JOE HILDEBRAND, HOST: It is all on like Donkey Kong in the state seat of the Upper Hunter, where of course, the former Nationals MP has had to stand down because of various unseemly allegations relating to a paid sex worker. And one man who knows this area better than anybody is Joel Fitzgibbon, who is the Federal Member for Hunter and who has been nothing if not forward in his concerns about what is happening to the seat, how the Labor Party is neglecting the working class there, the coal mining workers in particular, and what any party will need to do in order to win that critical seat, which the State Government now relies upon for its majority. And he joins me on the line right now. G'day Joel. How are you?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: G'day Joe. Good to be with you. I'm going very well, thanks.
HILDEBRAND: Great to be with you, mate. Tell us what you think is going to be the critical issue here. And do you think that the Coalition can hold this seat in the circumstances?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it's certainly going to be a tightly run thing, Joe. We're about to become the centre of all attention. And that can only be a good thing for the Upper Hunter. I welcome the opportunity. If you just go through the parties, I mean, the Nat's are in a bit of trouble, aren't they. I mean, they've caused the by-election, no one likes a by-election, and they've done so in controversial circumstances. That makes it pretty tough. And of course, they've got Matt Kean and Malcolm Turnbull to deal with. They have sort of undermined their position somewhat. And last night they pre-selected an unknown as their candidate which surprised me somewhat. They could have had the Mayor of Singleton, the biggest town in the electorate. Would have made sense to me. A female as well, which would have been a good message in the wake of the cause of the by-election. You have got One Nation and the Shooters and Fishers in the mix. Of course, they've proven both to do pretty well in regional areas. And then of course, you have the Labor Party. The Labor Party is in pretty good shape, I would say. At the National Conference last week, we reaffirmed our commitment to and our support for the coal mining industry. I think Jody McKay, the state leader, will be making the right sort of, using the right language in support of the coal mining industry. So I think while everyone's scrambling for underdog status, and while it's a bit of an unknown unknown, I think the Labor Party will certainly be competitive.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, it's an interesting one, isn't it? Because it was a really safe National seat. I don't think any other party has actually held it in the seat's entire history. But that margin is now whittled down right to, I think it's about two and a bit percent, largely because of Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, and of course, the One Nation party. They've also really eaten into Labor's vote, and you've raised this concern in your Federal seat of Hunter. Do you think Labor can win this, or do you think it's possible that One Nation or the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers votes flowing between them could pull off a surprise upset and one of them could actually take it?
FITZGIBBON: You made the point, Joe, that we've never held the seat. So, that makes it challenging for us. But we did pretty well there last time with a good candidate by the name of Mel Dagg, and I think we'll do well again. I think there has been a building perception, partly driven by our political opponents, of course, that the Labor Party wasn't supporting the coal mining industry as sufficiently as would be expected. And I think we turned that around, I think we've dispensed with that perception, and we'll make sure people understand that the Labor Party is absolutely behind our coal miners. But you know, while coal mining will be a big issue, I'll be very happy if we just accept that both the National Party, it claims it supports the coal mining industry, so does Labor,so does the Shooters, so does One Nation. So really, coal mining should be in a sense, pushed aside as the primary issue, given that we all solidly support it and we should start talking also about health and education and the infrastructure we need to further grow. We want to be talking about those throughout the course of this by-election as well.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, and I think there was a Tafe closed there, which I think is going to weigh heavily on people's minds, especially workers, of course.
FITZGIBBON: That's right. The Government, the National Coalition Government has sold off the Tafe campus, or a Tafe campus in Scone, and that's been pretty controversial. And you can be pretty sure we'll be talking a fair bit about that over the course of the next six weeks.
HILDEBRAND: What about the impact on Jodi McKay's leadership. We know she's been under pressure. We know the key union HSU has pulled support. She's had run ins with the AWU as well. Does she need to win this to hold on to her leadership? Will her leadership be untenable in your view, if Labor doesn't win this seat?
FITZGIBBON: No, I don't see it as a test for Jodi. I mean, this again, is a seat we've never held. But Jodi is a Gloucester girl, of course. When you're part of the electorate, she should have the political capital there. She came to Rix's Creek open cut coal mine with me not so long ago to demonstrate her very solid support for the coal mining industry. I think she'll campaign well. And if we play to Labor's strength, she will do well, but I think it's unreasonable to expect to necessarily win the seat because it's, again, it's a seat we've never held.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah. And you mentioned before that Labor seem to be getting back on track after National Conference. I thought Albo gave a pretty good speech when he talked about getting back to basics, talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, instead of as you've often complained about, arbitrary climate change targets without talking about how you're actually going to help the workers who are going to be left jobless by them. Do you think it's been a bit undermined recently by particularly the interventions of the left wing power broker and Deputy premier of Queensland, Steven Miles, who has both likened the PM's in trays into the vaccine debate to a cover up of the rape scandal engulfing Canberra, and so he linked rape to the vaccine rollout. And also brought in the death of Tommy Roudonikis to try to make a political point about work choices. Are these sort of interventions by the hard left of the party hurting Labor's standing in the community, do you think as a party of sort of mainstream middle and working class Australia?
FITZGIBBON: Vale Tommy Roudonikis. Joe, I'm of his era, of course, and I looked up to him when I was a kid. No, I don't think so. I don't think when they go to the next Federal election, they'll be thinking about what someone said in Queensland, you know, a year earlier. They'll be looking to the Labor Party seeking reassurance that it's come back to the reasons for its birth, it's dealing with the working class people, whether they be coal miners, oil and gas workers, whether they be farm workers, or in our manufacturing sector. That will be the important point. But three things will really matter at the next Federal election. One is the health and safety of families across the country. The second is, of course, their financial security. We want to make sure that people feel secure in their jobs and that we have plans to back their aspiration. And third, it'll be a referendum, of course, on the progress of the current government. And you know, you'd have to say that Scott Morrison only made one promise before the election. That was to change nothing and it's one promise that he's kept absolutely. It hasn't been a good government. Labor should be well placed to win and if we stick to our roots and stick to people's financial security, then we should do well.
HILDEBRAND: Well, we shall see. Well, as long as they are a contest, I think democracy wins. Thank you very much, Joel Fitzgibbon. A pleasure to talk to you.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you, Joe.