FRAN KELLY, HOST: Leadership unrest is bubbling away in the Labor Party, following Joel Fitzgibbon's resignation from the Shadow Ministry yesterday. The veteran MP brought forward his planned moved to the backbench after a furious row in Shadow Cabinet with his leader Anthony Albanese was all over climate change policy. Senior front benches say the angry class was the worst they've ever seen. And one thought it could even become physical. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wasted no time capitalising on Labor's divisions:
SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER: The Member for Hunter has been driven out of the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Speaker. Driven out, driven out by an ideological group of zealots, Mr Speaker, on that side of the house, who have no interest in the jobs of Australians in regional areas.
KELLY: Scott Morrison in question time yesterday. Joel Fitzgibbon joins us in our parliament house studios. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome to breakfast.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good morning, Fran.
KELLY: Anthony Albanese is clearly fed up with you. Did he tell you to quit Shadow Cabinet, or was this your decision?
FITZGIBBON: Read my lips, even through the radio, Fran. He did not ask me to quit. I went to Anthony Albanese yesterday morning and told him I think it was time to do what I told him I was going to do probably two months ago, maybe three months ago. Indeed, I had a discussion with him about my longevity on the front bench right back in the days immediately after the 2019 election.
KELLY: Is the truth of it that you really had little choice after that shouting match we've all heard reports of now, which I'm presuming you'll confirm, on Monday night with Anthony Albanese?
FITZGIBBON: Of course, Fran, I don't confirm anything that happens in Shadow Cabinet. But, I think it's fair to say that Anthony and I have had some pretty significant dustups in recent days, in recent weeks and in recent months, but there was no real connection between anything that might have happened on Monday night and what I did yesterday. I have a very, very significant support in the caucus for my views on the party's direction, my determination to make the party more electable. And therefore, I felt no pressure whatsoever to make that decision yesterday.
KELLY: Make the party more electable, or make you more electable? How much of this decision is driven by principle and how much the need for you to be on the ground in your electorate, shoring up your support base in the Hunter, given the Savage fourteen percent swing you suffered at the last election?
FITZGIBBON: Everything I've done, Fran, in my thirty-six years in the Labor Party has been about the Labor Party, its future, its capacity to form a government because my very strong view is that there are millions of Australians who rely upon Labor to form government from time-to-time. I've been here almost twenty-five years and we've been in government for just six of those. That's not good enough. We are letting our people down. And on my own electorate, Fran, what's wrong with a Labor MP, giving voice to the views and aspirations of his or her electorate? That's what a representative government is all about, Fran. That's my day job.
KELLY: Sure. but when you talk about the future, I mean, what about a future that is a low carbon emissions future? That is the future. I mean, governments all around the world, even our government is talking about, you know, coming to zero emissions by 2050, or soon after. I mean, they won't set that target, but they are talking about it in those terms. I mean, that is the future. So how are you talking about that to your constituents in the Hunter?
FITZGIBBON: And Joel Fitzgibbon is committed to meaningful action on climate change. And I've supported every time climate change legislation...
KELLY: ...Well, when you were on this program last time you didn't devour Hamish Macdonald, of the sense that you're talking about phasing out coal over eighty years. How is that meaningful?
FITZGIBBON: Eighty years? Well, maybe I was talking about the export of metallurgical coal. I mean, this idea that we're going to have green steel, Fran, is a valid one, but it's probably 20 or 30 years off. We will be exporting our coking coal to Asian markets for many decades to come. We will be exploiting a thermal coal to developing nations for many years to come. But I support meaningful action on climate change, Fran. My point is that we keep overreaching and losing elections and you can have the best climate change policy in the world, but it doesn't mean much, or doesn't achieve much, if it stays in the top drawer after every election. We owe it to people to win. Because if we don't win, that give Scott Morrison another three years to underperform on climate change action. And if I could just make another point, Fran, in this COVID era, climate change has slipped down the list of priorities for people, as important as it is. Right now, people are more concerned about whether they're going to have an income in a month's time, whether they're going to be able to pay their mortgage and whether they're going to be able to provide for their kids. Now, they're the people Labor needs to speak to and speak for, because Scott Morrison is not doing that great job of it.
KELLY: Okay, but when you say climate change has slipped out people's priorities. I mean, people have competing priorities, no doubt you're right, putting food on the table is number one. But you know, this brawl, this whole brawl started because you were admonished by Anthony Albanese, your leader for de-railing Labor's plan to use Joe Biden's win in the United States to put pressure on the Morison Government over climate change. Now, why did you go out of your way to undermine the strategy of your leader?
