While the ALP pushes for reform of its troubled NSW branch, the opposition leader faces dissent from federal allies aligned to the party’s Right faction. By Karen Middleton.

Albanese juggles Labor frictions

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese in Canberra on Wednesday.
Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese in Canberra on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese are mates. Both are members of the New South Wales Labor Party and the federal class of ’96, elected just as Labor was swept from office and relegated to the opposition benches for the next 11 years.

When Albanese, a member of the party’s Left faction, announced he would contest the leadership after this year’s election, Right faction convenor Fitzgibbon backed him.

But in the past week, the pair had a robust private exchange over Fitzgibbon’s controversial public intervention on climate change policy.

In a speech to the Sydney Institute on October 9, Fitzgibbon suggested Labor should dump its emissions reduction target in favour of the lesser one the Coalition had adopted. The comments had been briefed in advance to The Australian.

Fitzgibbon’s climate stance displeased Albanese and many of his Labor colleagues.

Coming ahead of a parliamentary sitting week, it swung focus back on the opposition just when the government was coming under pressure over its handling of the drought and the economy.

Albanese is allowing Labor MPs more latitude to raise issues publicly than his predecessor, Bill Shorten, did. But it was puzzling, given their relationship, that Fitzgibbon would make such a provocative intervention without at least flagging it with the leader. But that’s what he did.

Joel Fitzgibbon has told colleagues he decided to speak out because he feared there were moves afoot to embed climate-related targets in Labor policy without consulting those who held views like his – more specifically, without consulting him.

In other words, the expectation of loyalty cuts both ways and his should not be taken for granted. As one colleague puts it: “He thought the decision was going to be made without his voice being heard.” Others confirm this.

The Saturday Paper put it to the rebellious member for Hunter, but he declined to comment.

Fitzgibbon’s freelancing drew an immediate rebuke from the shadow minister for climate change, Mark Butler, and then from the party’s factions – both the Left and the Right.

If Fitzgibbon’s objective was to lock in others behind him, it failed spectacularly.

His colleagues from the Right in particular berated him. Fellow NSW rural MP Mike Freelander threatened to pass a motion actively distancing the faction from Fitzgibbon’s position. They didn’t go through with it, but they made their point.

However, based on those comments from his colleagues, it appears locking in others wasn’t Fitzgibbon’s real aim.

While it may have mobilised others against his specific proposal, forcing internal debate into the open has now left no doubt the emissions reduction target Labor takes to the next election will be lower than the one it has now. And for an MP who almost lost his coalmining seat at this year’s election, that’s probably a win.

Senior members of the shadow cabinet are saying it is no longer realistic to expect to achieve a 45 per cent reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2030. If Labor won the 2022 election, it would have only eight years left to do it – compared with what was a 15-year timetable when the policy was set in 2015.

When journalists pressed Albanese for an indication of his position, he accused them of failing to listen.

“We have, very clearly, a strong position on climate change,” he said. “We will respond to the science.”

Mark Butler suggested last month that the party’s climate change policy was among those requiring a “deep, broad and ruthlessly unsparing” post-election review.

If Fitzgibbon wanted to set some parameters around the emissions debate, he succeeded.

The public disagreement has probably also served as a handy reminder that there may be limits to the extent of his support. Warning shots are, by their nature, fired without a silencer.

Fitzgibbon’s wasn’t the only one sounded this week.

As the government prepared to ask parliament to ratify the details of bilateral trade deals forged with Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru, Labor MPs and senators from the union movement pressed shadow cabinet to demand protections against cheap foreign labour.

Former Australian Council of Trade Unions president and now Victorian MP Ged Kearney, from the Left faction, and former national secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union and now NSW senator Tony Sheldon, from the Right, led the pushback.

With the deals already done, there is little scope for Labor to influence the outcome, other than by appealing to the government for adjustments. Not even the concerned unionists are willing to vote against the agreements because of the economic risk.

After unscheduled extra shadow cabinet and caucus meetings – and a frank exchange of views – Labor endorsed the trade agreements. But the critics are demanding undertakings from their leadership that a future Labor government would give greater formal consideration to the impact on Australian workers when negotiating agreements.

The twin debates also elicited a warning on ideological cherrypicking.

The Saturday Paper understands that NSW backbencher Ed Husic told colleagues there was a “convenient class consciousness” emerging, in which Labor MPs championed workers on one policy issue, such as trade, but appeared not to do the same on another, such as climate change.

Asked for comment, Husic declined.

These federal policy clashes echo the tensions within the biggest and most influential Labor Party jurisdiction, NSW, and involve some of the same players.

NSW Labor is undergoing a major structural overhaul in the wake of allegations of illegal donations unfolding at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Albanese and NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay announced on Sunday that former federal Labor attorney-general Michael Lavarch had been appointed to review the NSW party’s organisational structure and recommend changes that would avoid any repeat of the donations scandal currently engulfing it.

On Thursday, that scandal claimed the job of suspended NSW Labor general secretary Kaila Murnain, a confidential legal settlement with the party, covering her employment entitlements and legal fees relating to ICAC.

