Paul Bongiorno
Joel Fitzgibbon and Victoria’s virus crisis

Scott Morrison has found a very useful ally in an unlikely place. His name is Joel Fitzgibbon, opposition member for the New South Wales seat of Hunter, and the prime minister is certainly grateful for his contribution.

The veteran Labor member, whose coalmining electorate encompasses much of the state seat of Upper Hunter, went on a media blitz early in the week, which gave no comfort to his own side.

If a state byelection can usually be considered largely irrelevant for its federal implications, Fitzgibbon made sure last weekend’s poll would be an exception to the rule. He said the swing against his own hand-picked coalminer candidate – and the Nationals retaining the seat – was a “wake-up call” for Anthony Albanese and his mates in Canberra.

It was a godsend for Morrison, coming in a week of increasingly disturbing news about Victoria’s snap lockdown and potential third wave. It meant the prime minister had something else to latch on to besides yet more evidence of quarantine failure and a population left vulnerable by a desperately slow vaccine rollout.

On Radio National, Fitzgibbon raised the prospect of not running again unless Labor got the message and started talking more about jobs and job security, “at least as much as we do about climate”. Some of his colleagues would not be surprised if he ran as an independent or even followed his old drinking buddy Mark Latham across to the dark side of One Nation. Though Fitzgibbon told Sky News he was “too old to rat”.

Fitzgibbon took himself to the backbench a year ago after he received the fright of his life at the 2019 election, where One Nation polled strongly and pushed him to preferences for the first time. Much to the dismay and anger of many of his colleagues, he has spent much of his time since telling voters Labor still hasn’t got the message.

In the final week of the byelection he, against the party’s official position, welcomed Morrison’s announcement of $600 million to build a gas-fired power plant at Kurri Kurri. In caucus on Tuesday he was critical of Climate Change and Energy spokesman Chris Bowen for wanting to oppose expanding the remit of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to invest in technologies to develop hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage. Fitzgibbon said it was “bad politics”, the same as opposition to the gas-fired plant. He argued it would allow the government to claim Labor was blocking funding for projects that would create jobs.

The irony is, of course, that in the state byelection the winning Nationals candidate represents a state government committed to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and net-zero emission by 2050. Far from being coal champions, the Berejiklian government spent $200 million to stop the proposed Shenhua coalmine being built in the electorate.

This is in stark contrast with the message coming from the federal government. When independent MP Zali Steggall, who wrested Tony Abbott’s blue-ribbon seat of Warringah from him on a platform of climate action, dared to question Morrison’s commitment to net zero, the prime minister bristled. The $600 million for a gas plant was not a waste of money, he insisted, but an investment in the transition to renewables. He railed, “We will not allow our path to net zero to take their jobs and rob this country of heavy industry.” Morrison is yet to commit to the 2050 target and so far is content to straddle what former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to call the barbed-wire fence.

The prime minister said he knows that the opposition and Steggall don’t agree with him, but “one member opposite does”. Theatrically, he singled out Fitzgibbon and said, “sadly”, that those who sit alongside him on the Labor benches do not. He mentioned Pat Conroy, the member for Charlton, a neighbouring Hunter Valley coal seat, who told ABC TV that Fitzgibbon had a “messiah complex” and that he was not helping the party. “Quite frankly,” Conroy said, “his contributions are not based on fact.”

Like many in the party, Conroy is frustrated that Fitzgibbon gives credibility to attacks from Morrison and coal warriors such as former Resources minister Matt Canavan. Far from being against coal jobs, Labor supports them for as long as there is a market for the commodity. Conroy says the policy Labor took to the last election would “not have impacted on a single coalminer working in an export coalmine, which are the mines that employ a vast majority of coalminers”.

Another neighbour of Fitzgibbon’s, the member for Paterson, Meryl Swanson, gave her caucus colleagues every impression that she was rattled by the byelection result and shared Fitzgibbon’s forebodings if not his jihad against the party. She said Labor was in danger of “sleepwalking off a cliff” if it wasn’t better able to get its message through to voters. In what one colleague says was something of a stream-of-consciousness rave, Swanson also queried why Labor was criticising companies that profited from JobKeeper, especially as businesses such as Harvey Norman were popular with consumers.

Albanese quietly explained that Labor was justified in talking about how taxpayer funds were spent. He said, according to the official briefing, “If we gave the sort of money that this government did to people who didn’t need it, we would have been smashed.”

At the last election, according to the Australian National University’s Australian Election Study, Labor’s climate policies were one of the party’s greatest vote attracters. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Felicity Wade, the national co-convenor of Labor Environment Action Network, said Joel Fitzgibbon was given his head in the byelection: an embrace of all things coal and a former miner as candidate. She said for cooler heads the result was “empirical proof that NSW Labor’s decision to abandon its leadership on climate change is a dead end in regional seats and likely electoral poison in the cities”.

Polling analyst Peter Brent says byelections have “zero predictive power” for general elections. The Liberals lost five of them in the run-up to their 2019 victory. But, he says, the big danger for Labor is that it strengthens the “party’s conviction that electoral salvation can be found in the minuscule percentage of the population involved in mining. Parties get into trouble when they fetishise subgroups over the broader electorate.”

Pandering to subgroups didn’t seem to harm the Coalition in the last election, however. Steeling Morrison’s resolve on a tepid commitment to climate action is the realisation, identified by Joel Fitzgibbon, that without Queensland’s coal seats the prime minister would not have kept Shorten’s Labor at bay. So when he dismissed Zali Steggall’s question, Morrison also praised his new best friend, Fitzgibbon. He said what “we are seeing here is that the Labor Party, not content in wanting to fight us while we fight the virus, are fighting each other”.

But by midweek, with the nation on tenterhooks over the situation in Victoria, not even the Fitzgibbon distraction could shield the government from a growing number of critics over its pandemic performance. Albanese told his caucus that parliament is sitting for four of the next five weeks and it is a chance to put pressure on the government over the only two jobs they have this year: the vaccine and quarantine.

In a tense and confrontational question time on Wednesday, the opposition did not miss. The deputy Labor leader, Richard Marles, a Victorian, reminded Morrison that the outbreak in his home state was linked to a man who caught the virus while in hotel quarantine in Adelaide. “If the prime minister had fulfilled his responsibility for creating a safe, national, purpose-built quarantine system, would Australians be safer today?”

Morrison blustered and fulminated against Labor for daring to question the government in this time of crisis. He tried to suggest Labor owed an apology to South Australia. But the whole point is that hotel quarantine has been responsible for outbreaks in every state except the early Ruby Princess-related cluster. It should have been the responsibility of the federal government all along.

Hotel quarantine was never fit for purpose and there’s no doubt the Morrison government’s neglect in replicating the Northern Territory Howard Springs quarantine facility arrangement around the states is a major factor in stranding about 30,000 Australians overseas. Failing to repatriate them by last Christmas, along with failing to deliver four million vaccinations by the end of April, are two of the government’s biggest broken promises.

Every time Labor asked a vaccine question in parliament, Morrison did his disappearing act, handballing them to Health Minister Greg Hunt to answer. Hunt makes Pollyanna look like a pessimist: everything is terrific and getting better. But this was no answer to the fact spelled out on the front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun that Australia’s rollout is so slow it is ranked 113th in the world. Hunt was not able to say how many Victorians have so far received the vaccination.

The pandemic may have been the circuit-breaker Morrison needed after his bushfire missteps, but it could well infect the economic recovery he is counting on to sideline Labor and the climate change issue at the looming election. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Coal dust gets in your eyes".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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