Australian MP who promoted pandemic conspiracies quits ruling party

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An Australian lawmaker who promoted baseless conspiracy theories about the pandemic and vaccines has quit the ruling party

An Australian lawmaker who frequently peddled pandemic misinformation quit the conservative governing party Tuesday, weeks after being publicly dressed down by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Craig Kelly, a member of Morrison's Liberal Party, repeatedly used social media and the floor of parliament to question the safety of coronavirus vaccines, oppose lockdowns, and promote unproven Covid-19 treatments such as Malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and headlice medication ivermectin.

"I felt that for the rest of this parliamentary term, if I'm going to act and speak according to my conscience and my beliefs, that I can do so more effectively as an independent," the Sydney MP told public broadcaster ABC.

Kelly's defection denied Morrison's coalition its majority in the lower house of parliament, but the rebel lawmaker said he would continue to support the government on key votes.

The Sydney MP informed colleagues of his decision at a Liberal Party meeting in Canberra.

Morrison confirmed Kelly's departure, saying he "no longer felt that he could meet" his party leader's call for him to stop spreading misinformation.

During Tuesday's parliamentary question time, the prime minister also acknowledged that he and Kelly had clashed over the deputy's failure to sack a close aide facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.

That dispute has garnered heightened attention as Morrison grapples with an escalating scandal over alleged sexual assaults and misconduct by Liberal Party staffers and officials, including the reported rape of a woman in the now-defence minister's parliamentary office.

Kelly's Facebook account -- in which he has also frequently played down climate change -- drew around six million video views and five million interactions in 2020, according to data tool CrowdTangle.

In a statement to parliament Tuesday, Kelly was unrepentant about promoting debunked Covid-19 treatments, saying he felt obliged to ensure his "constituents and all Australians were not being denied access to medical treatments, if their doctors believe those treatments could save their life".

Kelly's resignation came as Australia entered the second day of a mass vaccination program against Covid-19.

Public opinion polls show around three-in-four Australians intend to get vaccinated, but misinformation is widespread on prominent media platforms.