Mike Kelly: From soldier to politician

13 July 2012

Written by: Stephanie Pradier

Not many MPs can say that they have wrestled a notorious Somalian warlord and helped bring him to justice. Labor MP Mike Kelly however, can. He is the Parliamentary Secretary of Defence and has received multiple honours for his military service. MP Mike Kelly is a rare example of soldier turned politician in Australia.

Photo: APH

In Britain and the United States there is a tradition of military men in government. George Washington, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy have a military background. However in Australian it is not as common. Only eight out of our 27 prime ministers have served in the military and only 19 out of the current 226 parliamentarians.

Chief executive for the Australian Defence Association (ADA), Neil James says, ‘political parties know the majority of votes won’t come from defence matters, so they don’t go looking’. He also adds that out of the 19 ‘very few have any real experience’. And Mike Kelly is definitely one of the few.

Before entering parliament, Kelly served 20 years in the defence forces, in which time he helped capture and prosecute a warlord in Somalia. He also aided in the preparation of the case that brought down Saddam Hussein. Now he is one of the men overseeing the transfer of Australian troops out of Afghanistan.

Though the 52 year old was born in South Australia, his family history has deep roots in Kelly’s seat of Eden-Monaro in NSW. His great-great-grandfather Thomas Joseph Kelly first settled in the area in 1865 and his son Benjamin George Kelly ran for the seat of Eden-Monaro in 1940. And now, nearly 70 years later, Kelly has followed in his great-grandfathers footsteps, becoming the MP for Eden-Monaro in 2007 and again in 2010.

It has definitely been a long road for Mike Kelly. As a young man he worked his way through school as a cleaner, packer and store storeman. He graduated from Macquarie University with a Bachelors degree in Arts and Law and went on to work as a solicitor in a Sydney law firm fighting for the rights of injured workers. He joined the army in 1987 at the age of 27.

In 1993, the then Major Kelly was given the job of establishing the police force and justice system in the town of Baidoa, Somalia. No small risk on his part – several intelligence reports at the time revealed that a price had been put on Kelly’s head. On April 23, whilst acting as an advisor to prosecutors, he helped convict warlord Hassan Gutaale on 31 counts of murder. Gutaale was sentenced to death.

Years later, Kelly described to the Canberra Times what happened when Gutaale violently attacked him. Kelly was transporting Gutaale to his execution. ‘Gutaale basically had a death grip on me and my shirt and webbing were getting torn. The crowd was getting worked up and it was raining heavily, it was like a scene from a bad movie,’ he said. He managed turn the tables on Gutaale and draged the warlord to his final destination.

Following his brave efforts in Somalia, Mike Kelly was awarded a Chief of the General Staff’s Commendation and made a Member of the Order of Australia. However, Gutaale is not the most infamous criminal that Kelly has helped convict. In 2004, Kelly was in a Baghdad court at the request of an Iraqi judge. He witnessed the handing over of Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi interim government and was heavily involved in his prosecution.

It was three years later at a press conference that Labor’s defence spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon and foreign affairs spokesperson Robert McClelland announced Colonel Mike Kelly as Labor’s candidate for Eden-Monaro.

Leading up to the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd said Mike Kelly was his choice because he wanted ‘first-class candidates representing federal Labor at the next election.’

Labor’s main hope was that Kelly would greatly improve the party’s national security credentials. Kelly went on to win the election later that year with a 6.7% swing in his favour.

However, his time in politics has not been without controversy. In September of 2011 Kelly’s military service was thrown in the spotlight after critics claimed his service was spent behind a desk – concerned only with paperwork. The comments were made due to a public dispute over military pensions.

Kelly defended his time in the military by disclosing more details to the media about his time in Somalia. He explained how he had to ‘stick’ an angry crowd with his bayonet in order to get Gutaale to his place of execution.

Over the past few years, one of Australia’s biggest security issues has been the war in Afghanistan. But within two years time Australian soldiers will pack up and return home. As the new Parliamentary Secretary of Defence, Kelly visited the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) earlier this month to meet with Australian soldiers and thank them for their work. He visited bases in Tarin Kot, Kabul and Kandahar for briefings about the transition out of Afghanistan that is planned for 2014.

About the brave men and women he met Kelly said: ‘Their job is difficult and dangerous, and they deserve our thanks. I was deeply impressed with the hard work being done under arduous circumstances by ADF personnel. I am heartened by the progress being made in Afghanistan.’

Neil James says: ‘We need more people in politics with a service record, because that will bring more debate on defence issues. And we need that.’


Zainab Hussain Shihab is a student at La Trobe University.

To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’s Backbench Insiders project, click here.