If it were even possible, southern Sydney MP Craig Kelly appears set to cause more trouble for the Coalition from outside its party room.
The anti-vaccine politician from the Sutherland Shire resigned from the Liberal Party one year ago.
He felt his views on immunisation left him stranded from the mainstream of the party.
That came after a decade in the seat of Hughes, during which he drifted further along the party’s conservative wing but stared down a string of aborted challenges from the Liberals’ notoriously factional NSW branch.
This year Mr Kelly finds himself in the familiar position of staring down challengers.
But now, as the leader of the Clive Palmer political vehicle, the United Australia Party, he is hoping to call the tune and use his anti-vaccination platform and the lure of possible preference deals as a dividing line.
It is a matter about which the Liberal Party is studiously keeping mum.
“We’ve only had the basic discussions at this stage,” Mr Kelly says when asked if he might direct preferences to his former party as part of a deal with the sitting government.
He hedges again, noting that ultimately preferences are a matter for voters and noting that the party’s “inclination” is to only recommend a choice of six parties for preferences in the upper house.
But in the House of Representatives?
“I will make a recommendation,” he told The New Daily.
“Obviously it depends on the candidates that we’re up against.”
That concession alone is a significant departure from the party’s position towards the end of last year, which was to emphatically rebuke both major parties by telling voters they would leave both last.
To sharpen any potential wedge, Mr Kelly intends to introduce two private members’ bills into Parliament during its second sitting week of the year, seeking to protect the job of anyone who refuses an employer’s instruction to receive a vaccination.
Mr Kelly says he was Canberra’s first and loudest anti-vaccine voice but he has been buoyed by the growth in the movement, which has maintained a strong protest presence this week – first outside Parliament on Monday and again in front of the National Press Club on Tuesday before a speech by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
He hopes to target members in his former party room.
“We’ve had some MPs, senators, you know, cross the floor on these issues before. [NSW MP Concetta Fierravanti Wells], obviously, in the Senate has been pretty strong on this,” Mr Kelly said.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who is facing a party plebiscite to keep her preselection, recently crossed the floor on the question of supporting a One Nation bill banning compulsory vaccinations.
She was joined in doing so by National Matt Canavan and Northern Territory Senator Sam McMahon, who confirmed on Tuesday that she was leaving the Country Liberals.
“The compulsory vaccination idea, to me, that’s a direct violation of the beliefs and philosophy of being a Liberal,” Mr Kelly said.
“[Prime Minister Scott Morrison] told everyone he is against mandatory vaccinations and injections but has done nothing.”
Mr Kelly believes such a platform will be key to him winning re-election for the seat of Hughes, whose margin he progressively increased while in the Liberal fold to a near 60-40 per cent lead on a two-party-preferred basis.
Now the seat is torn between a messy preselection battle between possible candidates from the party’s dominant factions.
Former Young Liberal president and moderate factional powerbroker Alex Dore was supposed to be the presumptive nominee, but resolving the race has dragged on a week longer than anyone was expecting.
Mr Dore, who is close to Sydney media personality Alan Jones and previously used his factional heft to deploy a “flying squad” of Liberal volunteers to support Mr Kelly during an earlier re-election contest, declined to comment.
So too did the party’s NSW and federal executives.
But one senior NSW Liberal who is expected to sit in judgment on the three-way race said what would previously have been unthinkable for the party was no longer.
“There’s a real sense of desperation within the party,” they said.
“I would not rule anything out”.