Canberra Report - Lessons from the by-election - Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Canberra Report - Lessons from the by-election - Wednesday, 26 May 2021 Main Image

By Joel Fitzgibbon

26 May 2021

In Singleton last Saturday the Labor Party secured a little more 20 per cent of the primary vote.  I hope my party learns something from it.


The Hunter region has long been the powerhouse of NSW. Fuelled by the region’s efficient coal, its big coal generators have long kept the wheels of industry turning and delivered reliable electricity to both residential and commercial consumers.  


The power station operators are proud of the nation-building role they’ve played.  But our coal generators are ageing. Indeed, Liddell will decommission in 2023. Others will deliver electrons for up to fifteen more years.  But close they will, eventually. No one knows that better than those who operate them.  


Consequently, we are scrambling to attract the investment necessary to keep the Hunter region in the energy game. We are well advanced in our aspirations to build pumped-hydro generation, large scale solar farms, battery storage, hydrogen plants, and gas peaking stations to firm the grid and to provide our manufacturers with the energy reliability they need.


Meanwhile our coal miners continue to export our thermal and metallurgical coal to our customers in Asia. After hitting record tonnages last year, they know they’ll be exporting coal for decades to come.  Unless of course, politicians put the kybosh on them. 


Unsurprisingly, they fear this is a real possibility because they hear someone urging government to do so almost every day. With this threat hanging over their heads, our communities are looking for some reassurance.  They are looking for a person or a political party willing to say: “your industry is critical to our economic fortunes, it has our unqualified support, and we will fight to keep it alive and well.


At its recent National Conference, the Labor Party re-affirmed its support for the coal industry and the gas-fired generation sector. But few people know it because too few members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party want to talk about it. That’s because they fear an adverse response from the Party’s left-wing and a backlash in city and coastal electorates.  


These people seem to believe they can afford to cut our coal miners loose and still win an election. But they fail to understand the message that attitude also sends to blue-collar workers in other industries and in other regions.


The Labor Party was born 130 years ago to give the waged workforce a direct voice in our parliamentary democracy. But in this 21st Century, does it have the agility to appeal to the residents of inner Melbourne and Sydney, while also maintaining election-winning levels of support in our resource rich regions?  We will see.


Resolving policy and ideological conflicts is not a new challenge for the Labor Party.  It survived splits over military conscription and communist infiltration, albeit not before suffering long stints on the opposition benches. 


By comparison, climate change seems such a small challenge. Particularly given Australia’s rapid embrace of renewable energy technologies and the impressive progress we are making in our efforts to reduce the emissions intensity of our economy, now down 64 per cent since 1990.


In a thoughtful contribution last week, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair warned centre-left parties around the world must break free of the influence “radical progressives” and to bravely speak of a new and moderate progressive agenda.  An agenda designed to deliver the reassuring feeling economic security brings to those struggling to navigate the turbulence of a rapidly changing world.  To ignore that warning would be a terrible mistake.