OPINION

Joel Fitzgibbon is Labor's 'dog with a lightsaber'

It's unsurprising that Anthony Albanese is looking over his shoulder, because last term he was sitting on Bill Shorten's shoulder, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Parties might have put in place rules to prevent the rotating leadership that made our politics dysfunctional for years, but those rules won't ever be set in stone. They'll always be vulnerable to ambition and desperation.

We're heading towards the final parliamentary weeks of the year - cheerfully known as the "killing season" for leaders. Despite Labor's turmoil and internal frustrations, however, Albanese will survive this one.

Nevertheless he and Labor are beset by divisions that have been on view for months but have now erupted spectacularly, with the resignation of resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon from the frontbench. Fitzgibbon had planned to step down at the end of this year, but a massive row in shadow cabinet on Monday accelerated his exit.

Many of Fitzgibbon's colleagues were in a rage about him on Monday - not least because they'd hoped this week to embarrass Scott Morrison over climate policy off the back of the victory of Joe Biden, who's very forward-leaning on the issue. But Fitzgibbon at the weekend said Biden's win shouldn't be seen as "a vindication of all those who want to set Australia on a path to slower economic growth".

Most people out in the real world wouldn't have heard of Joel. But they may have seen that TV advertisement for an insurance company in which a dog with a lightsaber demolishes half a house. Joel is waving a lightsaber; Albanese is looking at the insurance policy.

A veteran MP from the NSW coal seat of Hunter and convener of the NSW right faction, Fitzgibbon has a "project" - to bring Labor back "to what I describe as the sensible centre".

In his mind, the "sensible centre" is where the opposition is more or less on the same page as the government on climate policy, and in better touch with, and more acutely attuned to, the needs and aspirations of the working class part of its base.

While Fitzgibbon professes loyalty to Albanese, the party remembers how in 2013 he agitated against Julia Gillard to restore Kevin Rudd to the leadership. And he himself says, when asked whether he'd be willing to push for a change if he thought Labor in dire straits before the election, "I think senior people in the party have a responsibility to ensure that the party doesn't go over the proverbial cliff".

Fitzgibbon this week was certainly on a mission to get one person out of his job. He and climate spokesman Mark Butler have long been at war, and once he decamped to the backbench. Fitzgibbon openly declared Butler should be shifted, in favour of someone who "doesn't bring baggage" to the conversation. Butler's "baggage" is Labor's climate policy of last term.

Fitzgibbon is probably right that it would be desirable to move Butler, and Albanese had the chance in his coming pre-Christmas reshuffle. A new face would make the transition to a revised policy easier.

Joel Fitzgibbon (centre) speaks with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese (right) in Parliament earlier this week. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Joel Fitzgibbon (centre) speaks with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese (right) in Parliament earlier this week. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

But Fitzgibbon's jihad against Butler has quickly backfired. He did force Albanese's hand - but in the opposite direction to the way he wanted. On Friday Albanese publicly confirmed Butler, one of his Praetorian guard, would stay put. Butler on radio strongly contested the attempt "to roll back our commitment to climate action", and rejected the suggestion climate policy had cost Labor votes in 2019.

Fitzgibbon has supporters for his climate position - including, importantly, in sections of the union movement. On the other hand, while accepting Labor has to pull back somewhat from its stance of last term, many in the opposition back a robust stand on climate and emissions that's firmly differentiated from the government's.

Albanese is somewhere in the middle, wanting to make climate an issue but not with a policy that will leave Labor vulnerable to the Coalition's damaging attacks of 2019, and make it harder to win some regional seats.

This week's blow-up has highlighted this fracture over climate policy, but it has left the battle towards an election policy still to be fought.

Meanwhile Albanese struggles to make headway against Morrison in the time of pandemic politics. This has led him to overreach: his suggestion last week that Morrison should contact Donald Trump and convey "Australia's strong view that democratic processes must be respected" was bizarre.

This came days before the 45th anniversary of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Would anyone have welcomed a call from the US president in that crisis?

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Although Albanese's leadership is under pressure it is not under threat at this point for multiple reasons.

The rules, instigated by Rudd, on leadership change don't bring total safety but they inhibit potential challengers.

More importantly, at present there is no alternative candidate who, in objective terms, would have an interest in making a run. In contrast, Albanese had every incentive to stalk Shorten - there was a winnable election around the corner.

The most obvious alternative to Albanese is shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers. But it is doubtful Chalmers would do better against Morrison. He'd be a fresh face but is still inexperienced; the rigours of leadership are very different from the demands of even the toughest shadow portfolio, especially in the run-up to an election..

And if the odds are on Labor going down at the election, why would Chalmers want to burn himself for the future?

There is no white knight in the wings that can transform Labor's prospects. Its problems involve leadership but they are deeper and more complex, as the internal debate about climate policy indicates.

As a disheartened Labor Party looks to 2021, it won't see many positives. Its best course is to get its house in order and remember that, just sometimes, things change very quickly.

  • Michelle Grattan is a press gallery journalist and former editor of The Canberra Times. She is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and writes for The Conversation, where her columns also appear.
This story Joel Fitzgibbon is Labor's 'dog with a lightsaber' first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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