Craig Kelly's expletive-laden rant exposes depth of Liberal Party tensions

Hughes MP Craig Kelly lost his cool on Sunday night at an Engadine gymnastics club after a messy day fighting to save his career. Picture: AAP
Hughes MP Craig Kelly lost his cool on Sunday night at an Engadine gymnastics club after a messy day fighting to save his career. Picture: AAP

Craig Kelly walked into the Engadine Gymnastics Club on Sunday night a man under pressure.

The embattled Liberal Party backbencher spotted a group of local politicians who had also been invited to hand out awards to excited children.

The group included Lee Evans, a Liberal member of the NSW Parliament, and Carmelo Pesce, the Liberal mayor of the Sutherland Shire Council.

Kelly put out his hand to greet the mayor. Pesce put his hand behind his back.

"You're a f---ing prick!" Kelly shouted at Pesce. "Are you f---ing kidding me? You're not going to f---ing shake my hand?"

Pesce refused to speak but Kelly - who had spent much of Sunday trying to save his career - didn't take the hint: "What? Do you mean you're not going to f---ing shake my hand."

Pesce relented and told Kelly he could not stomach the thought of shaking his hand.

"You're a disgrace for what you're doing to the party," Pesce told Kelly.

"You're the disgrace," Kelly shot back. Gymnastics coach Graham Spooner intervened and told the men to cool it. So did Evans.

Kelly confirmed the encounter when contacted by Fairfax Media on Sunday night but declined to comment. Pesce refused to talk but Evans confirmed the exchange: "This is not how you behave in public," he said of Kelly.

The incident capped off another bad day for Kelly and the Liberal Party, which is riven by bad blood and infighting ahead of a federal election next year.

Just a few hours earlier Kelly thought a deal had been done to save him from losing a preselection challenge by local councillor Kent Johns for his safe southern Sydney seat of Hughes.

A preselection defeat would be a disaster for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who needs to keep Kelly's conservative faction happy and do whatever it takes to keep the unpredictable backbencher from shifting to the crossbench.

A plan was hatched over the weekend to fix it all. Morrison's powerbrokers decided the best way to handle a tough preselection fight was to cancel the preselection altogether. The NSW Liberal Party's 23-member state executive would be asked to use its emergency powers to automatically endorse all sitting MPs, including Kelly.

The proposal initially received the support of some members of the moderate faction, who loathe Kelly for his role in the demise of Malcolm Turnbull but were prepared to suck it up for Morrison and party unity.

But as the day went on the backlash grew. Several moderate state executive members resisted enormous pressure from some of the most senior figures in the Morrison government to get on board and save Kelly. By 5pm it was clear the plan to cancel preselections would never get through the state executive.

Kelly would likely have to face preselection after all - a reality that hit just before he strode into the Engadine Gymnastics Club.

An intervention by Malcolm Turnbull proved crucial. Turnbull hit the roof when he found out about the peace proposal and telephoned state executive members, including Matt Kean, a minister in Gladys Berejiklian's government, to urge them to vote against it.

Turnbull couldn't believe Kelly and his conservative allies were backing a plan to suspend preselections when they'd campaigned so hard over recent years for reforms to give grassroots members more power in selecting candidates.

In a series of tweets, the former prime minister went public: "It has been put to me that Mr Kelly has threatened to go to the crossbench and 'bring down the government'. If indeed he has made that threat, it is not one that should result in a capitulation. Indeed it would be the worst and weakest response to such a threat.

"It is time for the Liberal Party members in Hughes to have their say about their local member and decide who they want to represent them."

Turnbull’s intervention has been interpreted as a direct repudiation of Morrison and will stoke new tensions inside the deeply divided party at the start of the final sitting week of the year.