Outspoken Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon has confirmed he will quit politics at the next election, while taking a parting swipe at “idealist” progressives for keeping Labor in opposition for all but six of the past 25 years.
The veteran MP for the seat of Hunter, who colleagues expected would depart the seat before the next election, has declared he believes Labor will win the next election under Anthony Albanese – as long as it remains “pragmatic”.
Fitzgibbon’s departure from the seat he has held since 1996 comes after he quit the shadow cabinet in November, vowing to use his time on the backbench to pressure the party to return to the issues of concern for its working-class base.
“That has been my mission for the past 28 months: urging Labor to take back the centre ground and to focus on the things that matter most to the majority of Australians,” Fitzgibbon said in a statement on Monday.
“To resist the urgings of the elitist and idealist excessive progressives who seem determined to consign Labor to perpetual opposition.”
“I feel I can now leave the parliament knowing Labor can win the next election under the leadership of Anthony Albanese,” he said.
“Indeed, Labor will win, if it sells itself as a party of strong economic management and one with strong national security credentials. A party which encourages economic aspiration. A party committed to improving job security and lifting real wages. A party prepared to back our major export industries. A party committed to equality of opportunity for all, particularly our children.”
The outgoing MP is understood to be backing former Olympian shooter and miner Daniel Repacholi to replace him, but other names touted for the seat include Emily Suvaal, Morgan Campbell and Jeff Drayton who contested the upper Hunter by-election for the party.
Some branch members have expressed concern that Repacholi could be selected with the backing of the CFMEU without a ballot of rank and file members to choose the next candidate.
Fitzgibbon’s main gripe with the party has been its position on climate change, with the former resources spokesperson arguing that coal workers in his seat were being forgotten by Labor during an internal dispute about climate and energy policy.
Fitzgibbon suffered a massive swing against him in his previously safe Labor seat at the 2019 election, prompting him to vocally campaign against climate policies that he regarded as being too ambitious.
While saying climate change was an important issue for the majority of Australians, Fitzgibbon said the issue “should not be the subject of constant and shrill political debate”.
“Australia’s major political parties have a responsibility to build a community consensus on climate change policy,” Fitzgibbon said.
“Neither party denies it’s a problem. Both say we should act. Yet neither has demonstrated a willingness to take the issue outside the political contest.
“That’s because both the right and the left continue to see political opportunity in perpetuating the climate wars. This political game must end.”
Fitzgibbon said he looked back with “great regret” that he had only been in government for six of the 25 years he had been in parliament, when he served as defence minister in the Rudd government.
“Every year Labor serves in opposition is a year of lost opportunity for our country. That’s why Labor senators and members should resist allowing the perfect to stand in the way of the possible. To be pragmatic. To be realists, not idealists.”
He said that after he resigned from shadow cabinet last November, he had publicly shared the story of an election night phone call to his friend and political neighbour Meryl Swanson in which he told her he would not recontest.
“I told Meryl Swanson I would use the next three years to do everything in my power to turn around Labor’s political fortunes. I was determined to put the labour back into the Labor party.”
While changing his mind “on several occasions since”, he had resolved to leave at the next election to “begin a new phase in my life”.
The Nationals have indicated they will target the seat in the wake of Fitzgibbon’s departure, with leader Barnaby Joyce saying on Monday the party would campaign on jobs in the seat.
He said in negotiations between the Nationals and the Liberal party over climate policy, he would be considering the impact on jobs in Muswellbrook in the northern part of the electorate.
A poll undertaken by the Australia Institute in Hunter in June found the seat could be vulnerable to a tilt by the Nationals, with Labor ahead 52% to 48% on a two party preferred basis.
The uComms survey of 654 residents, which has a 4.1% margin of error, found Labor’s primary support at 32.9%, The Nationals at 24.5%, One Nation at 13.8%, the Greens at 9.6% and other and undecided at about 10% each.
When asked about the government’s priorities, 67.3% said the focus should be on encouraging diversification of the region’s economy, while 22.5% backed the building of new coal mines.