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For as long as it was useful, the prime minister allowed the member for Hughes to spread conspiracy theories online. This week, the political calculus changed. By Mike Seccombe.

Why Scott Morrison finally cautioned Craig Kelly

Craig Kelly and Tanya Plibersek.
Credit: Sam Mooy / Getty Images

It was 9am on Wednesday when Scott Morrison finally met with Craig Kelly and ordered him to get on board with efforts to vaccinate Australians against coronavirus.

For months, across social media, where Kelly has an outsize following, as well as in broadcast and print media, the Liberal MP has advocated against public health measures to control Covid-19. He has boasted of advising constituents on how to avoid lockdowns and opposed mask use – he equated getting children to wear them to child abuse. Most troublingly, he has persistently peddled unproven Covid-19 treatments, in particular hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

Numerous medical bodies and public health experts, including the government’s own chief health officer, have warned that Kelly could be undermining Australians’ confidence in the vaccines.

Despite this, and in defiance of multiple efforts by the opposition in parliament this week to get the prime minister to disavow Kelly’s flaky views, Morrison stood by his man. At least he did until Wednesday morning.

There has been much speculation about what finally got Morrison to rein in Kelly. Was it the backbencher’s ranting confrontation with Labor’s Tanya Plibersek during a chance meeting in a corridor in the Parliament House press gallery earlier on Wednesday? Or Kelly’s recent appearance on a podcast by anti-vaccination influencer Pete Evans, during which Evans declared the government’s agreement to pay an unspecified drug company to supply vaccines amounted to paying a billion dollars to an “illegal or criminal organisation” without any demurral by Kelly?

Whatever the catalyst, Morrison prevailed on Kelly to release a short media statement, which said the prime minister had “reinforced the importance of public confidence in the government’s vaccine strategy” during their meeting.

It continued: “I agreed to support the government’s vaccine rollout which has been endorsed by the medical experts.

“I believe the spread of misinformation can damage the success of our public health response during the pandemic.”

But if you parse that statement, there are clear holes. Yes, Kelly said he supported the vaccination program, but he did not disavow his advocacy of alternative therapies, which he does not believe amounts to misinformation.

Morrison appeared to tacitly admit as much in a later statement to the house of representatives, in which he said Kelly’s views “do not align with my views, or the views or the advice that has been provided to me by the chief medical officer”.

Furthermore, all of Kelly’s previous Facebook posts are still up on his page. What he hasn’t posted on Facebook is his Wednesday media release.

Nonetheless, Morrison now has firmly declared the matter dealt with.

It’s no surprise he wants to move on. It accords with a pattern of behaviour by Morrison, who has long appeared more concerned with shutting down questions about Kelly’s behaviour than with shutting down Kelly himself.

Indeed, as late as Monday this week, at his scene-setting address to the National Press Club ahead of the resumption of parliament, Morrison not only lauded Kelly, but he also played the concerns about the very real threat Kelly poses to Australian public health for laughs.

Press Club president Laura Tingle had noted the government was spending $24 million on a campaign to encourage Australians to get vaccinated.

“But aren’t we wasting taxpayers’ money if, at the same time, you don’t rein in your own government MPs who are spreading disinformation about both the virus and the vaccines on social media?” she asked.

In reply, Morrison avoided referring to Kelly by name. He advised: “Don’t go to Facebook to find out about the vaccine. Go to official government websites. If you want to understand about vaccines, go and talk to [Health Department secretary Dr] Brendan Murphy over there, that’s who I talk to.”

Tingle persisted: “You don’t go to Craig Kelly?”

“He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours. But he does a great job in Hughes,” said the PM, before moving on to other issues.

But of course Kelly is nobody’s doctor, and that’s the problem. The MP’s career before parliament was in furniture sales. He is also a former rugby union forward who conceded in his first speech to the house that “some would say” he’d stuck his head into one scrum too many.