FITZGIBBON: because I wasn't prepared to allow the Cheesecloth Brigade in the Caucus to use Biden's win to argue for even more ambitious climate change policy, an ambitious policy which was going to cost us another election and therefore deny us the ability to deliver for the many people who are depending on us to give voice to their aspirations to pay that mortgage to feed the kids, et cetera.
KELLY: Yeah, but there you go again: ‘the Cheesecloth Brigade’. Is that how you regard the millions of Australians who want more action on climate change?
FITZGIBBON: No, I think mainstream Australians…
KELLY: It’s a disparaging way to describe them, isn't it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, Fran, coal miners in my electorate expect Labor to take meaningful action on climate change. But let me tell you a story: I was talking to coal miners in my electorate pre-election, and I was talking with them about the casualisation, the use of labour hire in the coal mining industry – you know, two coal miners working alongside one another, one being paid more than the other. You know what they said to me, Fran? Well, we care about that, but at least we will have a job. At least we will have a job. And we allowed our political opponents to portray us as job-destroyers, as the people who are going to close down the coal mining industry and the coal power generation industry. Now that was a scare campaign but as I've said many times, if you open yourself up to a scare campaign, a scare campaign is what you are likely to get.
KELLY: Given what’s just transpired, is Anthony Albanese still the best person to lead the Labor Party?
FITZGIBBON: I believe so, yes. And look, he's facing very challenging times. COVID-19 is a period for incumbents unless like Donald Trump you basically failed to properly manage it. And of course, in the Caucus we are somewhat divided on this question. What Anthony Albanese is trying to do is get that balance so that we can appeal to both more progressive people who have climate change higher up their priority list, and our traditional base and our childcare workers and our aged-care workers, and those with a greater focus on immediate household budget. And we can do that, Fran. We can walk and chew gum too. Albo’s trying to balance that, he’s doing a pretty good job.
KELLY: But hang on. If he’s doing a pretty good job why did you express regret yesterday in not running for the leadership itself, after the last election? And you said yesterday you’d consider a tilt at the job if you were drafted. I mean, we take it from that you think you’d do a better job?
FITZGIBBON: Because I think a leadership contest, an open debate about the future of the Party, may have allowed an opportunity to give people of what I might describe as in the industrial on the industrial side of the Party, an opportunity to give voice, and for me to build a mandate to give me a more powerful voice in this very challenging debate. A very challenging debate which Anthony Albanese has to juggle, and you know you asked me about the Biden result: I was not going to let those who are in this contest of ideas to misrepresent Biden's win as a green light to an ambitious climate change policy, a policy so ambitious it is likely to cost us yet another election.
KELLY: On another issue Joel Fitzgibbon, do you agree with the Prime Minister that all political parties should include in their code of conduct a clause that Ministers or MPs should not have sexual relationships with their staff. Is that a rule you'd endorse?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, because I believe that would be now consistent with the standard the broader public would expect of us.
KELLY: Should Labor bring in that rule too?
FITZGIBBON: I mean there's been no internal discussion on this…
KELLY: Should all political parties have this discussion?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, but I don't want to prescribe it from in this interview this morning. But suffice to say we're dealing with a serious issue here, and the Labor Party - all political parties, all companies, all workplaces - need to ensure that they have systems in place to ensure that it's not possible for people to be sexually harassing staff - female staff - or worse, and there has to be something in there that sanctions such behaviour, if it occurs.
KELLY: And can you see why so many women are uncomfortable? Are you troubled by this culture of Parliament House as it's been described as a boozy sexualised culture?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, I am. Because I don't think it's systemic as has been portrayed. No doubt, I mean, there's something like 5,000 people work in this building, that’s a big population and in a population that size there will always be things going wrong. But I think it's unfair to describe it as across the board, and I think that's unfair to, you know, for example, young male MPs who have wives sitting at home with the kids.
KELLY: Do you take some responsibility for it? I mean, you're not a young MP. You've been there for decades. So, do you take some responsibility for not working out how to change it?
FITZGIBBON: I would say this has crept up on us, Fran, and I think that's a failure on the part of all of us. The important thing now is that we address it and we address it comprehensively.
KELLY: Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you very much for joining us.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure, Fran.