Push to oust Liberal MP Craig Kelly gathers pace: ‘It’s awful to be the laughing stock of the country’

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What do supporting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 and climate change denialism have in common?

Apart from a dwindling body of scientific support for either of them, the two causes have united some of the world’s most conservative politicians, from the outgoing US president, Donald Trump, to the Australian federal MP Craig Kelly.

Kelly, the Morrison government’s most outspoken climate crisis denier, has embraced the cause of hydroxychloroquine as enthusiastically as Trump once did.

The member for Hughes uses his Facebook page almost daily to champion studies of hydroxycholoquine from obscure journals in Bulgaria and India.

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Kelly passes over large studies in respected journals and advice from the World Health Organization. Australian health authorities, who have discounted hydroxycholoquine’s efficacy as a coronavirus treatment, are “ignoring the science”, he tells Guardian Australia.

“All the studies show it’s saved lives around the world when used in early treatment,” he says.

How a drug became a rightwing cause is puzzling. Either it works or it doesn’t.

And for a group of his constituents in Hughes, on Sydney’s southern outskirts, Kelly’s latest obsession, combined with his strident support for Trump during the presidential election, has proved the final straw.

An increasingly bizarre agenda

A new group, We Are Hughes has formed as an umbrella group for two other groups: Hughes Deserves Better, formed before the last federal election, and another dedicated to Kelly’s retirement, Craig Kelly Must Go!

The convenor of Hughes Deserves Better, Sue McKinnon, says Kelly began as “a reasonably quiet seat warmer” who took a small interest in local issues.

But he then starting using his role in parliament to run an increasingly bizarre agenda of causes often popular with far-right groups, from arguing that global heating is just part of climate variability and good for the planet, to campaigning against mask wearing. (According to Kelly there is “scientific evidence” to show that mask wearing is bad for your health.)

“Some people want him gone because of his climate change denialism,” McKinnon says.

But for her, it’s also about having representation that reflects the views of the electorate – on local and national issues.

“It’s awful to be the laughing stock of the country,” she says. “On social media, people ask, ‘Who are the voters of Hughes if they elect a person like this?'”

Hughes Deserves Better got started late in the run-up to the 2019 federal election and struggled to find a suitable candidate at short notice.

This time organisers are more organised and have much more time. The next federal election is not due until 2022.

The convenor of We Are Hughes, Linda Seymour, says she was motivated to get involved last year after a friend told her Kelly had spoken at her child’s school and told them there was no climate emergency.

Asked about his stance on climate change, Kelly told Guardian Australia he believed the climate was changing but variability was part of nature. He said only part of the planet’s heating since 1970 was attributable to human activity, such as urban heat islands in cities, and that global warming would be a good thing overall because it would increase agricultural output.

In the meantime, he continues to rail against climate scientists and even his own party over the need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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“If I was a traditional Liberal voter, I would be highly embarrassed,” Seymour says.

We Are Hughes began meeting last year and by February had 60 people turning up, including voters from all the major parties. Covid means the regular meetings are now on Zoom but Seymour says enthusiasm is building.

They are confident the right candidate will emerge, she says: “We’ve already had high-profile people who have tapped lightly on the window.”

Lessons from Warringah

The Hughes groups are also learning the ropes of running an independent campaign from the organisation behind Zali Steggall’s successful independent campaign in Warringah.

At the last election, the grassroots group Voices of Warringah delivered a decisive win over Tony Abbott in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Seymour says Hughes activists are also speaking to the independent group in Indi. The high-profile local Cathy McGowan won the seat in 2013 from the Liberals and held it again in 2016. Then she handed the baton to another independent, Helen Haines, demonstrating that voting for independents can transcend the individual once the electorate becomes comfortable with non-party politics.

At this stage, the Hughes groups say they can manage on small donations and that human capital is their most important resource – including human billboards.

“We’ve already started selling T-shirts and bags and people are starting to wear them, and send us photos of themselves,” Seymour says.

Kelly’s electorate office is a favourite photo setting. The T-shirts carry slogans including “Remember sensible?” and “I’m tired of crazy”. Plans are afoot to replicate Warringah’s highly successful guerrilla poster campaign, which used Abbott’s colourful views – such as referring to climate change as “crap” – to raise awareness.

Kelly tells the Guardian he is not concerned about an independent challenge. “It’s really just an offshoot of the Greens and the Greens have traditionally had a low vote in Hughes,” he says.

But Kelly faces another internal threat. Before the last election he was saved from a preselection defeat by the intervention of the New South Wales Liberal party state executive, despite objections from the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Now the threat is coming from both the moderate and right Liberal factions, with reports of recruitment drives by both seeking to take control of branches within Hughes.

Liberal head office may need to make a judgment on whether to risk an independent triumphing over the maverick Kelly or whether to allow the local branch to neutralise the threat with a safer, more mainstream Liberal.

Watch this space.

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