If you’ve been imbibing Craig’s Kelly’s Covid monologues over the summer and wondering why Scott Morrison lets one of his own MPs regularly contradict the official public health advice without rebuke, let me try to answer your question.
Given that this is politics, we can start with politics. Let me draw your attention to what I’ll call Project Representation.
Kelly, who specialised in implacable unreason about climate change before his conversion to stubborn contrarianism about various Covid remedies – contrarianism at odds with the views of designated experts including Australia’s chief medical officer – speaks to a constituency the Coalition wants to court: a group of voters tempted to vote for rightwing protest parties rather than the Liberals and the Nationals.
One of the under-reported dynamics during the coronavirus pandemic has been the collapse of One Nation’s vote. The reasons for this are likely multi-factorial. But a serious public health and economic crisis, and the responses to it from commonwealth and state governments, seems to have nudged some “protest” voters back into the major party fold.
This drift is likely highly conditional, and realpolitik says the Coalition would like to keep the new pandemic recruits in its “vote one” column rather than rely on the vagaries of One Nation preference flows or see those votes bleed to Labor.
If representation and recruitment is an objective, self-styled mavericks like Kelly and his Queensland sidekick George Christensen have some utility. This duo operates like an extended wink and a nudge; they tell voters the Coalition is a broad enough church to be a home for fringe views.
Kelly and Christensen, and their relentless courtship of people who like to position themselves against mainstream orthodoxy, allow that welcoming signal to be sent without senior players in government being caught on the sticky paper (apart from Michael McCormack, who blunders in periodically trying to court the politically estranged with all the finesse of an exploding cigar).
Having identified Project Representation, we can move next to Project Turn Down the Volume.
When Morrison mulls the pluses and minuses associated with rebuking Kelly for undermining the government’s public health messaging, the prime minister faces a genuine substantive dilemma, and that goes to the risks of amplification.
Morrison slapping down Kelly does two things: it gives the backbencher’s forays a larger audience. Muzzling Kelly also elevates a semi-professional obscurantist to the status of free speech martyr, and that invites a cacophonous pile-on from the rightwing bobble heads who screech about the left’s obsession with identity politics while shovelling identity politics at their audiences.
The problem with the cacophony is it can fuel public confusion and vaccine hesitancy.
Avoiding a cacophony is a worthy objective, because Australia has managed to largely sidestep the post-truth hellscape the US has endured during the pandemic because politicians, by and large, have chosen to inhabit a universe of shared facts and common messages.
In a strange way, the differences we saw between Morrison and some of the Labor premiers in the latter part of 2020 only reinforced the shared national reality that the pandemic was serious, and required concerted action. Some opposition leaders tried to get some traction around fringe views but these campaigns foundered.
So Morrison not rebuking Kelly is, to some degree, a prime minister trying to maintain control of the volume at a time when public confusion could threaten the success of the vaccination program.
While the logic of trying not to amplify abject nonsense is sound enough, unfortunately it’s not the whole picture.
Kelly genuinely believes his views about the relative merits of various therapies are correct. He intends to keep crusading. That means his feelings about medical matters have already jumped the barrier between strategic narrowcasting and mainstream news consumption.
Many voters won’t have a clue who Kelly is but there’s enough reporting now for people to grasp there is some kind of controversy about Covid therapies or vaccines being driven by a member of the Morrison government.
To put this bluntly, I suspect the amplification horse has bolted.
The second problem, for senior government figures, relates to Project Representation.
When a party of government dabbles with presenting itself as a safe harbour for fringe views for tactical reasons, it isn’t being clever, it is giving succour to fringe views.
Political leaders can try to rationalise the inclusive signalling to themselves, but these rationalisations are self-delusion.
Serious times demand honesty and self-awareness from people in positions of authority and, at the end of the day, political parties giving succour to fringe views about life-and-death matters is a Faustian pact.
This isn’t speculation, or a serve of two-bit punditry to fuel the opinion cycle.
This is the lesson of Donald Trump.
We all saw it.
It’s a lesson that should never be forgotten.