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Labor divided in crisis of identity

Queensland had swung strongly against Labor while Victoria swung towards Labor. It would be “very difficult” for Labor to win a federal election without performing better in the sunshine state, the report observed.

Outer-metropolitan, provincial and rural Australia swung against Labor while inner-metropolitan areas swung to it.

Economically insecure, low-income voters in outer-urban and regional Australia moved against Labor. Tertiary-educated, higher-income Australians swung strongly to Labor.

And therein lies any future challenge, the review found, and articulated it clearly in its sixth recommendation.

“Without compromising existing support, Labor should broaden its support base by improving its standing with economically insecure, low-income working families … and Australians living in regional and rural Australia.”

Which is what Labor MPs on both sides of the debate say the past week was all about: making sure Australians living outside inner-city electorates aren’t forgotten without compromising on a commitment to tackle climate change.

Among the throng: Fitzgibbon after announcing his decision to leave the frontbench.

Among the throng: Fitzgibbon after announcing his decision to leave the frontbench.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

And both sides insist that is exactly what they are doing.

Ahead of his budget-in-reply speech last month, Albanese dismissed the notion he needed to change tack.

“Have a look at that review,” the leader snapped in a question from a journalist. “It recommended the exact way in which I’ve been operating as the Labor leader. I said I would have a number of vision statements.

“When I became the Labor leader, I said that we wouldn’t be making announcements on new policies every week. We would hold the government to account.”

Labor confronts an all-too-familiar malaise of a party in its third successive term in opposition. And the thought of being placed into irrelevance for a fourth term is driving many to the brink.

Any suggestion Albanese’s leadership is under immediate threat should be dismissed, senior MPs say, but there is little doubt most believe they would again lose an election in the current environment. Fitzgibbon has told many privately he thinks they would go backwards.

As the nation faces massive economic struggles stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic opposition MPs worry they cannot cut through in a time where incumbency appears to be of great advantage.

On the issue of climate change the election review was clear: a modern Labor Party cannot deny or neglect human-induced climate change.

“To do so would be wrong, it would cause enormous internal instability and it would be a massive electoral liability,” the review stated.

But it went on to suggest the perception that Labor was not supportive of the mining industry may have also hurt the party across Queensland.

“Labor should recognise coal mining will be an Australian industry into the foreseeable future and develop regional jobs plans based on the competitive strengths of different regions.”

And that is why Fitzgibbon inserted himself, much to the anger of his colleagues, into the debate this week. He was fearful the party’s Left-wing faction would repeat its election mistakes by reading too much into Joe Biden’s United States presidential election victory.

He urged them to resist a new campaign for deeper cuts to emissions sooner which would be “just a recipe for another election loss”.

An almighty brawl in opposition cabinet followed and Fitzgibbon’s former frontbench colleague Mark Dreyfus hit out after details of the spat were splashed across front pages around the nation.

“We don’t get to say no to the effects of climate change, and we don’t get to opt out of taking action. Joel likes to talk about overreach. It’s not overreach to take strong action on climate,” he said, adding Fitzgibbon was “out of step” with the community.

Kos Samaras, a former Victorian Labor assistant secretary and director at consultancy firm RedBridge, says the lesson that federal Labor should have taken from the US election result was one of inequality, race and the polarisation of a nation.

“How anyone within Australian Labor could even attempt to suggest that this election was more about climate change is beyond comprehension,” he says.

“It may have played a role amongst the college-educated elites in the large urban centres but even within these cities and college towns, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who was not solely focused on getting rid of Trump.”

Samaras says not focusing on the “horrendous” wealth inequality within that country and instead shifting the focus to climate change was perhaps “another reason why they have only managed to secure the majority of seats once since 1993”.

Albanese’s close allies, such as assistant climate spokesman Pat Conroy, believe it’s a “false dichotomy” that the party either has to win votes in the region or have a good climate policy.

“Labor would be in permanent opposition if we adopted his strategy,” Conroy says of Fitzgibbon.

As for Fitzgibbon, he hasn’t given up on returning to government.

“I think Albo can win if he listens to Joel Fitzgibbon more,” he said.

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