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Craig Kelly: Why I stuck my neck out for Tony Abbott

Craig Kelly

The federal member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, looks like he’s seen off a preselection challenge.

Even people outside the party were cheering when they heard that the federal member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, was going to face an overwhelming preselection challenge.

They went to social media sites and posted comments like “serves him right’ and no surprises here’’.

One of the main reasons they disliked him so much was because back in September, when Malcolm Turnbull declared he would challenge Tony Abbott for the top job, it was Craig Kelly who stuck his neck out and publicly declared his loyalty to the deeply unpopular Prime Minister.

Maybe he should have kept his head down and voted for Tony anyway, but that’s not what Craig Kelly’s about.

“As an MP, the only check on you is your constituents and when something like this comes along you owe it to the people who put you there to let them know which way you were going to vote,’’ Mr Kelly says.

“Tony made some terrible decisions; some terrible blunders.

“Tony never gave me any special favours and I never asked for any special favours.

“He was the leader of the party when I was elected in 2010.

“I always thought in our system the public doesn’t elect the Prime Minister, the members of parliament do that.

“So the PM only holds office while he has the support of the majority in his or her party.

“We’re not like America where they elect their president; everything in our system of government is designed to stop the concentration of power in the hands of one person or group

“So that’s the power MPs have, to elect the leader, and that power should only be used in exceptional circumstances,’’ Mr Kelly said.

“Now everyone in the Liberal Party gets a vote, and a majority decided we should change; that’s how our system works.

“Malcolm Turnbull is now the Prime Minister, and as the elected Prime Minister he has my 100 per cent support and I will make sure I do everything I can so Malcolm is there for as long as possible.’’

That clears up the Tony Abbott issue, but whether his detractors accept his explanation is up to them.

Craig Kelly

Craig Kelly at Liverpool’s Australia Day celebrations

As for Craig Kelly himself, he looked a little more cheerful when I saw him again a couple of weeks after our interview.

It was Australia Day in Liverpool, but it was at the Campbelltown celebration a couple of hours earlier where I had learned that the planned challenge against him in Hughes may be going down the gurgler.

Street talk had it that higher ups in the Liberal Party had decided to act to stop such damaging preselection scraps.

Kelly, who was in Liverpool with his trusted advisor, Frank Zumbo, nodded when I mentioned preselection turn of events.

But especially pleased will be some of his best supporters, those residents of Wattle Grove, Hammondville, Chipping Norton and Moorebank who oppose plans for an intermodal in the area.

That’s because Kelly has been their biggest political supporter over the past few years.

And not just in the usual way of politicians who pay lip service to some residents’ campaign because there’s some votes in it for him or her.

Kelly actually believes the Moorebank intermodal plan is a waste of time, and if it does go ahead will make bad local pollution levels even worse.

This coming Monday, February 1, he will attend a NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) hearing into the intermodal, and just like his rugby days, Craig Kelly won’t be pulling any punches when he takes to the microphone.

“I will be jumping up and down about the proposal and one of the reasons is that I am convinced we did the wrong thing,’’ Mr Kelly says.

“I am going to ask PAC to put a condition that the freights trains have the same pollution controls as the road trucks.

“When you burn one litre of diesel, one in a truck and one in a freight train, you get 18 times more particulate pollution that spews out of the old freight trains

“So you may use less fuel in a train but end up with a lot more diesel pollution.

“And that’s just to get it to Moorebank, so the reality is every container that’s put on the train instead of the truck produces all that extra particulate pollution, 10 times more than if all those containers went by truck from Botany,’’ Mr Kelly says.

“So I will say to them, if you want to use these trains, you have to have the same pollution standards as you do on the trucks.

“If it means they have to update their trains to the latest diesel engines so be it. And if that additional cost makes the whole thing unviable…

“Our pollution levels in Liverpool of fine particulate matter are above the new health standards we just recently announced.

“We need to lower our pollution here in western Sydney to meet these standards – what you are proposing with this intermodal is a million containers transported in trains that produce 10 times more pollution than trucks.’’

craigkellyCraig Kelly knows his onions on containers.

Including that the much maligned Labor MP Joe Tripodi while ports minister introduced fines for trucks late for their allocated time slot at Port Botany or the port for not loading the container if the truck was there on time.

“That was a really good initiative by Joe Tripodi, it improved efficiency in the ports,’’ Mr Kelly says.

One of the first jobs a younger Craig Kelly did was coordinate delivery of containers around Sydney.

“So I know the Sydney network, Sydney’s roads, I hopped in trucks and drove them myself, but I wouldn’t pretend to be able to tell Melbourne how to deliver their containers.

“Moorebank will just end up as warehousing,’’ he says.

There’s no doubt that with Craig Kelly on their side the opponents of the intermodal have an even chance of stopping it.

He has even stood up in parliament and harangued the minister responsible for the intermodal, none other than the deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, for his handling of the issue.

“I don’t know but it could be the only time ever a deputy PM has had a critical question asked of him by one of his backbenchers,’’ Mr Kelly says.

“In the Liberal Party a backbencher has the right to hold a view contrary to a policy of the party.

“That’s the strength of our party that you can have such opposing views.’’

There will be an election sometime this year, and assuming Craig Kelly sees off the preselection threat, he should hold on to the seat, which is basically made up of Liverpool and Sutherland.

So would he like to contribute a little more in the future?

“Look, this is like cricket, you’ve been picked to play in the Sheffield Shield for NSW and you hope one day to play for Australia.

“But you cherish every moment you have with NSW, you still work hard, you bowl to get wickets.

“You have got to be there at the right place at the right time when something happens, but in the meantime enjoy it and work hard.

“Whatever opportunity comes, I will accept it, but this is truly a fantastic job, to engage in public on issues that are important to the future of our country, and as a backbencher you get the full spectrum of issues to comment on.’’

Craig Kelly was around 11 years old when he started supporting the Liberal Party.

His father, a small businessman, started coming home in a distraught state and young Craig found out it was because he was upset with the mess of the economy when the Whitlam Government was in power between 1972 and 75.

Craig Kelly speaking at Australia Day celebrations.

Craig Kelly speaking at Australia Day celebrations.

Ironically, what really galvanised him was that as a small businessman himself he felt that the Howard Government in its last term had neglected small business and had become wedded to the big end of town.

“Around 2009 I was disappointed how the Liberal Party was going and whether it was going to get back into government,’’ he recalls.

Then sitting member Danna Vale, who was retiring from politics, called him and asked him to stand.

“I didn’t realise at the time they’d asked 1000 others and nobody wanted to do it,’’ Mr Kelly says.

What he didn’t realise was that he had taken on an uphill battle, which is probably just as well because he may not be here talking to me as a five year MP.

“Rudd was flying high at the time, and there was a redistribution coming in Hughes,’’ he says.

The margin was two percent but redistribution was going to make it a notional Labor seat.

Not to mention that Danna Vale leaving meant she was taking along with her five per cent in personal support.

So did Craig hesitate? Not on your life.

He took on the challenge the same way he had everything else in his life, with energy and enthusiasm, and naturally he won.

But not before he had to front a Liberal Party branch where he was peppered with questions like: So how long have you been in the party, son: “I think it was about three days, 6 hours and 22 mins,’’ was his response.

And after being a little nervous on his arrival to parliament in Canberra, he drew on all his life experiences as a small business person and quickly decided he could handle the challenge.

“It felt the same way as the first game of football you played, where you think, am I going to get pummelled out there, am I going to let the team down, how will I be able to compete at this level. Then three minutes into it you think, I can do this; parliament is the same.’’













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