Unconfirmed newspaper reports suggested Murnain was seeking about $700,000.

Labor had undertaken to pay Murnain’s fees ahead of her ICAC appearances but attempted to renege after she admitted to knowing about an allegedly unlawful $100,000 payment from a banned Chinese property developer donor, Huang Xiangmo, which had been disguised as a series of smaller donations from others.

ALP state president and former Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon announced that no replacement would be appointed until after Lavarch’s review.

But on Monday night, the wider NSW Right leadership met in Sydney to endorse Bob Nanva, the secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, as its new assistant secretary and nominee for general secretary.

On factional numbers, that endorsement effectively means Nanva will get the job – despite the assurances from both Lennon and McKay that they will wait for the Lavarch report.

It is due next month, probably after the completion of a separate federal Labor election review by former minister Craig Emerson and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill.

The federal reviewers’ report is due on November 8 and is expected to be released publicly.

In NSW, Lavarch will examine whether the powerful general secretary’s job should be restructured, with some functions devolved to the two assistant secretaries – one each from the Right and the Left.

Historically, the Right faction’s dominance over NSW Labor’s operations has been close to absolute. While power has alternated between Right and Left in other state branches, in NSW it never has. The numbers have kept the Right in charge and the NSW Right dominant in the national ALP.

As a result, there has been what Albanese has called a culture of “infallibility”. Others have dubbed the past politicking that went on in the Sussex Street state headquarters as “one big fucking soap opera” and likened it to the ’90s American TV melodrama Melrose Place.

The Left assistant secretary’s position in Sussex Street – which Albanese once held – is almost a token one, with its incumbent frequently frozen out of decision-making and treated with as much contempt as enemies from other parties.

While some of that enmity had eased over the past two decades, it escalated again under Murnain and her predecessor, Jamie Clements.

As one Labor figure observed this week, failing to tell even the party’s own Left faction what had occurred in relation to the donation – let alone the NSW Electoral Commission – should be unthinkable.

Lavarch’s review will seek to tackle that structurally, and also examine the NSW party’s administrative committee, which is responsible for oversight but currently has an unwieldy 48 members.

The Saturday Paper understands Lavarch’s report will be handed to both Albanese and McKay, who will then present it to the national executive. They are expected to accept all his recommendations.

Some senior federal Labor figures hope it will at least herald a more even division of labour. But others are warning Albanese and his backers not to use the overhaul to advantage the Left.

Sydney-based Left MP and former federal deputy leader Tanya Plibersek says the branch restructure must do more than just change personnel.

“It is not just about individuals,” Plibersek told Sky News on Thursday. “It has to involve organisational change so that this sort of event can’t happen again. My view is that Bob Nanva would be very much up for that as well.”

Nanva was doing the rounds of Labor MPs in Canberra this week. He declined to speak to The Saturday Paper.

Although some changes to how NSW Labor handles donations took effect under Murnain’s stewardship, senior figures acknowledge these have clearly not overcome a disturbing normalisation of clandestine legally and morally questionable deals.

“The people who matter in the NSW Right understand absolutely how serious this is and that real and meaningful change has to be secured,” said Fitzgibbon, when asked this week for his view on the prospect of genuine change in NSW Labor.

“Both party leaders [Albanese and McKay] have made it very clear that that’s what they expect and it’s now up to us to deliver that.”

Left faction convenor and Victorian MP Andrew Giles said it was in Labor’s political interests and the national interest for the party’s largest branch to be working well and seen as such. “I think all our parties and their branches can benefit from more transparency, and more contestability,” he said.

On the federal emissions reduction targets, Giles said he was proud Labor had voted in parliament to declare a climate emergency – another development emerging from this week’s debate. The Greens and some crossbenchers had already planned a motion to that effect.

“We need to stay strong when it comes to action on climate, and we will,” Giles said. “It’s simply not plausible for anyone to suggest that we don’t take a serious climate policy to the next election. This has to be founded on the facts at that time. We also need to focus attention on the record and responsibilities of the Morrison government.”

That process was assisted by a searing exchange on Monday between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2GB’s Alan Jones. An emotional Jones accused Morrison of abandoning drought-stricken farmers, replaying earlier audio of a property owner weeping over a lack of official support.

Morrison said he had already contacted the farmer to explain what the government was doing and said the farmer was satisfied with the response.

But concern the government is failing farmers continued, after revelations that Farm Household Allowance payments were being withdrawn from some Queenslanders in long-term drought because the support has a four-year limit.

On Thursday, Morrison announced the government was extending drought relief beyond that limit. Apparently to punish Jones and 2GB, he made the announcement in an interview with Jones’s old rival John Laws on 2SM.

As the parliamentary week wound up, Fitzgibbon launched a new salvo, this one at the government.

He suggested Morrison should take the politics out of his drought response by establishing the equivalent of a war cabinet, involving Anthony Albanese.

It was an intervention within the bounds of Fitzgibbon’s shadow agriculture portfolio. And this time around, Albanese knew it was coming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Albanese juggles Labor frictions".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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