Labor fights to preserve unity as Joel Fitzgibbon calls for Mark Butler to be moved from climate portfolio

Deputy leader Richard Marles backs Anthony Albanese and says it is not the place for party members to call on frontbenchers to resign

Anthony Albanese with Joel Fitzgibbon and Mark Butler
Anthony Albanese, flanked by Joel Fitzgibbon (left) and Mark Butler (right) in parliament last year. Having quit the front bench, Fitzgibbon has now urged Albanese to move Butler from his position as shadow climate change minister. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Anthony Albanese, flanked by Joel Fitzgibbon (left) and Mark Butler (right) in parliament last year. Having quit the front bench, Fitzgibbon has now urged Albanese to move Butler from his position as shadow climate change minister. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Political editor

Last modified on Wed 11 Nov 2020 19.52 EST

Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, has backed Anthony Albanese’s capacity to connect with blue-collar workers, and says Mark Butler should remain as the shadow climate change minister, after Joel Fitzgibbon escalated Labor’s internal warfare by demanding Butler be replaced in his portfolio.

Fitzgibbon, who quit the frontbench this week after a protracted internal battle about climate change policy, is continuing to throw bombs as he moves to the backbench.

On Thursday morning, the departing shadow resources minister declared Albanese needed to give Butler another portfolio at an end-of-year reshuffle, because “we need a new advocate bringing a fresh face and a fresh approach – somebody who can reach out to both the community and industry and say, hey, the new person’s in town”.

“I don’t want to show any lack of or any level of disrespect for Mark, but he has been in that portfolio for seven years,” Fitzgibbon told Sky News.

“We’ve lost two elections. We’ve had two climate change and energy policies that have not been embraced by the Australian people – in fact, they’ve been rejected, and we need an advocate now that the community and industry can trust.

“I do think that Mark can go to another senior portfolio, he’s a very smart guy, there are plenty of things he could do. But we need a new advocate bringing a fresh face and a fresh approach.”

While Fitzgibbon’s crusade to wind back the level of ambition in Labor’s climate policy has some support within the caucus, his behaviour is enraging a majority of Labor colleagues.

One left faction figure close to Albanese told Guardian Australia on Thursday morning Donald Trump was showing “more grace” about his departure than the veteran New South Wales rightwinger.

He said Fitzgibbon was now fixating on Butler because “if he can bring down Mark, Joel won’t have lost the climate fight”.

Marles – Fitzgibbon’s right-faction colleague – said he supported Butler remaining in the climate portfolio and it was not the place for others in the party “to be calling on other members of the frontbench to resign”.

“I think Mark Butler has been doing a superb job in his role, end of story,” Labor’s deputy leader said.

Asked if Albanese was the right leader to talk to Labor’s traditional base, Marles replied: “Yes, and Anthony Albanese has been doing that.

“Anthony Albanese has been leading our party through the most difficult period that I can remember … in terms of the crushing letdown of losing the 2019 election – and it is impossible to overstate that – and dealing with the realities of that is something Anthony has worked through in a deeply significant way.”

He said the pandemic had been “obviously a difficult time for oppositions”.

Asked whether Labor’s internal war would erupt in a full-blown leadership crisis, Marles said Fitzgibbon “who has been an ornament to our party” and “a very important voice going forward”, would continue to play an important role.

But he said Labor would continue to work through a new climate policy, and that would be a “credit to Anthony Albanese, who has led us through the most difficult period that I can remember”.