat on a 0.5% margin the Libs didn’t think much of their chances. But in an election fought over local infrastructure, Kelly prevailed with a 4% swing and has increased his margin ever since.
Kelly began his parliamentary career as a relatively anonymous backbencher. His first brush with controversy came in 2012 when the family furniture business collapsed. There were allegations he and his brother had acted as de facto directors and traded while insolvent.
But then the climate stuff started up. In early 2013 Kelly — who’d fought hard against Julia Gillard’s carbon tax — started explicitly spouting climate denialism and appearing at anti-windfarm rallies.
In 2014 he gave then prime minister Tony Abbott’s “best wishes” to a group celebrating the anniversary of Croatia’s brief fascist period in the 1940s.
When Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, Kelly, who months earlier had begun his exploration of social media virality by starting a social media campaign to protect Abbott, began to face opposition.
Unlike Kelly, Sutherland Shire mayor Kent Johns was a Liberal careerist who’d lost honourably in the neighbouring safe Labor seat of Werriwa, and had just become the party’s NSW vice-president. Kelly, meanwhile, openly mocked Turnbull’s signing of the Paris agreement. No wonder NSW moderates were pushing hard for Johns.
Turnbull was warned of a factional war if Kelly and other Abbott backers were rolled. Kelly threatened to go nuclear and run as an independent. He got Alan Jones to leap to his defence and when Jones personally intervened to endorse Kelly, Johns backed down.
When Kelly repaid Turnbull by helping push his downfall, moderates again tried to oust him. This time they had the numbers. Morrison tried to use the party’s emergency powers to automatically stop a preselection; Johns was wooed with a lucrative party job offer.
But eventually the NSW party stopped the preselection going ahead. Kelly, by now well down the denialism rabbit hole, was saved.
Johns is no conspiracy theorist as far as we know, but his record is far from rosy.
A Labor defector, he stepped aside as Sutherland mayor in 2013 because he was being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) over zoning approvals given to Liberal Party figures. ICAC cleared him, but a year later came more trouble: a fundraiser he organised was attended by convicted drug supplier Tony “The Falcon” Atanasovski.
Last year The Sydney Morning Herald revealed he’d made a sizeable donation to the Liberals through his water company, which was funded by another convicted drug kingpin, Marcello “Marchie” Casella.
Kelly was lucky Hughes voters were willing to overlook his maddening behaviour. He was lucky that simmering factional disputes in the NSW Liberals, and a weak moderate front-runner, made him indispensable to the party.
Now he has abandoned the party that held its nose and stood by him. Yesterday polling showed a majority of Liberal voters in Hughes thought his spruiking of unproven COVID-19 treatments was irresponsible or very irresponsible. He’ll need plenty more luck to stay around longer.