Maverick MP Craig Kelly has spectacularly and suddenly quit the Liberal Party, choosing his advocacy for headlice drug ivermectin over staying in the government and leaving Scott Morrison with just a one-seat majority in parliament.
But there are questions about whether the move had more to do with issues involving Mr Kelly’s staffer Frank Zumbo – who is the subject of a police investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour toward numerous female staff – and what the Prime Minister knew about it.
Mr Kelly, the member for Hughes, unexpectedly resigned from the Coalition at its Tuesday morning partyroom meeting in Parliament House.
He claims he felt like an “anchor” for the federal government, referring to recent controversies over his boosting of unproven COVID treatments including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine – which has dangerous and potentially fatal side-effects, according to Australian medical regulators.
Today I resigned from the Liberal Party and I will sit as an Independent for the remainder of this Parliament.
I will shortly be making a statement to Parliament.
— Craig Kelly MP (@CraigKellyMP) February 23, 2021
“My conduct has not helped the boat go faster,” Mr Kelly told his Coalition colleagues.
Mr Morrison said he was not aware of Mr Kelly’s plan to quit the party.
In an interview with The New Daily, Mr Kelly said he left “with a very heavy heart”.
“I felt for the rest of this parliamentary term, if I’m going to act and speak according to my conscience and my beliefs, I can do so more effectively as an independent,” he said.
“I was greatly concerned with what’s happening with some of the COVID treatments, especially ivermectin.”
Mr Kelly claimed Australia’s federal COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce, which investigates coronavirus issues and treatments, was the “true villains” for not approving that drug.
The Member for Hughes has informed the House that he is moving to the crossbench as an Independent.
The Coalition Government now comprises 76 Members – that is, a majority of the 151 Members in the House.
— Australian House of Representatives (@AboutTheHouse) February 23, 2021
He plans to run at the next election, most likely as an independent. However, speaking to TND in his Parliament House office, Mr Kelly did not rule out rejoining the Liberals if he was invited back – but said he had “not given it any thought”.
“I think it would cause the government some grief if I was a member,” he said.
Mr Kelly said he still had great respect for Mr Morrison – who holds the adjoining seat of Cook. He glowingly predicted Mr Morrison would be remembered as “one of Australia’s greatest and longest-serving prime ministers”.
“It’s been difficult for the Prime Minister, when he does a media interview, to be asked ‘what did Craig Kelly say?’,” the member for Hughes said.
“I made it difficult for the Prime Minister to get his message out.”
He said he had “great respect” for his “many great friends” in Liberal Party, and did not rule out rejoining it in the future.
Mr Kelly’s move leaves the Coalition with just 76 seats in the House of Representatives, the slenderest of majorities. However, he has committed to supporting the government on supply and confidence.
Morrison faces questions
But despite Mr Kelly attributing his defection down to his interest in ivermectin, government sources say Mr Zumbo was also a problem.
Mr Zumbo is the subject of an apprehended violence order, preventing him from contact with a female co-worker who alleged inappropriate behaviour.
In Question Time on Tuesday, Mr Morrison indicated he had asked Mr Kelly to end Mr Zumbo’s employment.
“I raised those matters with the member for Hughes. He undertook to take some certain actions on behalf of those discussions,” the PM said.
“Those actions were not taken.”
Mr Kelly said his defection was “not connected” to Mr Zumbo.
“That’s the subject of an AVO. There are no criminal charges against him,” he said.
“He is entitled to natural justice and the presumption of innocence.”
The Department of Finance – which handles work-related complaints from ministerial staff – is looking into issues raised against Mr Zumbo.
Mr Zumbo’s lawyer reportedly told the ABC that the allegations against him were “a weak case” and they had “not been substantiated”.
What next for Craig Kelly?
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was reportedly in Mr Kelly’s office shortly after his defection was announced.
One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts also walked past Mr Kelly’s office, which is on the other side of Parliament House to his Senate office, but left after spotting a crowd of journalists. Bob Katter, the Member for Kennedy, knocked on the door and shook Mr Kelly’s hand, to “congratulate” him for his decision.
There has been talk about whether Mr Kelly may switch to the Nationals or another party, after leaving the Liberals.
As recently as a fortnight ago, Mr Kelly was adamant he would defend Hughes at the next election – as the Liberal candidate. But there has been considerable speculation he might face another pre-selection challenge, as he has at the past two elections.
Mr Kelly was reportedly spared being dumped as Liberal candidate in prior campaigns only after last-minute interventions by Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison.
Mr Kelly told TND he had had no conversations about joining any other party – including the Nationals, One Nation, or Mr Katter’s Australia Party. Nor has he spoken to Rod Culleton about joining his Great Australia Party – the organisation recently joined by celebrity chef Pete Evans, who hosted Mr Kelly on his podcast.
Mr Katter told The New Daily it would be “crazy” for Mr Kelly to join his party, or the Nationals.
Mr Joyce reportedly told 7 News that he would “love [Mr Kelly] to join the Nationals … I’d do what I could to encourage it”.