The veteran New South Wales Labor rightwinger Joel Fitzgibbon has threatened to quit the shadow cabinet if the opposition adopts a medium-term emissions reduction target he cannot live with.
In a significant escalation of Labor’s internal dispute about climate and energy policy, Fitzgibbon made the threat during an interview with Guardian Australia’s politics podcast.
The shadow resources minister said he would not quit the party over the issue. “I’m 58 years of age… I’ve been in the party for almost 40 years, I am too old to rat.”
But he said if Labor’s landing point on an emissions reduction target for the 2030s was “so offensive to me, if it didn’t keep faith with our traditional base, if it was fundamentally wrong and harmful, I would not criticise it from the shadow cabinet, I would have no choice but to go and do so from another position”.
Fitzgibbon said if the forthcoming shadow cabinet deliberation on the medium term target was a “fair fight and I just lost” then he would sell the collective decision even though it was “not my preferred position obviously”.
But asked whether the party leader, Anthony Albanese, would continue to enjoy his support if he insisted on Labor adopting a target Fitzgibbon could not live with, the shadow resources minister said: “I’d have to consider my position at the time.
“I wouldn’t overtly challenge it from the shadow cabinet, I’d have to make a decision about that”.
Albanese told the National Press Club in June Labor would set a medium-term target for the 2030s “based on science”, and the climate change spokesman, Mark Butler, has made that commitment several times since the 2019 election.
Fitzgibbon said he accepted the science of climate change, and had signed off on Labor’s policy of net zero emissions by 2050. But he has dug in his heels about the medium term target, first saying Labor should adopt the same position as the Coalition, then arguing Labor should not set one at all.
On the podcast, Fitzgibbon said first that he would accept the collective decision on the medium term target, pointing with unusual candour to his record of selling policies he didn’t support after collective decisions, including during the 2019 election.
“Gee I wish I could show you videos of me before the last election backing in things I hated, standing at the National Press Club and debating David Littleproud and ferociously backing in Labor’s policy.”
But later his position hardened, with the clear threat about quitting the shadow cabinet if the policy is not to his liking.
Fitzgibbon suffered a significant negative swing in his safe Hunter Valley seat at the 2019 election, and he contends ambitious climate change policies have contributed to Labor’s election defeats federally since 2013. He said voters in the regions now think Labor panders to inner city interests and disdains workers in traditional industries.
He argues Scott Morrison has made it much harder for Labor to resolve a medium term target by promoting a gas-led recovery from the coronavirus. While colleagues have criticised the prime minister’s announcements, arguing they lack substance, Fitzgibbon said Labor should let the prime minister roll out his agenda.
Fitzgibbon said it was unlikely Morrison would be able to implement many policies to lock in gas before the next election, but “if he rushes along that path, what does the Labor party do then? Do we say we are going to pull all that back and go down our own path?
“Now that’s an open question, and I don’t mind saying I will be internally urging my people to let him go his way, let this be his problem now, he’s the government, we lost. One of the consequences of losing … is you don’t get to call the shots.”
While Fitzgibbon’s front-running has some support within the caucus, and among some in the trade union leadership, his campaign has also infuriated and dismayed many colleagues. While his views have grabbed the headlines, many in Labor believe the party cannot retreat from climate action both on the merits of the issue, and politically.
Australian political history shows internal fights about climate change can be lethal for leaders of the major parties. But Fitzgibbon said Albanese would lead Labor to the next election.
“I’ve been around these games for a long time and there’s not even a hint, or a whisper, and very importantly he continues to enjoy my support.”
But Fitzgibbon suggested there was room to improve. “I think Albo is doing as well as an opposition leader could in Covid. I think this is a period where the power of incumbency is very, very significant.
“Not even a young Bob Hawke as opposition leader would be cutting through too much. But there’s a message in that for us too, to have a bit of a rethink ourselves about our approach. The last thing the Labor party can afford to be at the moment is a party of protest. It has to look like an alternative government.”
He said voters federally only “come to us when they are tiring of or angry at the other mob and when we don’t look too scary, and at the last election we made ourselves look as scary as we possibly could”.
“It’s as if we worked at it.”