Controversial Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s relentless promotion of conspiracy theories and unproven coronavirus cures on social media have led to a campaign to boot him out of politics – a push being mounted by his own community.
But while his behaviour is turning off voters, it has simultaneously resulted in an unlikely friendship with disgraced celebrity chef and renowned anti-vaxxer Pete Evans.
On Monday afternoon, Evans posted a screenshot of a video conference call he had with Mr Kelly, saying “podcast launching tomorrow”.
“Just spent a great 90 minutes talking with this beautiful and courageous man,” Evans wrote in the caption.
“Craig Kelly MP is sharing the truth over and over again and keeps moving forward without fear.”
Mr Kelly spoke to The New Daily not long after the post, saying Evans’ “ideas should be debated and challenged, rather than censored”.
Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison again resisted calls to reign in the rogue MP, telling Australians “don’t go to Facebook” for COVID-19 information.
“He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours,” Mr Morrison said of Mr Kelly.
“He does a great job in [his electorate] Hughes.”
Labor’s new health spokesman, Mark Butler, slammed Mr Kelly as a “dangerous menace”, and called for the PM to muzzle the member for Hughes.
Labor’s new health spokesman Mark Butler calls Craig Kelly a “dangerous menace” over his “fear mongering” comments on vaccines and the TGA pic.twitter.com/oMnisXQqvE
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) February 1, 2021
It’s not the first time Mr Kelly has come under fire for his controversial comments.
But for a growing number of his constituents in the southern Sydney seat of Hughes, his promotion of questionable medical advice during a deadly pandemic was the final straw.
Linda Seymour, one of the organisers of We Are Hughes, said locals were tired of being told their federal representative’s behaviour was “just Craig being Craig”.
“Enough is enough,” she told The New Daily.
“This electorate has been taken for granted and it’s not good enough.”
Ms Seymour said the group’s members had plans to speak to at least 500 constituents by the end of March in a bid to throw Mr Kelly out.
“We’re dedicated to the process of engaging in democracy,” she said.
“People do have the power and everyone of us has a vote. When we get together and talk, it’s a really positive movement. We’re not even anti-Liberal. We’re just pro-constructive politics.”
Ms Seymour said hot-button issues in the electorate included the extension of a coal mine under their local water catchment, and climate inaction.
The group hopes to find a strong candidate, like independent MP Zali Steggall, who unseated Tony Abbott in Warringah at the 2019 federal election.
Hughes Deserves Better spokesperson Al, who did not want her surname published, said long-time Liberal voters were turning their backs on Mr Kelly in droves.
“In the electorate, traditional Liberal voters or even people who just happened to have voted Liberal previously say ‘We don’t like what Craig Kelly stands for’,” she said.
“He’s even undermining his own party’s attempt to roll out a vaccine.”
Al said Mr Kelly’s behaviour was a mystery, but suggested he was “carving out his brand at the taxpayer’s expense”.
“His posts are all designed for shock value. He’s building his career, maybe to be a shock jock on Sky News.”
A showdown awaits
Although We Are Hughes and Hughes Deserves Better are gaining popularity, their joint mission to overthrow Mr Kelly won’t be easy.
Not only is the MP determined to hold onto his seat, the high-profile conservative is one of the Morrison government backbench’s most prolific media performers.
Like former US President Donald Trump, Mr Kelly is well-versed in inciting outrage on social media, often posting several times a day and accusing critics of attacking his right to free speech.
The backbencher has amassed more than 90,000 followers, with many of his posts gaining more likes and shares than the PM.
He also provides regular political commentary on Sky News, where he frequently defends his controversial opinions and promotes himself as a warrior against ‘left-wing elites’.
Despite his controversial behaviour, top members of the Liberal Party have gone to bat for Mr Kelly at several turning points.
An ally of former prime minister Tony Abbott, Mr Kelly has held the seat of Hughes since 2010, when he won preselection after the retirement of Danna Vale.
In 2016 he was saved from attacks by the “moderate” arm of the NSW Liberal Party with a letter of endorsement by then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Then in 2018, Mr Morrison reportedly directed the NSW State Executive to intervene in the preselection process to protect Mr Kelly, who threatened to quit the party if he lost.
Now, as a potential federal election looms, many Hughes residents will be waiting to see if the Coalition’s patience has finally run out.