Senior Labor party figures, as well as some of the largest Labor aligned unions, have called on the party to reassert its credentials for acting on climate change, following the exit of pro-coal agitator Joel Fitzgibbon from the shadow cabinet.
Fitzgibbon unexpectedly resigned from the Labor frontbench on Tuesday, citing an unresolvable dispute over the party’s climate change policies. Fitzgibbon, who represents the coal-heavy electorate of Hunter, has sought to moderate the Labor party’s climate policy ambitions, including setting a medium-term emissions reduction target, saying that the party should instead be backing the ongoing role of both the coal and gas industries.
Fitzgibbon had served as the shadow minister for agriculture and resources, a position that saw him aligned with several members of the Coalition, including former resources minister Matt Canavan, in his support for expanding Australia’s coal industry.
However, many within federal Labor believe the Party needs to distinguish itself from the Morrison government to win over voters in metropolitan electorates, by committing to more ambitious climate policies, including a target of net-zero emissions. Fitzgibbon has argued that Labor must continue to embrace fossil fuel industries to maintain its support in resources-heavy regional electorates.
The issue came to a head at a meeting of the Labor shadow cabinet on Monday, with Fitzgibbon announcing his resignation from the shadow cabinet the next day. But in stepping down from the shadow cabinet, Fitzgibbon flagged that he could now speak more openly about his support for the fossil fuel sector, and entertained the potential of challenging Anthony Albanese for the party leadership.
“We’ve got those in Surry Hills, who think more about climate change than most things, and those people who I’ve traditionally mixed with, who are wearing the Hi-Viz, working in the coal mines and power stations; the oil and gas workers and those in the manufacturing sector,” Fitzgibbon told radio station 2GB.
“And, you know, they deserted us in large number, and I’m determined to win them back. And to win them back you have to speak even more loudly, and with greater levels of support than you had for them before you lost them.”
Following the shadow cabinet stoush, Labor shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said that Fitzgibbon’s resignation was ultimately a consequence of his being out of touch with community views on climate change.
Dreyfus downplayed suggestions that he had confronted Fitzgibbon during a meeting of the shadow cabinet, where it is alleged Dreyfus called Fitzgibbon a ‘disgrace’ and an ‘idiot’.
“I accept that Joel has strongly held views on climate. I just disagree with him, and a large majority of the Australian Labor Party and I’d suggest the Australian community also disagree with his strongly held views. We don’t have a choice here,” Dreyfus told ABC Radio Melbourne on Wednesday.
“We don’t get to say no to climate change, we don’t get to say no to the effects of climate change, and we don’t get to opt out of taking action. Joel likes to talk about overreach. It’s not overreach to take strong action on climate. Change is coming. We can either drive the change or we can have it imposed on us.”
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) issued a statement shortly after Fitzgibbon’s resignation, saying that it provided an opportunity for the Labor party to solidify its climate and energy policies, including calls to oppose the Morrison government’s proposed gas-led Covid recovery.
“As Joel Fitzgibbon transitions to the backbench, my mind is with the thousands of workers who have been damaged by his lack of ambition and honesty. Our economy and energy needs are changing fast. We need to face these challenges with workers front and centre,” AMWU national secretary Steve Murphy said.
“It’s time to get real on climate action. A gas led recovery won’t fix the unemployment crisis, it won’t bring down electricity costs and it won’t deliver climate action and it definitely won’t win and election.”
The AMWU is aligned with Labor’s left-faction, and has been outspoken on the need for the party to put forward ambitious climate change policies, including a plan for a just transition for workers in industries that will be impacted by the phase-out of fossil fuels.
Former AMWU national secretary and Labor Party stalwart, Doug Cameron, echoed the call of the AMWU, saying that Joel Fitzgibbon had been ‘re-writing history’ regarding claims that he had acted in the interests of manufacturing workers.
Doug Cameron served as a federal senator for NSW for a period of 11 years before opting to retire at the 2019 election and knows something of working in the coal industry having previously worked as a fitter at the Liddell coal-fired power station before his career in the union movement and federal politics.
Fitzgibbon describes himself as from the “industrial side of the party”. 🤷♂️
A guy who has been mute on the impact of trade agreements on manufacturing jobs. Promoted mining and agriculture over manufacturing jobs. A supporter of neoliberal policies. @fitzhunter rewriting history
— Doug Cameron (@DougCameron51) November 10, 2020
Fitzgibbon has been replaced by right-aligned Ed Husic as the minister for agriculture and resources. Husic had previously served the Labor shadow cabinet until stepping down after the 2019 election to provide a position for former NSW premier Kristina Keneally.