Yet Kelly believes he knows better than the medical experts about Covid-19 treatment. Just as he knows better than the scientists about climate change. Just as his Facebook page gives credence to all manner of conspiracy theories about who really won the United States presidential election and how the mob who stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6 were part of a “false flag” exercise mounted to discredit Donald Trump, and much more.

If Kelly were still a salesman, enumerating conspiracy theories to his mates at the pub or at the family dinner table, it would not be such a problem. But he’s a member of parliament with 80,000-odd Facebook followers. And he updates his page with new material, on average, several times a day.

Kelly inspires more “engagement” on the site than either Morrison or Anthony Albanese. According to figures collated by data journalist Cameron Wilson, in the six months to the end of January 2021, Kelly had 3.9 million “interactions”, compared with 605,000 for the federal Health Department. While not all of Kelly’s interactions would have related to Covid-19, the figures give some idea of his reach.

And they point to the larger issue: while Kelly is not a doctor, the fact is a lot of people don’t go to the government websites. They go to Kelly who, despite his total lack of qualifications, is giving medical advice to thousands upon thousands of followers who might think him credible because he holds elected office.

Kelly’s reach is further expanded by his regular appearances on Sky News. There, his conspiracy theories are fact-checked even less than on Facebook, where moderators have this week added a disclaimer to the MP’s page, directing users towards vetted information about Covid-19.

David Smith, associate professor in American politics and foreign policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, sees Kelly tapping into the same power that conspiracy theorists have had to influence the US political system.

“His constituency, at this point, goes far beyond his electorate,” says Smith. “Craig Kelly is a national [and] an international media brand. So, he’s a lot more than just an MP.”

Furthermore, Smith says, the people who are receptive to the kind of conspiracies and misinformation peddled by the Trumpists in the US, and by Kelly here, have proved likely to act on their beliefs. They are “probably people who are prepared to devote a lot of time to their politics”, Smith says.

But Smith does not think Australia is as vulnerable to the politics of unreality as the US. The major reason for that, he says, is that the party system is much stronger in this country.

“Essentially, legislators in the US are pretty much responsible for running their own campaigns. They might get a bit of financial help from central parties, but they raise the vast bulk of money themselves. And this means that in the legislature, that actually gives them quite a lot more independence from the party.”

So does the way candidates in the US are selected: directly by rank-and-file members of the party base, largely outside the control of the party machine.

In Australia, by contrast, the parties hold the purse strings and have a significant degree of control over the preselection process.

“The prime minister can, if the prime minister wants, pretty effectively discipline members of their own party in parliament,” Smith says. “The party organisation … can too. So, the fortunes of legislators are so closely tied to the party organisation that it gives the party organisation a lot of power.”

Which raises again the question of why the Liberal Party, and particularly its leaders, did not move against Kelly earlier.

In fact, they have repeatedly saved him from likely defeat in preselection contests. In 2016, Malcolm Turnbull intervened on Kelly’s behalf. And Morrison did the same in 2018. Both times Kelly was under challenge from a moderate Liberal, Kent Johns.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion Turnbull did so out of fear of his party’s right wing, given the perpetual insecurity of his leadership. Perhaps this was true to a lesser extent for Morrison as well; Tony Abbott, the serial white-anter of leaders, was threatening factional war, and right-wing commentators, notably Alan Jones, had also rallied behind Kelly.

Ben Oquist, executive director of The Australia Institute, suggests another reason why Morrison intervened to ensure Kelly’s preselection in 2018, and continued to indulge him until this week.

“Craig Kelly has delivered a big constituency for the government – not in his electorate, where I actually think he is now under pressure, but nationally via his huge social media reach,” Oquist says.

“Despite Pauline Hanson’s lower profile, the Coalition still faces electoral competition from One Nation, so keeping some of that constituency inside the tent via the likes of Craig Kelly is politically useful.

“But as this week shows, the strategy has its limits.”

Well, maybe. There are indications that a significant number of people still find Kelly useful, and do not want to see him quieted. This is particularly the case within the ranks of the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, where he still has strong support.

