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‘Pete Evans in the party room’: Liberals, independents line up to take on Craig Kelly

Ahead of a federal election tipped for the second half of 2021 Mr Kelly, first elected in 2010, could face another challenge from would-be Liberal candidate Kent Johns to retain pre-selection for the seat.

Mr Johns, a Liberal moderate, has previously planned to stand against Mr Kelly but interventions from three successive prime ministers – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and then Scott Morrison – have blocked him.

At the same time a ginger group of local activists, We Are Hughes, are also searching for a candidate to stand against Mr Kelly.

Former NSW Liberal Party vice-president Kent Johns.

Former NSW Liberal Party vice-president Kent Johns.Credit:Chrisopher Lane

Local Liberals the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age spoke to expect Mr Johns to stand against Mr Kelly, barring an intervention from Liberal Party head office. Former Sutherland Shire mayor Carmelo Pesce, who has also been discussed as a potential candidate, is said to be unlikely to throw his hat in the ring.

A NSW Liberal MP, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss internal party deliberations, said it was unlikely the prime minister would again intervene to save Mr Kelly, who is said to lack the rank-and-file numbers to win preselection this time.

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“It should be a normal preselection. He’s never had the numbers other than when he was first pre-selected,” the MP said.

“People have become immune to what he says on climate change, it’s just Craig being Craig, but his comments on the Capitol riots [in Washington DC] shocked people.”

“His comments on COVID-19 are really damaging, it’s like having Pete Evans in the party room.”

Mr Evans is a celebrity chef who has questioned the efficacy of mask wearing and vaccines. His Facebook page was deactivated last year for sharing misinformation about COVID-19.

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Mr Kelly said that every MP had to re-apply for their job at every election. “Since I’ve been outspoken defending traditional Liberal party values there is no doubt that many from the green left will try and run a targeted campaign against me”.

Another Liberal familiar with the party’s internal discussions about Hughes said Mr Kelly’s outspoken ways and frequent posting of fringe medical theories – the MP often posts three or four times per day to his nearly 90,000 followers on the topic – had angered not just the moderate faction but also sections of the party’s centre right and hard right factions.

“No one knows why he is doing what he is doing.”

Mr Kelly described the We Are Hughes group as “fake independents – they are the remnants of the Greens that see their best chance as trying to trick the electorate by disguising themselves as independent”.

But Linda Seymour, one of the organisers of the group, said it was a grassroots movement focused on on doing politics differently. They hope to find a strong candidate, similar to independent MP Zali Steggall who managed to unseat Mr Abbott in Warringah at the 2019 federal election.

“In Hughes we have no representation, we have Craig Kelly off on his own crusade. Irrespective of whether you’re Labor or Liberal you haven’t been represented in our seat,” she said.

Pre-selection for NSW Liberal Party lower house seats has not yet begun.

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