Labor tensions flare after byelection drubbing

Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Outspoken Labor backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon has been told by one of his colleagues to "shut up" and accused of trying to wreck the party, after he questioned its direction in the wake of its NSW state byelection drubbing.

Pat Conroy, whose electorate of Shortland borders Mr Fitzgibbon's seat of Hunter, said his party room colleague had a "messiah complex" and was drawing political conclusions which "weren't based in reality".

Old tensions have flared within the federal Opposition following NSW Labor's resounding Upper Hunter byelection defeat, where its primary vote fell 7 per cent.

Anthony Albanese and other senior federal Labor figures were on Monday playing down the relevance of a state ballot to their own electoral hopes, highlighting that Upper Hunter has long been a safe Nationals seat and the trend of incumbent governments being rewarded through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Mr Fitzgibbon, who quit the frontbench last November, seized on the result as further evidence working class voters were abandoning Labor.

He said voters were "sceptical, even suspicious" of Labor, a feeling he said was exacerbated by the federal party's criticism of the Morrison government's plans to build a $600 million gas-fired power plant in the Hunter region.

Shortland MP Pat Conroy has accused Joel Fitzgibbon of having a "messiah complex". Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Shortland MP Pat Conroy has accused Joel Fitzgibbon of having a "messiah complex". Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Mr Fitzgibbon said while he planned to run at the next federal election, he wouldn't "stick around if the Labor party doesn't wake up to itself".

Asked what he made of Mr Fitzgibbon's commentary, Mr Conroy said: "He needs to shut up."

Mr Conroy said Mr Fitzgibbon had built a career and reputation on the back of the Labor party, but now appeared "intent on wrecking it".

He said the Upper Hunter result was entirely expected and had "zero" federal implications. If there were to be any takeaways for Mr Albanese's team, Mr Conroy said it would be that Labor performed strongly in "coal booths" such as Muswellbrook.

"His [Mr Fitzgibbon's] analysis is not based in reality," Mr Conroy said.

"He's got a messiah complex and he is just hurting us. Labor only wins elections when we unite our two great bases, which is working-class families and the progressive middle-class. What Joel is arguing for is effectively one of those two."

Responding to his colleague's barb, Mr Fitzgibbon said: "I'll always play the ball, never the man.

"If that is Pat Conroy's assessment of the level of threat Labor's falling primary vote poses to him in his electorate, then I wish him the best of luck."

Meryl Swanson, who represents the neighbouring seat of Paterson and is a close ally of Mr Fitzgibbon, said many voters in her electorate believed the Hunter MP was "on the right track".

"I think the message [from the byelection] is that, for whatever reason, people aren't hearing us. Labor is not resonating and we have to earn their trust back," she said.

Asked what Labor could do on that front, Ms Swanson said "sharpen the message".

"We need to be able to say that life can be better under Labor," she said.

Bean MP David Smith cautioned against reading too much into the Upper Hunter result.

"We shouldn't pretend that Upper Hunter is a swinging seat," he said.

"That said, it's important to listen to our supporters who were out in the field for any lessons learnt."

Felicity Wade, the convenor or Labor's environmental action network, described the party's 21 per cent primary vote in the Upper Hunter byelection as "pretty bad".

Ms Wade said the result exposed the "wicked problem" Labor faced: a need to appeal to both progressive voters concerned about climate action as well as blue-collar workers worried about the future of their industries.

She supported the approach of Mr Albanese and Labor's climate change spokesman Chris Bowen, who have publicly backed coal mine workers while committing to supporting them through a transition to a low-carbon economy.

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This story 'He needs to shut up': Labor tensions flare after byelection drubbing first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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