The resignation of Joel Fitzgibbon from Labor’s shadow cabinet has been quietly welcomed by some party colleagues, with hopes the opposition may finally be united on climate and energy policy.
His replacement, popular western Sydney MP Ed Husic, said he wants to be practical and see Labor “buckle down on policy that works”.
The outspoken Mr Fitzgibbon abruptly resigned as shadow minister for resources and agriculture on Tuesday.
He said his exit was his own choice and long planned, claiming he had put an 18-month time limit on his frontbench term after the last election.
But the timing of the announcement raised eyebrows in Canberra.
It came just days after Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Labor’s left faction signalled they would use Joe Biden’s US election victory as encouragement in their push for stronger climate action.
Mr Fitzgibbon called this framing “delusional”, levelling another broadside at colleagues agitating for tougher climate targets.
It was just the latest in an escalating series of public tiffs between Mr Fitzgibbon and Labor’s climate spokesman, Mark Butler.
Mr Fitzgibbon is a right faction leader, while Mr Butler is a left faction heavyweight. The two have squared off repeatedly in the media, to the point where healing their relationship seems nearly impossible.
That’s part of the reason that some in Labor see Mr Fitzgibbon’s return to the backbench, and the promotion of Mr Husic, as an important change in healing the rift between the climate and resources portfolios.
“It could be a circuit breaker,” a Labor right-faction source told The New Daily.
“It will be pivotal for the party to have unity between resources and energy at the next election.”
In a press conference to announce his frontbench resignation, Mr Fitzgibbon said he backed Labor’s net-zero emissions by 2050 target.
However, he claimed the party talked too much about climate and not enough “about the needs of our traditional base”.
“We have to speak to, and be a voice for, all those who we seek to represent, whether they be in Surry Hills or Rockhampton. And that’s a difficult balance,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon has raised concerns about Labor bleeding votes in rural and regional working-class areas.
Other Labor sources said they were unsure about Mr Fitzgibbon’s complaints.
“Where does he think we’re going to pick up votes on this?” asked one left faction Labor MP.
“There’s not a lot of votes in the Pilbara.”
Mr Fitzgibbon has complained Labor’s position on coal cost votes at the last election, pointing to a 9.48 per cent swing against him in his NSW seat of Hunter.
But a Labor left MP who spoke to The New Daily pointed out that while Mr Fitzgibbon’s vote took a big hit, other nearby Labor seats in the mining region had not sustained such savage swings.
The MP mused Mr Fitzgibbon’s problem may not have been solely due to Labor’s position on coal.
Another Labor left source said they hoped Mr Fitzgibbon’s exit might lead to more unity and co-operation on climate.
Husic promises ‘policy that works’
Mr Husic returns to Labor’s shadow cabinet 18 months after voluntarily giving up his position to make way for Kristina Keneally.
Labor’s complicated factional system provides room for a certain number of right and left members, and the election of right-faction Ms Keneally – and Mr Albanese’s plan for her to instantly join the ministry – meant someone on her flank had to make way for her to join.
The Member for Chifley put up his hand.
Mr Husic said he relished the chance to take on the important agriculture and resources portfolio. He worked at state-owned energy corporation Integral Energy for five years before entering politics.
He backs net-zero emissions by the 2050 goal but said there were “moving parts” on climate policy in Australia.
“In this space, we can afford to be more commonsensical than ideological, more practical than political,” Mr Husic told TND.
Calling agriculture and resources “the bedrock of the Australian economy”, he said he hoped to bring his interest in tech to those sectors as they modernise.
“The energy sector knows there’s got to be a much more efficient and cleaner way to generate energy. But the thing I’m adamant about, is we respect there are livelihoods attached to these policy debates,” Mr Husic said.
He also praised his “great mate” Mr Fitzgibbon, saying he was one of Labor’s most influential shadow ministers since Paul Keating’s government had been voted out in 1996.
He stopped short of criticising Mr Fitzgibbon’s at-times bristly relationship with Labor’s left faction.
“I’m not as uptight about people expressing different views…it’s important for an opposition in this phase to be able to be open to hearing views that might seem discordant to some others,” Mr Husic said.
“I’m me, Joel is Joel. We bring different approaches … people may think it’s ugly and difficult, in terms of what he’s done, but it’s been important.”
He said he had a good relationship with Mr Butler, and looked forward to working with him. Mr Husic also added Labor had always had “robust debate”, and called climate change “one of the biggest issues of our time”.
“The election could be in 12 months, 18 months, so now we’ve got to buckle down on policy that works,” he said.
“We can’t leave people behind.”