The view from Billinudgel

Political maverick
Joel Fitzgibbon is starting to resemble Barnaby Joyce in his deliberate departure from the political mainstream

Shadow minister for agriculture and resources Joel Fitzgibbon during Question Time on June 12, 2020. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP

It’s a terrible thing to say, but shadow minister for agriculture and resources Joel Fitzgibbon is rapidly turning into Labor’s answer to Barnaby Joyce. I hasten to add that I am not comparing him to the Beetrooter in terms of personal failings, but rather his drift away from the political mainstream.

In the past, both Fitzgibbon and Joyce have been seen as true believers, stalwarts of their respective parties and key members of the leadership groups. But since they have fallen from favour, they have both turned into mavericks – outliers determined to follow their own agendas rather than collaborating and, at times, compromising with the parties they were elected to represent.

Joyce, of course, has all but jumped the fence. He is off on a course of his own and cannot be restrained short of recapturing the National Party leadership he believes was unfairly wrested from him. This is never going to happen, so he may as well be left to play his own game, however close it becomes to political masturbation.

But Fitzgibbon remains in the Labor tent – barely, at times, but he is sufficiently loyal to talk about negotiating change rather than tearing the structure down. The problem is that the change he demands is to go back to the past, the halcyon days when the Labor Party was, as he saw it, the true party of labour.

By this he means manual workers: men (mainly) with boots on their feet and callouses on their hands, the blue-collar masses of the glory days. Fitzgibbon’s archetypal heroes are the miners in his own Hunter Valley electorate, who in fact gave him a terrible shock in the 2019 election.

There is more than a modicum of self-interest in Fitzgibbon’s ideology, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The issue for the wider party is that, for the majority of the country, times have changed.

These days, workers are more likely to be found in the tertiary sector rather than in primary and secondary industries. There are more workers in services than in resources and manufacturing combined. And mining, while not on its last pick and shovel, is clearly on the decline. Customers are queuing up to embrace a transition into alternatives, most likely renewables, which Fitzgibbon apparently sees as a poisoned chalice being proffered by the Greens, who are infiltrating his loyalist ranks.

Fitzgibbon’s warning last week of the Greens’ subversive intent has brought Labor’s ongoing dilemma – the need to reconcile its traditional voters with its more progressive newcomers – to yet another mini-crisis, giving Anthony Albanese’s opponents joy and his supporters angst.

It will not lead to a showdown, but it has proved a distraction and something of an embarrassment, to the point where Albanese has gone public to tell Fitzgibbon, in the most tactful possible way, to please shut the fuck up.

He won’t, of course – zealots never do. And if there is any doubt, just take a look at Barnaby Joyce… and then look away. Some embarrassments are best ignored.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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