Joel Fitzgibbon has threatened to bring down Anthony Albanese if he doesn’t move Labor to the centre and focus on the economy to win back blue-collar workers instead of pandering to left-leaning inner-city voters who favour climate change action over jobs.
The Hunter MP, who quit the frontbench last week after an explosive ‘dust-up’ with his leader over climate policy, told Daily Mail Australia he is prepared to ‘go to the next step’ if the party’s emphasis doesn’t change soon.
‘I’ve given him a big warning and another chance and we’ll see whether he can grasp that opportunity or if we’ll have to go to the next step,’ he warned.
Asked how long he would give Mr Albanese to turn things around before making his next move, Mr Fitzgibbon said: ‘I haven’t defined a time, let’s see where this take us.’
Labor leader Anthony Albanese (left) said he would remain mates with Joel Fiztigibbon (right) even after their ‘dust-up’ over climate policy. The pair are pictured in February at the Country Labor Conference in Singleton
Joel Fitzgibbon (pictured with his daughter Grace, a Nine News Sydney reporter) is poised to bring down Anthony Albanese if he doesn’t move Labor to the centre
The 58-year-old, who almost lost his coal-mining seat at the 2019 election, believes Mr Albanese and some shadow ministers are too focused on climate change and worries an overly ambitious policy could cost jobs and votes in regional areas.
He was furious that senior left-wingers – whom he branded the ‘cheesecloth brigade’ – were calling for an ‘even more ambitious climate change policy’ in the wake of Joe Biden’s US election win as Mr Albanese attacked Scott Morrison for refusing to adopt a 2050 net zero emissions target.
Mr Fitzgibbon, who supports the target, admitted there isn’t a gulf in policy between him and Mr Albanese – but wants Labor’s ‘language and emphasis’ to change so that resources sector workers feel less ‘demonised’.
‘We should spend less time talking about climate change and more time talking about people’s economic welfare and their aspiration,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘People are more concerned about whether there are jobs and paying their mortgages than they are about climate change.
‘We need to stop this fascination with it and talk in the language of our traditional base.’
Joel Fitzgibbon (left in August) said he wants Labor to focus on jobs and getting people back to work after the Covid-19 recession put more than 1million Aussies out of a job
Mr Fitzgibbon (pictured with his wife Dianne), a strong supporter of the gas and coal industries, believes the party is out of touch with blue-collar workers and wants a more moderate position on climate change to make it electable
Mr Fitzgibbon, who has backed the coal and gas industries since his election to parliament in 1996, accused left-wingers of deliberately exaggerating the problem of climate change to impress progressive inner-city voters.
‘The left, of course, want to overstate the challenge and the problem because it suits them,’ he said.
The former defence minister cited government figures released in August which showed that emissions per capita were lower than in 1990 by 42.9 per cent while the emissions intensity of the economy was 64.2 per cent lower than 30 years ago.
People are more concerned about paying their mortgages than they are about climate change
‘This is a straw man. We’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. Australia is doing it’s bit. Someone’s got to show some leadership on this stuff,’ he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he wants Labor to focus on jobs and getting people back to work after the Covid-19 recession put more than 1million Aussies out of a job.
‘It’s not just about one policy,’ he said.
‘It’s not just about coal, it’s about re-claiming the centre ground.’
One right-faction Labor politician, who supports Mr Fitzgibbon’s position, told Daily Mail Australia the problem is that Mr Albanese is struggling to resist progressive figures in the shadow cabinet who are dragging him to the left.
One example was shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong’s insistence that he should ask the prime minister to call Donald Trump and tell him to concede the election – a risky move that no other world leader contemplated, the politician said.
To win the next election and avoid a fourth defeat in a row, Mr Fitzgibbon believes Labor must claim the regional Queensland seats of Flynn, Capricornia and potentially Dawson, which all have large coal industries.
He is angry that Mr Albanese, who trailed Scott Morrison by 58 to 29 in the latest preferred prime minister Newspoll, has not visited a single coalmine after 18 months as leader.
CFMEU Queensland mining and energy president Stephen Smyth said if the Labor Party refuses to back coalminers then their votes will go to One Nation.
‘Joel is great advocate and understands the issues facing coalmining generally. If Labor doesn’t have an advocate in that space then One Nation will fill that void,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Mr Smyth said his union members do not deny the science of climate change and are open-minded about the transition away from fossil fuels but worry that moving too fast will decimate their communities and destroy thousands of jobs.