For example, during question time on Wednesday afternoon, more than five hours after the prime minister met with Kelly, Queensland Nationals senator Matt Canavan sent out a tweet blaming Labor for trying to “silence Craig Kelly”. He didn’t blame Morrison for censuring his colleague.

“I think we need more Craig Kelly’s [sic] willing to say unpopular things,” Canavan tweeted.

Centrist elements within the Liberal Party, however, share Ben Oquist’s view that Kelly is a danger not only to public health but also to his party, even as those Liberals acknowledge that Kelly is popular with a significant element of the electorate – particularly the “white and male and angry” cohort, as one described it to The Saturday Paper. That is, the sort of people who have made it necessary for MPs to prepare for branch meetings by “listening to whatever Alan Jones said on Sky After Dark”.

Now those centrists want him gone.

Said one senior party source: “Craig Kelly has not been able to win a preselection in the past eight years. Now he has been able to achieve one thing, and that’s the unification of the fractious New South Wales division … with a common view of the need to get rid of him.”

But things change fast in politics and preselection for Kelly’s seat is a couple of months away. Perhaps if the member for Hughes tones down his public comments, Morrison might still find him useful, if only to placate the right-wing shock jocks, and the conspiracists on Sky News and the internet.

This prime minister is hard to predict, because he’s not like Coalition leaders before him. John Howard was a conviction politician, as was Tony Abbott, in his way, and Malcolm Turnbull, before the right wing of the party prised him away from his principles.

But it’s very hard to get a handle on what Morrison’s principles are, a point made at length in Katharine Murphy’s Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty.

It was made most succinctly in an anecdote related to Murphy by former crossbench senator Nick Xenophon. During a governor-general’s address for the opening of parliament, Xenophon suggested to Morrison that they might catch up for a cup of coffee.

“He looked at me askance and said, ‘What for?’ ” Xenophon recounted. “I said just to catch up and have a chat about issues.

“He said, ‘No, mate. I’m purely transactional.’ ”

And this bothers even some on the political right, as we saw this week, following the ousting of Kevin Andrews on Sunday in a preselection contest for the blue-ribbon seat of Menzies in Melbourne. The very conservative Catholic Andrews has been the member since 1991.

On Monday, the political editor of The Australian, Dennis Shanahan, got thoroughly stuck into the prime minister for allowing Andrews to be “blasted” from his seat.

Shanahan argued that Morrison owed more loyalty to “an influential Victorian conservative who played a key role in the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, who provided Tony Abbott with a strategic climate change policy victory in the party room and served faithfully in two Liberal cabinets”.

In reality, Andrews was not blasted out. He was decisively beaten, 181 votes to 111, after a pretty respectful campaign by a well-credentialed younger local candidate, Keith Wolahan.

Wolahan is a former special forces soldier and barrister who vehemently rejects the tag “moderate”. While he may have voted yes in the same-sex marriage plebiscite, he insists he is a “traditional Liberal” with traditional Liberal views in areas such as economics and foreign policy.

All indications are that after 30 years, and despite endorsements of Andrews from a raft of senior party figures, including Morrison and Josh Frydenberg, Menzies branch members simply decided it was time for new blood.

Yet Shanahan inferred much more from Morrison’s lukewarm support of Andrews.

“A message has been sent from Morrison that he’s no longer willing to effectively protect conservatives – despite his support for the far less revered NSW MP Craig Kelly – and that for the first time in 40 years sitting Victorian MPs may have to be blasted from their seats,” he wrote.

The point here is that even right-wing supporters of the government are perplexed and angered by Morrison’s apparently inconsistent approach. Why protect Kelly and not Andrews?

And the answer is conveyed in that single word: transactional.

Morrison’s prime consideration, at all times, is political advantage.

Kevin Andrews may be a fellow religious conservative but is of no further use to the prime minister. Craig Kelly, on the other hand, using his sizeable platform to spruik conspiracy theories to appeal to a small, electorally important part of the conservative base, was tolerated, until this week.

But from now on, Kelly would be well advised to keep his views to himself. Because it’s clear that he has become a liability.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Why Scott Morrison finally cautioned Craig Kelly".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.