It’s a bright afternoon and the main street of Queanbeyan is abuzz with tradespeople who have just knocked-off for the day. Mike Kelly is a noticeable figure in the male-dominated street. But it’s not just for his looming height and moustache, it’s also the continuous recognition he has from passers-by. Kelly has not yet begun his campaign or held office since 2013, but he is a well-known figure in his home town.
“Captain Kelly!” An enthusiastic cyclist wobbles past. Kelly cheerfully responds before noting, flippantly, “He means Colonel Kelly, but who’s going to nitpick?”
Prior to entering politics in 2007, Colonel Kelly served the defence force in Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor and Iraq, among others. His work in Somalia left him bitter about a situation he felt could have been better managed, and inspired his PhD research. “I came out of Somalia really a bit angry about how the whole thing went, and wanted answers … I was looking at how we can do those kind of broken state, asymmetric, counter insurgency-type situations better.” Kelly says he anticipated more scenarios of this nature when researching his PhD. He believes the knowledge he gained from his studies served him well during subsequent deployments, and eventually in government.
In 2003, in Baghdad, Kelly spoke with Kevin Rudd, who was then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, about this need to fix Australia’s security policy. The conversation they had catalysed Kelly’s political phase, as Rudd remembered and decided to phone him prior to the 2007 election. Kelly’s change of career was prompted by his desire to address the issues he found within Australia’s defence policy, and Rudd’s support for his proposals: “At first I wasn’t inclined, but he certainly promised to back me on fixing those things.”
It appears Kelly’s loyalist military principles are at odds with what has become the political norm of leadership contests and disputes within the parties. He believes that Labor was crazy for “staging a coup” against their leader, and that Rudd’s surrender of the leadership to Julia Gillard should have occurred naturally: “I felt that she would be tarnished by it and may never recover, and that’s kind of how it panned out. We should have gone through that election and then worked out a time when an orderly hand-over could have been effective somewhere down the track.”
Kelly was also frustrated that the leadership disputes distracted from policy. “I considered the army as my career, and politics was about getting stuff done.” He believes that the foundations were there for Labor to address important issues, but that the leadership turmoil undermined their agenda and inhibited him from achieving what he intended. He remarks that the same crazy, undisciplined behaviour which afflicted the Labor Party has also afflicted the Coalition government, and thinks that they could use some time in opposition in order to become more unified.
Despite the Labor Party’s history, Kelly believes they have learned from their mistakes. He says that their time in opposition has given them a chance to fix their leadership issues so that party spills never happen again. He is keen to move forward with a focus on sound policy, and to complete what he intended when he first entered politics.
Along with getting stuff done in defence, Kelly is interested in addressing climate change. “It’s like Obama said – we’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation with the ability to do something about it.” Campaigning in previous years has taught him that responding to climate change with renewable energy is important to people in his electorate, especially amongst the younger generation.
Kelly also expresses the need to move forward and address marriage equality. “When I was in the defence force I served alongside a lot of gay and lesbian men and women. And if they were prepared to die for you, the least you can do for them is allow them this one small thing.” He openly voted in favour of the bill, and believes critics are “burying their heads in the sand”. He also believes that marriage inequality is the last thing that persecutors hold onto in order to marginalise these members of the community as a point of difference.
Other issues which need addressing in Eden-Monaro are as vast and diverse as the area itself. Kelly believes that employment is a major concern affecting the entire region, in direct and indirect ways. An example of the indirect impact is the public service cuts in Canberra, which he argues affected the tourism industry of Eden-Monaro.
Eden-Monaro is notorious for being consistently bellwether, setting the trend for whichever government is in power. The electorate is also consistently marginal, resulting in arduous election campaigns for its contenders: “It really takes it out of you, you know you’re cutting your life short.” Although Kelly was criticised for residing outside of the electorate directly prior to the 2007 election, he identifies strongly with Eden-Monaro, as his family’s association with the area goes back almost 166 years. “I wouldn’t have contested any other seat,” he says. Considering that Eden-Monaro has been held by a member representing whichever government is in power since 1972, it will be interesting to see if a Kelly victory is accompanied by a change of government, maintaining the electorate’s legendary bellwether status.
It is clear that the militaristic traditions of discipline and leadership are at the forefront of Kelly’s convictions. Mike Kelly is visibly motivated and passionate about the issues which affect his electorate, although it is possible that his short and tumultuous time in government has resulted in an idealistic notion of what can be achieved. Should Kelly and Labor succeed, it will certainly be interesting to note their performance as a “unified party”. With opinion polls so close both in Eden-Monaro and nationally, Kelly will be a contender to watch.