Just before Tuesday’s House of Representatives question time, Scott Morrison rang Liberal maverick Craig Kelly. The PM wanted to be sure Kelly wasn’t an anti-vaxxer.
Kelly said no - his outspoken campaign on hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin was for additional treatment, not as an alternative to vaccination.
Kelly has had his neck saved by two prime ministers: Malcolm Turnbull before the 2016 election and Scott Morrison prior to the last one.
They had their political reasons at the time, but Kelly doesn’t deal in gratitude. In the climate wars, he worked for the demise of Turnbull, and now he’s embarrassing Morrison with his freelancing on COVID.
Kelly is a zealot over the usefulness of the two drugs in treating COVID, despite public health officials dismissing the case. He’s tangled with Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.
He posted in January: “The claim that there’s is ‘no evidence’ that HCQ and Ivermectin reduce Covid infections, minimise hospitalisations and reduce death is one the most costly and most deadliest lies in history. … And those that have acted to deny sick people access to this medicine need to be held accountable.”
He was back on his hobby horse at Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting. He quoted a review of the literature by immunologist Robert Clancy (emeritus professor at the University of Newcastle), complained again about state restrictions on the availability of these drugs and linked the issue to Liberal values.
No one responded in the meeting. Colleagues, and especially Morrison, don’t want to give him any more than the considerable oxygen he takes up.
Kelly’s posts on Facebook (where he has more than 90,000 followers) are highly provocative, and suddenly Morrison is finding himself put on the spot about what his backbencher is saying.
At the National Press Club on Monday, the prime minister was asked about his failure to “rein in” government MPs “who are spreading disinformation about both the virus and the vaccines on social media”.
Morrison said people should get their information from official government sites, not Facebook.
When the journalist chipped in with Kelly’s name, Morrison said, “He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours. But he does a great job in [his electorate of] Hughes.”
On Tuesday, the first day of this parliamentary sitting, Labor homed in on Kelly, moving (unsuccessfully) a motion noting his “repeated use of social media to spread damaging mistruths about COVID-19” and his comments about vaccinations “which have the potential to undermine public confidence in the upcoming rollout”.
It called on Morrison to condemn Kelly’s “irresponsible and dangerous comments”.
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler called Kelly “a dangerous menace” to the national Covid response.
Realistically, it’s unlikely Kelly would have much influence with the public. Despite his Facebook following, most people wouldn’t have heard of him, let alone be looking to him for guidance.
The government is using experts in its advertising about the vaccine for good reason – the public have faith in them in the time of COVID.
The latest evidence certainly suggests people’s ears are tuned to the official advice, and the Essential poll published Tuesday showed a high level of confidence in the coming vaccination rollout.
Essential found 68% were confident the rollout would be done efficiency and 72% believed it would be done safely.
At another level, the potential of Kelly to do damage to the Coalition government has declined compared to those months of minority government last term (although with a narrow majority, the Liberals wouldn’t want him jumping to the crossbench).
If he lost preselection and ran as an independent, he would not pose a threat in the seat.
Morrison would calculate his best course is to avoid a shouting match with Kelly (if he can) and let a preselection spell the end of his Liberal troublemaker.
Critics will say this is a cop out, but it is a politically effective one.
Hughes local Kent Johns, a councillor in the Sutherland Shire (Morrison territory), a former local mayor and a former president of the NSW Liberal party, was hunting Kelly before the previous two elections, though the prime ministerial interventions meant there were not preselection ballots.
Johns, who is ex-Labor and an industrial chemist with a committed position on climate change, was considered to have had the support to win ballots if they’d been held. He is expected to run again, and it is presumed the numbers haven’t changed. Even if Johns didn’t run, the “anybody but Kelly” feeling among the local Liberals would mobilise.
And this time, there’s no likely prime ministerial protection (apart from the standard letter of support for an incumbent).
Last weekend, the local Liberals in the Victorian seat of Menzies decided it was time to move on former minister Kevin Andrews. The prospect is strong the Hughes Liberals will move Kelly on.
Miracles don’t often come in threes.