Fitzgibbon's antics point to the question bubbling in Labor ranks: can Albanese win?

Katharine Murphy

Joel Fitzgibbon’s departure may have been in the works anyway, but his insurgency is dangerous for Anthony Albanese

Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese in parliament
Joel Fitzgibbon planned to go to the backbench after parliament rose for the year, but the changeover was executed this week after he and Anthony Albanese brawled. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Joel Fitzgibbon planned to go to the backbench after parliament rose for the year, but the changeover was executed this week after he and Anthony Albanese brawled. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 00.34 EST

I think we’ve reached the point in the Joel Fitzgibbon saga where some basic facts are being obscured by the narrative. So let’s give those facts a bit of airplay.

We need to roll back to May of last year, when the Labor rightwinger Ed Husic made the decision to step down from the shadow ministry to create a spot for the New South Wales senator and former state premier Kristina Keneally.

Anthony Albanese had made it known he wanted Keneally on the front bench and the right faction was showing signs of defying the leader.

To avoid a damaging confrontation, Husic resolved to step back and make way for Keneally on the understanding that he would get a chance to return to the shadow ministry before the next election.

There was no deal between Husic and Fitzgibbon in the sense of a Kirribilli pact, or a signed and notarised contract that sat under 24-hour guard in somebody’s bottom drawer.

But there was a clear understanding that Fitzgibbon would step down after about 18 months and Husic would replace him.

Fitzgibbon had planned to go to the backbench after parliament rose for the year in the first week of December, but the changeover was executed this week after the member for Hunter and Albanese brawled during Monday night’s shadow cabinet meeting about whether Fitzgibbon was, or was not, a team player.

Fitzgibbon has told colleagues that after the set-to on Monday night, he thought, “fuck this, I’m out”.

So the point to absorb here is Fitzgibbon was always going before Christmas.

I wasn’t aware of this fact when the shadow resources minister began framing his agreed departure from the frontbench by telling me in September he would quit the shadow cabinet if he didn’t get what he wanted on Labor’s climate policy. The agreement with Husic wasn’t disclosed at the time. But no one disputes there was such an agreement.

Now I’m not saying, not for one minute, that Fitzgibbon has confected an epic battle about climate change policy in order to retrofit some policy gravitas to his inevitable departure. I know Fitzgibbon well, and his view that Labor has leaned too progressive on this issue is sincere.

Labor has been asking itself the following questions on a loop since the election loss in 2019: did we lose because voters didn’t like Bill Shorten? Did we lose because of franking credits and the death tax misinformation? Or did we lose because our climate policy cost us too many seats in Queensland, Western Australia and the outer metros?

Fitzgibbon feels that he didn’t speak up enough during the Shorten period and that’s a mistake he needs to correct now. The questions he poses about whether Labor can win elections with ambitious climate policies are reasonable, given Australian voters tell pollsters they want climate action, but don’t always vote for it.

But overlooked in the ballyhoo of the week – all the tea-leaf reading about whether Fitzgibbon is on a solo crusade to vanquish the progressivism exemplified by Labor’s climate platform, or whether he has a silent majority standing behind him in the caucus – is this.

Senior players in the right point out that Fitzgibbon can organise a string of daily media appearances to make trouble and magnify his own influence, but couldn’t command enough support from his own faction to remain on the Labor frontbench for another full term. They say he wouldn’t have survived a ballot.

Naturally, Fitzgibbon disputes this interpretation.

Not very dignified, all this – but neither is the unhinged spectacle of this past week – a week when Labor could have made some headway on prosecuting the case for action consistent with climate science, but instead raised the salience of all the Coalition’s core messages.

With the political pressure duly off, Scott Morrison was permitted to declare without interruption or rebuttal that he really liked net zero by 2050 (unless it involved cutting emissions on a trajectory consistent with meeting that target), and he wouldn’t be doing anything in this area without disclosing the costs of action (despite not disclosing the total costs either in dollars or emissions of his own gas-led recovery).

Fitzgibbon also managed to cap off his insurgency by demanding publicly that Mark Butler be dumped from the climate change portfolio, which makes it more likely that Butler will remain exactly where he is after a reshuffle later in the year.

But before we conclude that Fitzgibbon is a paper tiger, and his behaviour over recent weeks has been an elaborate public tantrum obscuring a long-planned retreat to the backbench that might have otherwise looked like an indignity, obviously this environment is dangerous for Albanese.

Separate to Fitzgibbon’s antics – and in fact, in the main, entirely disconnected from them – is the open question that keeps bubbling inside the opposition about whether Albanese can win the next election when the coronavirus crisis is prompting voters to stick with incumbent governments, provided they aren’t manifestly incompetent.

While I don’t detect an overwhelming appetite for bloodshed, and while the right faction is a distance away from a settled view about who might replace Albanese if it ever came to that, Labor people are asking that question, and they’ve been asking it for months.

Can Albanese get us there?

While that question keeps being asked, and Fitzgibbon has a loud hailer and Sky News on speed dial, Albanese’s woes will continue.