While the government won by 62 to 59 votes, it did not gain support from crossbenchers. Independents Helen Haines, Rebekha Sharkie, Zali Steggall and Andrew Wilkie as well as Greens leader Adam Bandt voted with Labor. Queensland MP Bob Katter did not vote.
“The member for Hughes is a dangerous fool and the Prime Minister should have dealt with him,” Labor MP Ged Kearney said in an attempt to support the motion. The government used its numbers again to stop her from speaking further, with no speeches from Coalition MPs to defend their colleague.
Mr Kelly has infuriated fellow Liberals over his support for treatments Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly has warned are not proven for coronavirus.
The anger within the party means Craig Kelly is likely to face a challenge at the Liberal preselection to choose candidates before the next election. His opponents are confident he will be dumped.
Mr Kelly’s posts include a recent call on the media to start “reporting the truth” because the Medical Association of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil had recommended chloroquine and ivermectin.
The association is not an arm of the Brazilian federal government nor the government of Rio Grande do Norte, a state in the north-east of the country with a population of about 3 million.
“We’ve been very clear to point out where you get your information from. You don’t get it from Facebook,” Mr Morrison told the National Press Club on Monday.
“You get it from official government websites, and that’s what I encourage everybody to do and that’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’re investing in. Don’t go to Facebook to find out about the vaccine. Go to official government websites.”
Asked whether people should go to Mr Kelly, the Prime Minister responded, “He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours. But he does a great job in Hughes.”
Mr Kelly stood in the Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday morning, the first gathering of Liberal and Nationals MPs this year, to argue he was right to air advice about other treatments for COVID-19.
But fellow Liberal Katie Allen, a paediatrician who won the Melbourne seat of Higgins at the last election, spoke up on the need for clear communications to support the mammoth vaccination program.
Dr Allen’s colleagues saw her remarks as a warning shot about Mr Kelly’s posts.
Mr Kelly told the party room of the work of an Australian immunologist, Emeritus Professor Robert Clancy of the University of Newcastle.
Professor Clancy told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he had not met Mr Kelly and did not agree with everything he said but thought he was “absolutely right” on hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
“Early treatment is highly effective. Vaccines are critically important. They should not be seen as mutually exclusive. You need them both,” he said.
Professor Clancy said the evidence showed hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin were safe and should be used.
“But they mustn’t be used instead of a vaccine. They need to be used together,” he said.
But Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said last month there was “no evidence” to show hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin should be rolled out to Australians.
“He needs to decide what is the appropriate thing for a member of Parliament to be commenting on,” Professor Kelly said. “I’m not going to talk further about this because it just gives prominence to views that I just don’t agree with and are not scientifically based.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners rebuked Mr Kelly for appearing in an interview with celebrity chef Pete Evans, who was removed from Facebook last year after telling followers not to get tested for COVID-19.
“It is unacceptable that Craig Kelly is persisting in disseminating misinformation concerning COVID-19 and to appear on this podcast with a disgraced former celebrity chef is very unhelpful,” RACGP president Dr Karen Price said.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said last month it was disappointing to see “crackpot” ideas spread by people who should know better. AMA vice president Chris Moy expressed disappointment that political leaders “cannot stand up very clearly for upholding science and fact” against Mr Kelly.
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said he got along “all right” with Mr Kelly but gave voters credit for making their own judgments.
“In Parliament you have a right to say what you like, even though at times it’s completely flawed and erroneous and incorrect,” Mr Joyce said. “If a professor of epidemiology says something to me, I think 99.9 per cent of us are probably going to listen to the professor.”
Asked if Mr Morrison should do anything to silence Mr Kelly, Mr Joyce said, “No, that would just be poking the bear. People are smart enough to make their own decisions, and Craig is not a doctor”.
Mr Kelly has not opposed COVID-19 vaccinations but Labor, the Greens and some Liberals believe his arguments on Facebook will weaken support for the vaccination program, one of the government’s top priorities for the year ahead.
Labor accused Mr Morrison of weakness for claiming Mr Kelly was doing a “great job” when the MP’s claims could undermine the $24 million federal advertising campaign to encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccines.
“Craig Kelly is a dangerous menace and a threat to the nation’s COVID response and it’s beyond time that the Prime Minister developed the backbone to pull him into line,” Mr Butler said.
Labor assistant communications spokesman Tim Watts said Mr Kelly’s posts had been shared 10 times as much as Department of Health posts on Facebook.
“A real leader would have stepped in and said that they would have nothing to do with any MP who is spreading medical misinformation during a pandemic and would have demanded that Craig Kelly be dis-endorsed by the Liberal Party,” Mr Watts said.
Former Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon said he supported free speech but Mr Kelly had to be more responsible when Australia faced the risk of “vaccine hesitancy” with COVID-19.
“I would say to Mr Kelly and others that we’re all entitled to alternative opinions but we’re not entitled to alternative facts,” Dr Gannon told Sky News.
“On topics like this, you cannot have harebrained ideas from people who are in charge of making us safe.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.