Former Liberal Craig Kelly claims huge public support - but community groups say otherwise

Former Liberal Craig Kelly at his Illawong home on the weekend after a turbulent week. Picture: Geoff Jones
Former Liberal Craig Kelly at his Illawong home on the weekend after a turbulent week. Picture: Geoff Jones

Craig Kelly denies he betrayed Liberal voters in the seat of Hughes with his shock move to the crossbench.

The controversial MP's decision to quit the Liberal Party last week means the government will need the vote of at least one crossbench MP in the House of Representatives.

Mr Kelly has promised to support the government on budget measures, procedural motions and any policy it took to the last election.

"I believe that's keeping faith and meeting my contractual obligation with voters in Hughes," he told the Champion.

Mr Kelly said he would weigh up other voting decisions as they presented.

"As a federal MP, there are many issues that relate to the [Hughes] electorate. I will consider everything on its merits," he said.

Mr Kelly said he was shocked by the level of support for his decision.

"I thought it would be 50-50, but what I am seeing in emails and online comments, support is about 90-95 per cent in favour," he said.

However, two community groups in the Hughes electorate, who have been working to unseat Mr Kelly, rejected the assertion.

A spokeswoman for Hughes Deserves Better said Mr Kelly was "completely misguided if he believes he has community support"

"Poll figures released by Hughes Deserves Better showed that if an election was held [at that time], there would be a six per cent swing against him," the spokeswoman said.

"Over 50 per cent of Liberal voters called his views on COVID-19 and climate change irresponsible and this was before he jumped ship from the Liberal Party."

Hughes Deserves Better aims to raise awareness about Mr Kelly's views, but will not contest the election.

However, a newer group, We Are Hughes, which was launched in October 2020, intends to endorse a candidate.

Linda Seymour, a founder of We Are Hughes, said their candidate would be "inclusive, informed, have the utmost integrity and will bring people together rather than divide".

"Constituents will be prioritised ahead of party.

"We are not concerned how people voted in the past; we are interested how they vote in the future.

"The support we are getting indicates the opposite narrative to what Craig Kelly is putting out there.

"More than 800 people have signed up to provide support.

"They are people from all walks of life and every suburb in Hughes - professionals, people from the arts, tradespeople...

"They have offered their skill sets, offered to distribute leaflets, work at market stalls and help in other ways."

Mr Kelly's move to the crossbench could see a Melbourne Cup field of candidates vying for Liberal preselection for Hughes before the next election, which is due in 2022.

Mr Kelly increased his margin from 0.5 per cent to 9.9 per cent at the 2019 election.

It is understood Sutherland Shire councillor and former mayor Kent Johns, who was the front runner for Liberal preselection, has turned his sights to a vacancy that will occur shortly in the NSW upper house.

Veteran Liberal John Ajaka, 65, who is president of the Legislative Council, has announced his intention to leave politics, which is expected to occur in April.

The vacancy will be filled before preselection for Hughes, which is expected to take place in about six months.

Other possible contenders include Bree Till, whose husband Brett was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

Ms Till, who is yet to comment on the speculation, is a community and peer adviser for Open Arms (formerly Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service).

The chief executive officer of Catholic Schools NSW, Dallas McInerney and former Liverpool mayor Ned Mannoun are also in the mix.

Mr Kelly said he would not miss the "factional games".

"It was almost a cesspit," he said. "The dealings behind closed doors and shifting allegiances was appalling."