SUBJECTS: Election results, Labor leadership.
FRAN KELLY: In the heartland seat of Hunter in New South Wales where veteran MP Joel Fitzgibbon suffered a 14 per cent collapse in his primary vote. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome back to RN breakfast.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Great to be with you Fran.
KELLY: You managed to hang on to your seat of Hunter, One Nation candidate Stuart Bonds picked up 22 per cent of the primary vote. Does this big swing against you, in a seat based on our Newcastle and the Hunter Valley mining towns, crystallise the problem Labor now faces in holding on to its blue collar vote?
FITZGIBBON: It absolutely does Fran. We were punished here and elsewhere for both the things we promised to do and a number of things we were never going to. We had no anti-mining policies, there was no retiree tax, and there was never going to be an inheritance tax, but if you leave yourself exposed to a scare campaign, that’s exactly what you’ll get and that’s exactly what we got here in the region on Saturday.
KELLY: And how do you believe Labor left itself exposed to a scare campaign? Do you believe it stripped it too far to the left and forsaken the battlers, is that your view?
FITZGIBBON: Well we certainly have to get back to the centre and we have to reconnect to our working class base, reconnect with those blue collar workers, talk more about them and their cost of living pressures and less about some of those issues that are more acknowledge or aligned with the left side of the debate. There’s no doubt -
KELLY: Like what? Like what? Like what should you be less about?
FITZGIBBON: Well climate change is very, very important. I just listened to Arthur and how embarrassing was that after 10 years of climate wars, they are still not prepared to come back to the table on a bipartisan basis and get this thing done. We took a very light touch climate change policy to the election -
KELLY: So you’re not blaming them for the loss of the blue collar vote in Queensland, and your seat?
FITZGIBBON: I am about to say that Scott Morrison decided to make it a political contest on that front and of course that’s disappointing, he should have joined with us in that light touch approach, and yes Adani became a problem to us. We equivocated over it. Chifley’s light on the hill, became a flickering light on Adani for the Labor Party, and we consistently said two things on Adani: that it had to stand on its own two feet and it had to pass the most stringent and science-based environmental hurdles, but we needed to say a third thing Fran. We needed to make it clear that if it was able to do so, then of course Labor would welcome the investment and jobs. We failed to do that and it was fair for Hunter coal miners to think, well, if they are not prepared to back the mining industry in Queensland, why will would they back us the in Hunter Valley?
KELLY: So Labor squibbed saying that third thing because it didn’t want to frighten voters in the inner city seats, was that the calculation and did it back fire in your view?
FITZGIBBON: I think we were absolutely too nuanced, we should have been able to satisfy the left leaning vote by saying we won’t let this pass without the application of the most stringent and robust environmental tests, but if it passes those tests, not the sort of tests Scott Morrison of course applied in a dodgy fashion that further muddied the situation up, but we need to make it clear that we will support projects that can pass those tests. Why can’t someone stand up and say we will create jobs in the manufacturing sector by allowing the extraction of gas to fuel our manufacturing sector where it can be done without doing harm to our natural environment? We need to say that in communities like the Northern Rivers in NSW, and the Tweed, if communities make it clear that they don’t want gas extraction, well don’t do it. But, there are plenty of communities right across this country which would very much welcome the jobs attached to that gas extraction. We need to be clear on these things - you can’t sit on the fence.
KELLY: Did you see this result in your seat coming?
FITZGIBBON: I did Fran. I knew there was a big swing to One Nation, the National Party –
KELLY: What did you blame for that, did you blame the policy suite, or did you blame the messaging?
FITZGIBBON: Well I had the worst of two worlds. I had the north of my electorate, coal mining central, I had the scare campaign on mining jobs, and in the more progressive and southern end I had the scare campaign on the so-called misnamed ‘retiree tax’ I was wedged on both sides. But I was astounded by the size of the protest vote and we all need to take a lesson from it.
KELLY: And what is that lesson?
FITZGIBBON: The lesson is the party needs to get back to the centre, it needs to reconnect with its working class base, it needs to talk at least as much about those issues as it does about, look I’m absolutely committed to the environment. Terrible stories up here in the Hunter about the loss of our biodiversity and our species, but we can walk and chew gum at the same and this leadership ballot is going to be so important because someone needs to indicate that they are the person who is prepared to put us back on track, and if someone’s not prepared to do that well I might just do it myself.
KELLY: Ok, let’s go to that now. Let’s talk about leadership. I’m not sure if you just put your hand up then, but Anthony Albanese is a contender for the Labor leadership, Tanya Plibersek is also expected to throw her hat into the ring today, Chris Bowen is a possibility too. Do you think any of those three are able to lead the Labor Party after this loss back into the centre as you said?
FITZGIBBON: I think all of them are excellent candidates, but I’ll be backing the person who is prepared to show more interest in regional Australia. You know I was in despair after the 2013 election when we had just five rural seats in the Caucus, and I made the point in a formal submission that Hawke had 13 and we can’t win with less than 13. We now have just 6. We have none in Queensland, none in Western Australia, none in South Australia and that’s very, very disappointing. We need to put regional Australia back in our policy agenda.
KELLY: So who would you be supporting to lead the Labor Party?
FITZGIBBON: Whoever makes those commitments. And whoever demonstrates to me that they will reconnect with regional Australia, they will reconnect with our working class base, and they will talk as much about our blue collar workers as we do about other important policy issues.
KELLY: You’ve heard Anthony Albanese’s pitch, we all heard that yesterday. Does that fulfil that list?
FITZGIBBON: Albo’s always been a strong supporter of the regions, there can be no doubt about that, and I’ll have a conversation with him and with each of the other candidates. This is a really good opportunity, maybe our only opportunity, to ensure that a the next election we have reengaged back with our base and that we have got ourselves back into the centre, we have a policy suite to win back regional Australia and therefore we have the recipe for winning an election.
KELLY: I’d just better check for the record, were you suggesting then that you’re considering throwing your hat in the ring?
FITZGIBBON: Well some might say I’m getting a bit old Fran, but I won’t rule myself out. If I’m not convinced that people aren’t prepared to make that commitment then I’ll have no choice but to fly the flag myself and unions like the AMWU the AWU the CFMMEU and the Meat Workers’ Union should be supportive of that because they like me, want jobs in rural and regional Australia.
KELLY: Joel Fitzgibbon thank you very much for joining us.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.