Mr Fitzgibbon (pictured in Humpty Doo, Northern Territory in July 2018) says there isn’t a gulf in policy between him and Mr Albanese – but wants Labor’s ‘language and emphasis’ to change
The Hunter MP (pictured on a trip to Perth in January 2019) said left-wing politicians are overstating the problem of climate change and Australia is already ‘doing its bit’
Under Labor rules, 60 per cent of senators and MPs have to support overthrowing a leader before they can be replaced, but commentators say any number above half would pressure Mr Albanese to step down.
Some say Mr Fitzgibbon is more likely to act as a ‘stalking horse’ for a fellow right-faction leader such as Richard Marles or Jim Chalmers rather than take the reins himself.
Pushed on whether he would personally challenge for the top job, Mr Fitzgibbon laughed and said: ‘It’s too early to be talking about that, let’s see where this takes us.’
The veteran MP last week said he has ‘no plans’ to run for leadership but would consider a tilt if ‘drafted’ by his colleagues.
Mr Fitzgibbon, who has demanded the resignation of left-wing climate spokesman Mark Butler, said several Labor politicians share his concerns.
‘I have very, very significant support in the caucus for my views on the party’s direction, my determination to make the party more electable,’ he said.
Asked how long he would give Mr Albanese to turn things around before making his next move, Mr Fitzgibbon (pictured with girl guides in Toronto, NSW in May 2019) said: ‘I haven’t defined a time’
Mr Fitzgibbon (pictured at Cessnock Goodstart Early Learning in April 2019) said many of his colleagues support his views
Mr Fitzgibbon fears the Labor leadership is pandering to the left wing of the party which supports rapid action on climate change. Pictured: Activists from Extinction Rebellion protest in Brisbane last year
Labor’s dispute over energy policy is part of a broader challenge faced by left-of-centre parties in western democracies who are struggling to hold their traditional working class voter base while appealing to younger, more internationalist supporters who typically live in major cities.
This divide undid the UK Labour Party in December when Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson won long-held labour seats in former mining areas in the north of England with a nationalistic rallying cry to ‘get Brexit done’.
A review of Australian Labor’s 2019 federal election campaign found the party had become a ‘natural home for diverse interests and concerns including gender equality, the LGBTQI+ community, racial equality and environmentalism’.
But it warned that ‘working people experiencing the dislocation caused by new technologies and globalisation could lose faith in Labor if they do not believe Labor is responding to their issues.’
Mr Fitzgibbon believes Mr Albanese can win the next election but only if he strikes a better balance with a more moderate climate policy.
The Labor leader said he is not concerned about alienating blue-collar workers and believes Mr Morrison is isolating Australia from the rest of the world by refusing to adopt a 2050 net zero emissions target.
Mr Fitzgibbon, a former car electrician who became Cessnock deputy mayor in 1989, has represented Hunter since 1996. He is pictured with the late former Labor PM Bob Hawke
Mr Fitzgibbon has backed the coal and gas industries throughout his career. Pictured is a group of Aussie miners backing the new Adani coalmine in Clermont, Queensland in April 2019
Joe Biden’s election victory means the US – the world’s second largest polluter after China – will in January have a leader that also favours a net zero 2050 goal, leaving Australia more isolated on the issue. Pictured: President-elect Biden delivering his victory speech
Frontbencher Mark Dreyfus, who represents Isaacs in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, said Mr Fitzgibbon is ‘out of step’ with the majority of Labor Party supporters and insisted ‘we don’t get to say no to climate change.’
Australia’s largest union, the ACTU, supports that position. President Michelle O’Neill said climate change ‘impacts every job’ and ‘we need to act.’
Before becoming a federal MP, Mr Fitzgibbon was a car electrician and local councillor who served as Cessnock deputy mayor in 1989.
He was minister of defence under Kevin Rudd from 2007 to 2009 before serving as minister for agriculture in 2013.
He is married to wife Dianne and has three adult children including Nine News reporter Grace.
Mr Fitzgibbon suffered a 14.2 per cent swing against him on primary votes at the May 2019 federal election.
Labor’s 45 per cent carbon emissions reduction target by 2030 was received badly in the Hunter and regional Queensland.
UK Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured campaigning last year) won long-held labor seats in former mining areas in the north of England as Labour collapsed. Mr Fitzgibbon fears something similar may happen in his seat of Hunter if Labor doesn’t back coal