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Joel Fitzgibbon

Grattan on Friday: Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon waves the 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 so dysfunctional a few years ago 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.

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, 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”.

Meanwhile Fitzgibbon is certainly on a mission to get one person out of his job. He and climate spokesman Mark Butler have been at war for months, and now that he’s on the backbench, Fitzgibbon is openly declaring Butler should be shifted, in favour of someone who “doesn’t bring baggage” to the conversation.

Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Joel Fitzgibbon on Labor climate policy and leadership

Butler’s “baggage” is Labor’s climate policy of last term.

Many of Fitzgibbon’s colleagues are in a rage about him. Not least because they had hoped this week to embarrass Scott Morrison over climate policy off the back the victory of Joe Biden, who’s very forward-leaning on the issue.

But also, while accepting Labor has to pull back somewhat from its stance last term, many in the opposition want a robust stand on climate and emissions that’s firmly differentiated from the government’s.

On the other hand, Fitzgibbon has supporters for his position – including, importantly, in sections of the union movement.

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.

Fitzgibbon is probably right that it would be desirable to move Butler, and Albanese has the chance to do so in the reshuffle he plans following Morrison’s pre-Christmas ministerial changes. A new face would make the transition to a revised policy easier.

But such a switch would also be fraught. Butler (who has been regarded as one of Albanese’s Praetorian guard) is very committed to his portfolio and believes a robust policy is a positive for Labor.

“Australians are ambitious for strong climate action,” he said in the wake of the Fitzgibbon comments. “Anthony Albanese is committed to climate action and the jobs it will create, and so am I as Labor’s shadow climate change and energy minister.”

While Albanese could force him to move, that would reinforce the impression of a divided house and could bring bad blood. And shifting Butler would be seen as a sign of the opposition going soft on the climate issue, angering many ALP supporters for whom climate is key.

Finally, Fitzgibbon may have given Butler the ultimate protection. If Albanese moved him – something he’d be disinclined to do against Butler’s wishes – it would look like capitulation to the dog with the lightsaber.

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 was a few days before the 45th anniversary of governor-general John Kerr’s dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Would anyone have thought the US president should have been in contact with one of the players in that crisis?

Read more: Grattan on Friday: Palace letters make great reading but leave a republic as far away as ever

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 important, 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.

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