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As Joel Fitzgibbon quits the Labor frontbench over climate policy, some in the party question whether a longstanding friendship with Anthony Albanese allows the maverick to get away with too much. By Karen Middleton.

The politics of Joel Fitzgibbon

On Monday night, they had a raised-voices row in front of the Labor shadow cabinet. The next morning, Joel Fitzgibbon resigned from Anthony Albanese’s frontbench, prompting a fresh round of speculation about leadership instability. On Wednesday, after two days of further destabilisation, they had a beer together and watched the rugby league State of Origin.

For all their nothing-to-see-here endeavours, the friendship between Albanese and Fitzgibbon, the last remaining members of the parliamentary class of ’96, appears to be fully extended. Springing back to its original form may already be impossible. And it can’t stretch much further before it snaps.

Albanese is downplaying any suggestion that Fitzgibbon’s resignation might create momentum for Labor dissenters to move against his leadership.

“We are a political party where people are passionate,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program, brushing aside the suggestion.

But the resignation is also an inflection point for Labor as it looks to the next federal election. While Fitzgibbon’s move was ostensibly about limiting climate change policy and defending the fossil fuel industry – and not even much of a surprise to his leader – it also reflects a creeping anxiety about Albanese’s stewardship.

“I do have confidence in Anthony Albanese’s leadership,” Joel Fitzgibbon insisted to journalists on Tuesday, when he revealed his resignation. “We’ve been mates for a very long time … [He] has my support. He’ll lead us to the next election … There should be no talk of instability.”

Nevertheless, Fitzgibbon has told close associates that just as he has done to leaders past, he is willing to organise numbers against his friend if Albanese’s performance doesn’t improve.

Reminded at his news conference that this is what such resignations can precipitate, the MP joked: “And I have no history, either, do I?”

He did not deny that a small insurrection often precedes a bigger one. But this time there is no immediate threat of a challenge, not least because there is no challenger.

Although a long queue of people want Albanese’s job – Tanya Plibersek, Richard Marles, Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen and Tony Burke, for starters – none especially wants it now.

There is a view that Labor is likely to lose the next election and aspirants would rather have a clear shot at the one after. But if the opposition has not made more headway against the Coalition by March or April next year, senior figures suggest this could change. First, they would need to vote down the rule Kevin Rudd inserted to protect leaders from removal, but that is possible. Albanese is safe but not necessarily secure.

 

Fitzgibbon’s assessment of his friend’s victory chances is qualified.

“I think Albo can win if he listens to Joel Fitzgibbon more,” the rebel MP said on Tuesday. “… We have a diverse range of membership and we must speak to them all. And I think somehow, over the course of the last decade, we forgot that.”

The sudden resignation after Monday night’s confrontation was no surprise to Albanese.

This week, Fitzgibbon revealed that after almost losing his seat at last year’s federal election he had been planning to quit the frontbench about 18 months into the new term.

“I wanted both the New South Wales Right and the leader to have sufficient space to organise and fill the vacancy,” he said.

Monday’s shadow cabinet set-to – precipitated by Fitzgibbon’s freelancing on climate policy – simply advanced the move by a fortnight or so.

In fact, no organising was necessary because the vacancy had been filled long before he quit. What Fitzgibbon did not reveal was that after the election, Albanese had co-opted Fitzgibbon’s exit plan to execute a larger one, elevating Senator Kristina Keneally to the shadow ministry and having Ed Husic step out.

Conveyed to the leader last year, Fitzgibbon’s intention to quit became a useful tool for Albanese to ensure the newly arrived Keneally could leapfrog Right-faction colleagues onto the frontbench.

In the Labor Party, the factions choose the ministry’s membership. Their parliamentary numbers dictate proportions and the leader allocates portfolios.

Keneally’s elevation required one NSW Right candidate to step back. Husic took the fall.

It now transpires Husic’s magnanimity was founded on the promise of returning when Fitzgibbon stepped down. That transfer happened like clockwork on Tuesday.

The broader transition may be less smooth, however.

Fitzgibbon’s persistent freelancing has infuriated many of his colleagues. In repeatedly choosing times when government missteps had captured public attention, Fitzgibbon has drawn negative focus back to Labor instead. His critics believe it is supreme self-indulgence.

This week, he did it deliberately as Albanese and his strategists set out to renew pressure on the government over climate change in the wake of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the United States presidential election.

“I wasn’t prepared to allow the cheesecloth brigade in the caucus to use Biden’s win to argue for even more ambitious climate change policy,” Fitzgibbon told ABC Radio National, “an ambitious policy which was going to cost us another election and therefore deny us the ability to deliver for the many people who are depending on us.”

Some of Albanese’s colleagues believe the opposition leader has been giving Fitzgibbon too much leeway. They point to the long-time friendship between the pair.

“More than once, people have said to Anthony, ‘When you let him behave that way, it makes you look weak and it makes him look like a protected species,’ ” one told The Saturday Paper.

Others argue Fitzgibbon has had far less freedom to diverge than some of Albanese’s left-wing factional allies.

Some don’t believe Fitzgibbon’s insistence that he intends to recontest his seat of Hunter at the next election.

At the Country Labor event he hosted on Tuesday night, a nostalgic Fitzgibbon left others with the same doubts.

If true, that may explain why Albanese has cut his friend so much slack. It may also mean Fitzgibbon considers he has nothing to lose in continuing to press the Labor leader.

Although he insists he has “significant” support, Fitzgibbon’s policy views do not command a Labor majority. Still, while some colleagues may downplay his concerns, they concede they share his unease about their electoral prospects.

 

A general November midterm malaise is exacerbated by the pandemic, which has rendered oppositions largely irrelevant.

Labor’s two-party-preferred result improved in this week’s Newspoll, to a healthier 49-51 against the Coalition, and its primary vote was up slightly but still only at 35 per cent. Albanese’s approval rating has increased four points to 43 per cent over the past month, although he still trails Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 64 per cent.

There is frustration within the party that Albanese struggles to cut through with messages, some of which are also being questioned.

Labelling the economic downturn “Morrison’s recession” – when accepted wisdom generally blames Covid-19 – made some wince. So did a press conference in which Albanese urged Morrison to advise Donald Trump to concede defeat.

It is understood that was part of a move to link Morrison to Trump in the public mind. Labor strategists consider it successful.

But Albanese could find his political long game at risk next year if he does not ensure his colleagues understand what he is doing and why.

While he has support from the overwhelming majority of the Left faction and most of the Right, especially in NSW, Joel Fitzgibbon’s continued drumming on the offbeat about climate policy will suit Albanese’s critics and make his defenders wary.

The Coalition was quick to capitalise on the week’s events. Scott Morrison framed it this way in parliament on Tuesday: “The member for Hunter has been driven out of the shadow cabinet by an ideological group of zealots … who have no interest in the jobs of Australians in regional areas.”

Fitzgibbon is undeterred. He mused that he should have contested the leadership himself last year and did not rule out being “drafted”. Nobody considers that any kind of threat.

But having been an outspoken critic of the union movement, suddenly the rebel MP is offering himself as its champion.

The Saturday Paper understands he has been seeking to build a coalition of unionists who share his views on energy and the environment. He has labelled it, provocatively, “the project”.

Whether they will also start collaborating on another project – the toppling of his good friend – will become clearer in the months ahead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "The indignity of Labor".

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