Joel Fitzgibbon with daughter Grace
Labor is in danger of being wiped out as a political force because it has lost touch with its base of blue-collar workers, Joel Fitzgibbon has warned.
The outspoken Labor MP, who has represented the federal division of Hunter since 1996, said the party’s loss in the NSW state seat of Upper-Hunter on Saturday was a huge ‘wake up call’.
Labor’s first preference vote plunged from 28 per cent to 22 per cent as the Nationals were returned with 32 per cent of primary votes, a small drop from 34 per cent in 2019.
Under-pressure NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay, who was hoping to win the marginal coal-mining seat following the resignation of Nationals MP Michael Johnsen due to allegations he raped a sex worker which he denies, admitted the result was ‘terrible’.
She has insisted she will not quit but is facing unrest in the ranks, with four MPs touted as possible replacements.
Labor campaigned on a pro-coal message, even picking a former coalminer as its candidate, but Mr Fitzgibbon believes the party lost its base by ‘demonising’ resources workers in its fight against climate change over the past few years.
‘It’s a wake up call to all of us in the Labor Party and indeed the Labor movement,’ he told 2GB radio on Monday morning.
‘If we’re not careful it will go the way of the Kodak brand.’
Mr Fitzgibbon even threatened to retire from politics if Labor doesn’t start speaking up more strongly for blue-collar workers.
‘I’ll be either running as a Labor candidate or not running at all,’ he told Sky News.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor needs to appeal to its working-class base. Pictured: Coalminers protest against a campaign to stop the Adani coalmine in Queensland in 2019
The Hunter MP, who almost lost his coal-mining seat at the 2019 election, believes resources workers are suspicious of Labor due to its ambitious climate change policies.
‘That suspicion is only fuelled by decisions made late or on the eve of the by-election to oppose the gas generator in the Hunter Valley, a $600 million investment, they just shake their heads and say, ”We thought so”,’ he said.
In November Mr Fitzgibbon quit the frontbench, 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 federal leader Anthony Albanese attacked Scott Morrison for refusing to adopt a 2050 net zero emissions target.
‘The Labor Party has to speak more about jobs and jobs security as it does about climate change,’ he said on Monday.
‘A lot of our base walked away from us some time ago now and it’s clear that they haven’t returned.
‘You won’t get them back quickly or easily.’
Labor’s struggle in regional Australia is part of a broader challenge faced by left-of-centre parties in western democracies who are battling to hold their traditional working class voter base while appealing to younger, more internationalist supporters who typically live in major cities.
Former UK Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair warned this month that left-wing parties face ‘extinction’ because their ‘focus on extreme identity and anti-police politics’ had become ‘voter-repellent’.
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 the party is responding to their issues.’
Nationals candidate for Upper Hunter Dave Layzell speaks to media alongside NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (left) after casting his vote in the NSW Upper Hunter by-election
Mr Morrison, who is targeting targeting Hunter and other regional Labor seats at the next election due before May, has pushed this argument, accusing Labor of losing touch with blue-collar workers.
‘I think they have abandoned them,’ he told The Australian newspaper.
Ms McKay admitted that Labor has ‘fundamental issues within our party we need to address.’
Her candidate Jeff Drayton said the defeat was a ‘a warning to Labor that we can’t take any community for granted.
‘Labor needs to do some real soul-searching as to how we will win these communities back,’ he said.
‘It’s going to take honest reflection and a lot of hard work.’
Mr Fitzgibbon said Ms McKay isn’t to blame for the loss and that Labor’s ‘brand’ is the problem.
Joel Fitzgibbon (left in August) has said he wants Labor to focus on jobs and getting people back to work
‘I won’t have a bad word said about Jodi McKay,’ he told ABC TV on Monday.
‘She looks good, sounds good and she took the right narrative into the Upper Hunter by-election.
‘She is very supportive of jobs and job security and issues like the local TAFE, but it’s the brand.’
Mr Albanese said his party did not have a problem with winning over blue-collar workers and said the results of a state by-election do not reflect federal results.
He pointed that Queensland and Western Australia, the country’s major resources states, saw huge swings to Labor in recent state elections.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham similarly drew a line between state and federal politics.
‘It was a state by-election and I would treat it as such,’ he told ABC radio on Monday.
Under-pressure NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay (right with candidate Jeff Drayton) admitted the by-election result was ‘terrible’
‘It had a range of different factors at play and certainly many of them were very much local, very much state politics.
‘It is a state by-election and I wouldn’t read too much into it myself.’
The coalition is expected to target the Labor-held seats of Hunter, Paterson and Shortland at the next federal election.
Senator Birmingham said it was far too soon to speculate on how many Hunter Valley seats the coalition could win.
‘It’s a long way away to start making those sorts of predictions but we will put up a strong fight in those regions,’ he said.
‘They are regions which clearly have large numbers of working Australian families who want to know they’ve got a government that is with them and backing them.’
But Mr Fitzgibbon warned that Labor’s struggle to win blue-collar voters in the regions would play out federally.
‘We have been at best whispering. We have tried to walk both sides of the fence on issues like work and on the other side, the environment. They’re suspicious and sceptical.
‘Federally, if Labor can’t persuade not just mine workers but everyone in those regions whose jobs are dependent on mining, that we stand with them, you can expect a similar result whenever Scott Morrison goes to the polls,’ he said.
One in three voters were happy to ignore both major parties in the by-election, siding with independents and minor parties instead.
Labor member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon walks through the press gallery at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday, May 24