Skating for Refugees (and Votes)


Whether it’s dancing on ice with Channel Nine’s celebrity circus troupe, sucking up to the Prime Minister, or dissing the Treasurer, flamboyant Liberal backbencher Jackie Kelly loves doing it in the limelight.

Jackie Kelly in Dancing On Ice

And as backbench political stunts go, her Torvill and Dean routine was a cracker. The western Sydney MP and Prime Ministerial favourite’s decision to join the TV celebrity circuit guaranteed her the media spotlight during the lengthy Winter parliamentary recess.

On face value, it’s a heart-warming story: the high-profile Federal MP goes on a celebrity TV show to raise money for Sudanese refugees on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy. The region’s business community chips in and, before being booted off the show 10 days ago, Kelly raises more than $40,000 for the Sisters’ ‘Mamre’ refugee support program.

In one of the NSW’s outer-suburban, mortgage belt seats, it’s also good politics. It certainly won’t hurt Kelly’s chances of being returned next year by the electors of Lindsay as they have at every election since she won the formerly safe Labor seat with an 11.8 per cent swing in 1998.

But this is also the story of a feisty Federal Liberal backbencher’s use of a group of nuns with a worthy cause for her own ends. And it raises the question: should charity be outsourced to reality TV?

In search of funding for their Mamre program in St Mary’s, which provides employment and other support to Sudanese refugees, the Sisters approached Kelly for assistance. ‘Jackie isn’t our local MP, but the issues of Sudanese refugees affect her electorate and she understands the issues,’ says Sister Mary-Louise Petro, who’s in charge of the program.

Kelly’s solution? Vote for me on Dancing on Ice and I’ll try to secure donations to Mamre, she told them.

Sister Mary-Louise told New Matilda: ‘Jackie chose us as her charity. We didn’t know anything about it until she told us, which was some time after we’d been working with her on ways to raise funds for the Sudanese refugee project.’

The sisters published this on their website, urging locals to vote for Kelly, and Sister Mary-Louise attended a screening of the show to flag her support.

Kelly had a simple explanation for her celebrity TV career: ‘I was very narcissistic and selfish in doing it because I just really wanted to lose weight. And there was no better way to force yourself to do exercise when you commit to something like that.’

But Kelly’s championing of the cause of Sudanese refugees is interesting. She demonstrated her independent spirit recently by challenging aspects of the Government’s IR laws and childcare priorities. Could it be that she harbours concerns about the Government’s refugee policies as well?

We sent her a series of questions last week, but at publication time these had not been answered. It seems the publicity-seeking MP has gone strangely shy.

Did Kelly know, given the ambivalence of the Government towards refugees and asylum seekers, that she was likely to get nowhere fast if she took her constituents’ request for funding to the Party room or the Parliament? Is that why she chose instead to suggest the innovative funding arrangement that would shift funds from local business sponsors to the Mamre project?

Sister Mary-Louise is thrilled by the outcome: ‘As a result, we’re aiming to develop the project from a one-day a week effort into a five-day a week program.’ The Sisters had received funding from the Federal Government’s controversial regional development program (dubbed ‘Regional Rorts’ by the Federal Opposition), but needed matching funding.

The refugees will benefit from language and vocational training, resettlement help and work experience.

In fact, everyone’s a winner. Jackie’s not going to be crowned Australia’s new ice sensation, but the local businesses got some advertising bang for their buck, Mamre some much needed money, and Jackie didn’t have to rub her fellow Party members up the wrong way by trying to get the filthy lucre for the refugees the way an elected representative would normally do it.

As an added bonus, she lost six kilos.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

It’s a fascinating inversion of the standard democratic practice of voters electing an MP to represent their interests. Instead, the MP appeals to the people for their votes on a reality TV show. I wonder what the PM’s political hero, Edmund Burke, would have made of it?

In a way, the arrangement epitomises the small ‘l’ liberal ideal. Minimising government intervention, Kelly brought together business and charity in an entrepreneurial manner.

But some have pilloried her for her apparent neglect of her electorate. Former Big Brother contestant Tim Brunero has made Kelly his poster child for indolent politicians: ‘clearly she is just using the refugees for political purposes, much like her Government used the race card and the plight of desperate refugees to win the 2001 election,’ he writes.

As a former union activist, Brunero’s politics are hardly going to intersect with Kelly’s, but the undeniable fact is that her constituents keep voting her back, in an area that for the previous century was solid Labor territory.

Unlike the viewers at home they abandoned Kelly after four weeks, even though most of the judges were impressed with her moves. ‘At the end of the line, I was not a good enough skater and not enough people voted,’ she said.

Perhaps the nuns couldn’t work out their predictive text and kept sending ‘Jaajgd’ to 193 999?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.