Making too many assumptions about what the Upper Hunter by-election might mean for the future of the Labor Party is not without its dangers. But not as dangerous as drawing no lessons at all.
In Singleton on May 22 – in the heart of the Hunter’s coal country – the Labor Party secured a little more 20 per cent of the primary vote. At 2015 NSW state election it was 36 per cent. At the 2007 federal election, 60 per cent of those who voted at the same booths voted for the Labor Party. In 2016 the vote dropped to 51 per cent. In 2019 it fell further to just 36 per cent. The trend is an ominously obvious one.
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 aging, indeed one will close in 2023. Others will deliver electrons for up to 15 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 kibosh on them. Not surprisingly, 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, the 14,000 Hunter residents who work in the industry, and the more than 70,000 workers who rely upon it, are seeking 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.”
Statements such as “the market will determine the industry’s future” don’t cut the mustard. This is particularly true when they are made in the shadow of politically charged and alarmist parliamentary motions screaming for an immediate government response to the so-called “climate emergency”.
At its recent National Conference, the Labor Party reaffirmed 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 and a backlash in city and coastal electorates. The excessive progressives think they can afford to cut the coal miners loose and still win. 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. It’s Australia’s largest, oldest and proudest political party. But in the 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.
Six months ago, Anastasia Palaszczuk proved the tensions between Labor’s traditional base and its more recently arrived progressive base need not be a barrier to electoral success. She took a suite of policies to the election which allowed her to hold her progressive city seats while also winning the hearts and minds of regional voters. She won regional seats in part by announcing the approval of a new coal mine and stamping out any party hostility towards the mining sector.
In a thoughtful contribution last week, former British 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.
Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP
Federal Member for Hunter