Preselection battle grows for Hughes as media war, split threatened

Craig Kelly may run as an independent if he loses. Sources are hopeful that Alan Jones will begin commenting on the preselection challenge next week. Photo: Jessica Hromas


The threatened fallout from a potential preselection challenge in Sydney’s south-west is growing, with the first indications that sitting Liberal MP Craig Kelly may start a media war and run as an independent if he loses.

Fairfax Media revealed earlier this month that Mr Kelly would face a challenge from the party’s Left for the seat of Hughes.

Mr Kelly has publicly stated he will contest any challenge.

But a source close to the MP has foreshadowed a potentially radical response if he lost a preselection ballot.

“Craig’s an ex-front row forward; he may appear like a jovial bloke but he’s literally kicked heads in the past,” the source said. “The question [for challengers] is what will he do if [ousted].

“He’ll be out for revenge and there’s a lot of support for him in the electorate.”

Kent Johns, a powerbroker from the party’s left wing, is considered the most likely challenger and also recused himself from a recent state executive vote laying down preselection timetables, seemingly confirming his intentions.

The party is also alive with rumours that Mr Kelly and other conservatives are preparing to make an appeal to conservative heavyweights in the media to drum up support.

Sources on the right say are hopeful that talkback radio king Alan Jones will begin commenting on the preselection challenge next week.

Mr Kelly, who has been outspoken in his scepticism on issues such as climate change, has made at least eight appearances on Mr Jones’ top-rating program in the past two years.

Only adding to the sense of chaos is a looming court date for Mr Johns, who will be asked to testify as a witness in a court case next month while preselections are occurring.

The case relates to the long and tortured battle for control of the party’s Moorebank branch, which recently spilled over into an alleged threat of violence. (The branch could yet play a key role in determining the outcome of a preselection.)

A member of the branch was heard to say: “I’ll kill you” in a remark believed to be directed towards Mr Johns’ political ally Melanie Gibbons MP. Ms Gibbons has applied for an AVO, which the branch member is contesting.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said MPs who split from their parties tend to do “very poorly” in urban areas.

“You’re going back 20 years to Perth to find the last [successful examples of a disendorsed Liberal MP challenging],” he said. “Most federal MPs simply don’t have that big a profile.”

In 2004, sitting MP Peter King ran as an independent against Malcolm Turnbull after being deposed in a pre-selection challenge for the seat of Wentworth.

Mr King polled about 18 per cent of the vote and drove a slight swing against Mr Turnbull.

Other seats understood to be in the sights of challengers from the party’s left and centre-right wings include Berowra (Philip Ruddock), Hume (Angus Taylor), Bennelong (John Alexander) and Senate spots occupied currently by Bill Heffernan and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

The number of challenges eventually mounted hangs to a large degree on whether Prime Minister Turnbull exercises his authority to back sitting MPs.

The Prime Minister is currently overseas, but his representative on the NSW state executive, Paul Fletcher this week said MPs were not entitled to jobs for life and that preselections were a time-honoured part of the party’s democratic processes

“That’s how the system works, it’s how the system should work,” he said. “It’s the democratic process that every parliamentarian in the Liberal Party is exposed to.”

Mr Turnbull is understood to have not yet intervened  to lend Mr Kelly support or discourage challengers in the seat of Hughes.

Nominations have one month to run.