His defection removes the government’s one-seat majority, reducing its numbers to 76 in the 151-seat House of Representatives, meaning the Coalition will need at least one of the crossbench to guarantee support on the floor. The Coalition now has 75 MPs, plus Speaker Tony Smith, who votes only when a vote is tied. Convention dictates he votes for the status quo.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese used Question Time to declare Mr Morrison’s government has “lost its majority on the floor” and potentially control of his government following the resignation of the controversial figure.
Mr Kelly, who holds the NSW seat of Hughes in southern Sydney, has been an increasingly controversial figure during the coronavirus pandemic through his promotion of unorthodox treatments for the virus on social media. He was last week banned from posting on Facebook for one week after he violated the tech giant’s COVID-19 misinformation policy.
Mr Morrison, who said he learned of Mr Kelly’s decision at the same time he announced it to the party room, dismissed the suggestion the defection would imperil his government’s legislative agenda.
“The government will continue to function, as it has successfully,” Mr Morrison said. “As the government has led Australia through the worst situation we’ve seen since the Second World War, we will continue to do so undistracted.”
Several sources said Mr Morrison appeared visibly annoyed at Mr Kelly as he handed him his resignation letter in front of almost 100 colleagues in the closed-door meeting in Parliament’s Great Hall on Tuesday. The Prime Minister told reporters he had set out some “very clear standards” a fortnight ago following Mr Kelly’s public clash with Labor MP Tanya Plibersek over his support for treatments for COVID-19.
“He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments, but I can tell you, my standards don’t change,” Mr Morrison said. “He’s made his decision today and by his own explanation, he has said that his actions were slowing the government down and he believed the best way for him to proceed was to remove himself from the party room.”
Mr Kelly’s decision to continue employing his long-term staff member Frank Zumbo, who faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment and bullying towards staff, is also central to the breakdown between parties.
Mr Morrison said he had long expressed concerns about Mr Zumbo to Mr Kelly, and expected him to “deal with that matter”.
Mr Kelly said Mr Zumbo was “entitled to the presumption of innocence” and his decision was a result of his disagreement with the Prime Minister over alternative COVID treatments.
“I have the greatest respect for Scott Morrison,” he said. “I hope he goes on to be one of our longest-serving and greatest Prime Ministers.”
He acknowledged his controversial views, such as his criticism of Australian health authorities’ refusal to support hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin as a treatment for the coronavirus, had “not helped make the boat go faster”.
Mr Kelly said he could only be able to speak “fearlessly” and “faithfully” about such issues as an independent for the remainder of the term. He rejected any suggestion he was anti-vaccination, calling it a “slanderous smear”.
Since the Coalition formed government, Mr Kelly has been one of its most prolific media performers and was an outspoken critic of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull over energy policy.
He first entered parliament in 2010 following the retirement of Danna Vale but former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Morrison have previously been forced to intervene to save him from preselection challenges. Party sources said it had been made clear Mr Morrison would not have intervened again if he was challenged at his next preselection.
Mr Kelly said he would not join the Coalition partner the Nationals and ruled out the possibility of running for One Nation, suggesting he would stand for Hughes as an “independent Liberal”.
But he defended pushing controversial treatments for COVID-19, claiming one of the “greatest mistakes that has been made in this country and also the world” was prohibiting doctors from administering ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra