Craig Kelly heaped praise on Scott Morrison as he quit the Liberal Party, saying he didn’t want to be an “anchor” to his former colleagues.
But with his shock resignation, the firebrand backbencher has unwittingly placed further pressure on Mr Morrison and raised further questions about how the government responds to serious internal complaints, as the spotlight turns to misconduct allegations against Mr Kelly’s long-time staffer.
The Member for Hughes spectacularly and suddenly quit the Coalition on Tuesday, giving no forward notice before standing up in the government party room and announcing he would move to the crossbench.
He said he didn’t want to be a “distraction” for the government, in the wake of his controversial support for head lice drug Ivermectin as a potential COVID treatment – an idea not supported by Australian medical advice.
“My conduct has not helped the boat go faster,” Mr Kelly told his Coalition colleagues.
His unexpected resignation – which blindsided even the PM – leaves Mr Morrison with just a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Mr Kelly has promised to support the Liberal platform on chamber votes, and has guaranteed supply and confidence to the government, meaning little chance of any major chaos inside Parliament House.
But with Mr Kelly now more free to vote however he likes, and not bound to follow orders to attend Parliament for votes, it raises the possibility of the Labor opposition sneaking rare victories on legislation or causing procedural headaches for the government.
In an interview with The New Daily, Mr Kelly said he quit the Liberals “with a very heavy heart”, and was effusive in his praise for the colleagues and PM he left behind.
He spoke of the “great respect” he had for his “many great friends” in the Liberal Party, and 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?’,” Mr Kelly said apologetically.
“I made it difficult for the Prime Minister to get his message out.”
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
But even as he quit the party to – he says – protect Mr Morrison, Mr Kelly’s departure saw the PM come under renewed pressure about the culture in politics.
According to Coalition sources, Mr Kelly’s defection was partly linked to his refusal to sack a long-time staffer, Frank Zumbo.
Mr Zumbo is reportedly subject to an apprehended violence order, and under police investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour toward staff.
His lawyer reportedly told the ABC the allegations were “a weak case” and they had “not been substantiated”.
Labor launched a series of probing queries in Question Time on Tuesday about issues involving Mr Zumbo’s employment within government, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese asking, “Why did the Prime Minister do nothing for years?”
It is a similar line of questioning Labor has sought to press upon Mr Morrison in relation to how he and his office responded to the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
Mr Morrison said he had only become aware of inappropriate behaviour allegations against Mr Zumbo “over the last few weeks”, but he had raised separate “performance issues” previously.
“The Leader of the Opposition seems to confuse the fact that I have long held issues regarding a particular staff member and their performance in that office, not related to the issues he is referring to,” the PM said.
“That is a matter I have raised on numerous occasions, but that reached a more serious point in recent weeks.”
Mr Morrison claimed Mr Albanese was “wilfully conflating two different matters”.
However, the allegations against Mr Zumbo were reported by News Corp as early as July, nearly eight months ago.
The St George Shire Standard newspaper reportedly contacted the Prime Minister’s office on several occasions in August to ask about Mr Zumbo’s continuing employment in the government.
When Mr Albanese listed that timeline in Question Time, Mr Morrison answered he was “happy to check those dates”.
Mr Kelly denied his quitting of the Liberal Party was linked to his support for Mr Zumbo, saying the man was “entitled to natural justice and the presumption of innocence” and “there are no criminal charges against him”.
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.”
The Department of Finance, which handles work-related complaints from ministerial staff, is now looking into the issues raised.