The Australian
August 20, 2020

Joel Fitzgibbon has warned Labor could split into two separate parties if it fails to bring together its working-class and socially progressive supporter bases, as ­Anthony Albanese faces ongoing destabilisation triggered by concerns he will not bring the party to the political centre.

Mr Fitzgibbon, one of the most influential members of the Labor caucus, raised the prospect of a split — similar to the anti-communist breakaway of the Democratic Labor Party in the 1950s — and ­admitted he did not know how the party could reconcile the growing divergence of its supporters.

“I am very fearful about how the Labor Party will manage … (to) juggle these two electoral bases and I do fear that, it won’t be in my time, but the party might end up splitting,” Mr Fitzgibbon, the ­national Right faction convenor of the Labor Party, said.

“I don’t want that to happen. I hope it is unlikely, but I just don’t know how we reconcile the difficulty of being all things to people in (Cooper) in Melbourne, and another thing to a group of people living in central Queensland.”

The warning — issued in a podcast produced by business search firm Blenheim Partners — comes as opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers, widely tipped as a future Labor leader, will on Thursday make a pitch to win back regional blue-collar voters who abandoned Labor at last year’s election.

Dr Chalmers will use an ­address to the Warwick Chamber of Commerce in Queensland to argue that climate change “isn’t some inner-city preoccupation” and that forming government and delivering economic prosperity depended on “engaging” with ­regional communities.

Amid concerns that Mr Albanese is failing to cut through, some Labor MPs also believe Bill Shorten has undermined the Opposition Leader by freelancing on gas policy and campaigning against the release of rogue Afghan ­National Army sergeant Hekmatullah. Sources close to Mr Shorten, however, said the former leader’s focus was on his portfolio areas of the NDIS and robodebt.

Senior Labor figures are bracing for a philosophical battle that will set the scene for the party’s ­direction ahead of the next election and beyond. Some right-wing MPs believe Mr Fitzgibbon, the party’s resources and agriculture spokesman, was “doing God’s work” in trying to win back ­regional and working-class voters through a stronger focus on traditional industries.

Others believe he is misguided and the party could win back its working-class base by talking up the job-creation prospects of a ­renewable energy future.

Sources close to Mr Fitzgibbon say he remains supportive of Mr Albanese’s leadership but they ­expect him to remain vocal in an ­effort to drag the party to more mainstream positions on climate change and economic management.

Some Labor MPs, particularly from the Left, believe Mr Fitzgibbon’s position on the frontbench is not compatible with his public freelancing, with some saying Mr Albanese will come under pressure to sack the frontbencher.

Labor MPs believe Mr Albanese will be reluctant to dismiss Mr Fitzgibbon from shadow cabinet because of the destabilisation it could cause.

Mr Albanese has publicly ­rebuked Mr Fitzgibbon twice in the past month after the resources spokesman backed taxpayer support for gas pipelines and attacked the Labor Environment Action Network.

Mr Fitzgibbon told the No Limitations podcast that, if a split happened, a city-focused Labor Party could govern in coalition with a ­regional breakaway — similar to the agreement between the Liberals and Nationals.

“We will have a coalition arrangement just like they have, with the future local members in Sydney and Melbourne pushing their agenda and leaving their mark,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“And the guy in central Queensland with the other Labor Party, it could be called New Labor or Old Labor or whatever you want to call them, doing something else and forming a ­coalition.”

He declared it would be a mistake for the party to pursue a new economic direction because of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Everyone has got a view on COVID, that this has proven neoliberalism is dead, everything we have been doing is wrong and this is our opportunity to change it all,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“Well, I reject that proposition. By any measure, our economy wasn’t going gangbusters prior to COVID-19. Wages were stagnating, growth was pretty flat.

“But by international standards the model was working all right for us.”

In his speech on Thursday, Dr Chalmers will say that Labor wants to win the next election on a platform “that speaks for Warwick as well as western Sydney”.

Dr Chalmers will say “Labor wants to change” its approach to policy making that has neglected the regions, championing the efforts of Mr Fitzgibbon and Mr Albanese in seeking to deliver for these areas.

“We know as local leaders you know your regions best,” he will say. “You understand where the strengths and challenges are. You know which opportunities are most realistic and which are most likely to result in success.”

Dr Chalmers will say that country communities were among the worst affected by the impacts of climate change.

Dr Chalmers, who has travelled with right-faction colleague Anthony Chisholm on listening tours through regional Queensland since the election, will say there are significant opportunities for regional Australia to play a key role in the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While the current recession has hit our capital cities first and hardest, regional centres certainly aren’t spared, and job losses and firm closures in regional centres are more at risk of becoming permanent,” Dr Chalmers will say. “And that underlies (sic) a critical point: if we are to capitalise on the post-COVID agricultural opportunities we can’t afford for communities like yours to be hollowed out and left behind.”

Dr Chalmers will say “the ­unwinding of the mining and ­construction boom” and “fall in manufacturing” had greatly changed the Australian economic picture since the 1990s recession.

Mr Fitzgibbon told the podcast that the Coalition had shifted towards the political centre and threatened Labor’s status as the party of workers.

“You see the Liberal Party try to tack back to the centre, peeling off Labor’s blue-collared base and the Labor Party drifting to the Left with an almost obsessive focus on issues like climate change, and, not my words but some people would say, same-sex marriage, the welfare state and things considered progressive/Left matters,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“Centre-Left parties are in trouble right around the world. You look at what happened in the Labor Party in the UK under Jeremy Corbyn, it was just nuts wasn’t it?

“How can you expect to ever be elected with that manifesto.”

Article by Greg Brown, Journalist and Geoff Chambers, Chief Political Correspondent


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