There were clues, back in July, that the veteran federal MP Joel Fitzgibbon had already landed a succession plan for his prized Labor seat of Hunter.
As the Olympics finally got under way in Tokyo, Fitzgibbon gave a special shoutout to the shooter Daniel Repacholi – “Big Dan Reps” – who was competing in the 10-metre pistol event.
“A quick shout-out to Daniel Repacholi from my hometown of Cessnock who is in the shooting tomorrow in Tokyo. So good luck Daniel! Bring home gold please,” Fitzgibbon said.
Repacholi came home empty-handed but the professional shooter and five-time Olympian has returned to Cessnock to ready himself for another, perhaps even tougher, contest: holding on to the coalmining Hunter seat that has been in Labor hands for more than 100 years.
Fitzgibbon, who has held the seat for 25 years, got a fright at the 2019 election when he suffered a near 10% swing, and came within a few thousand votes of losing.
The veteran Labor MP was quick with a diagnosis. Labor had lost touch with its blue-collar base, and the party’s climate change policies had left voters “scared and confused”, he said.
A similar message echoed down from Queensland, too: blue-collar workers felt looked down upon by Labor, as the party had attempted to walk a tightrope on the contested Adani coalmine while at the same time talking up its climate change policies.
The result put Fitzgibbon on a warpath – agitating internally to convince the party to reach a “settlement” with the Coalition on medium-term emissions targets, and culminating in his decision to quit the shadow cabinet last year.
Announcing his resignation, Fitzgibbon said he was satisfied that, partly as a result of his advocacy, Labor was now well placed to win the election under Anthony Albanese.
But Fitzgibbon understands that in a tight federal election, holding on to Hunter may be critical to that outcome, and thinks Repacholi is the key to shoring it up.
“He’s a guy who hushes every room when he enters – 6 foot 8 and 130 kilos and not particularly overweight,” Fitzgibbon gushed in an interview last week.
“He’s a coalminer, he was a union delegate … he’s an Olympian, a Commonwealth Games competitor, he’s in the Cessnock Hall of Fame – the biggest town in the electorate. He’s a family man. He manages 60 people in a mining services workshop in the Upper Hunter. He’s an amazing candidate.”
While Fitzgibbon has been able to convince the party that Repacholi is its best bet – resulting in Albanese’s request to national executive to choose him for the seat – the decision to endorse him without a rank and file ballot enraged local branch members.
Many are also suspicious of a factional stitch-up – the Left have agreed to support Fitzgibbon’s pick of Repacholi, but want him to join its faction in parliament.
Reports about Repacholi’s social media have angered progressives and rusted-on party members, but Fitzgibbon says it proves his working-class credentials and shows he is a “normal larrikin Australian”.
His social media posts included calling India a shit-hole and taunting anti-coal opponents to “sit in the dark and freeze”.
Repacholi, who was officially preselected on Friday evening, says the posts show he was not groomed for politics, admitting that he didn’t even vote in the 2010 or 2013 federal elections because he had not updated his electoral details, and is just an “average bloke”. He has apologised “unreservedly” for his remarks on India.
But the strength of feeling about Repacholi’s endorsement among branch members is such that several other candidates forged ahead with nominations in defiance of the captain’s pick. Some argue Fitzgibbon has anointed a Hunter region caricature.
“It’s a really cheap appeal to a stereotypical view of regional areas,” one Labor source says, warning against being sucked into “dumb identity politics”.
“We’re not going to beat One Nation by trying to look more like One Nation.”
Result will come down to preferences
Repacholi will enter what is shaping up to be a crowded field, particularly on the right.
One Nation has said it will run Singleton pub owner Dale McNamara, who ran in the Upper Hunter byelection, while the Nationals have selected Maitland Christian School community relations officer, James Thomson, from the Lake Macquarie end of the seat. The Liberals are still deciding whether to run.
Clive Palmer, the Shooters and Fishers, and potentially at least two other independents, Dan Wallace and Stuart Bonds, will also likely run, meaning the final result will come down to preferences. Labor desperately needs to boost its primary vote to firm its hold on the seat and reduce its reliance on unpredictable preference flows.
Wallace, a former secretary of Hunter Workers, is already branding himself as “more Labor than Labor”, and is confident he could finish second and sweep up preference flows from other parties to leapfrog Repacholi. The Nationals, whose candidate has scope to boost support in the Lake Macquarie area where he lives, will be hoping for the same.
Labor is not worried about upsetting progressive elements in the seat, calculating that any protest vote to the Greens at the Lake end of the seat will comfortably find its way back to the ALP through preferences. But any three-cornered contest is risky.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s breakdown of preferences from 2019 shows that One Nation’s 22% vote split about 70%-30% to the Nationals and Labor respectively.
The far smaller Greens vote – only about 7% – split 75% to Labor, while 25% went to the Nationals.
Adding to the mess on the ground, angry branch members are threatening to resign, or at least withdraw their volunteer services from Repacholi’s campaign, potentially diverting resources from elsewhere. In a tight contest, many small things like that can become consequential.
The rural seat includes the main towns of Cessnock, Muswellbrook and Singleton, but also captures suburban Lake Macquarie voters on the outskirts of Newcastle. Broadly speaking, the north of the seat is blue-collar coal territory, while the south is more suburban, with white-collar workers and young families. Across the seat, about 10% work in the coal industry.
Supporters of Repacholi say his genuine working-class credentials will be able to bring back voters disenchanted with Labor, and suggest he will prove his critics wrong by showing a “depth” of character, a sense of humour, and a more sophisticated take on coal and its future in the area than his critics suggest.
“He will be a defence against the right, but when people start to talk to him, he will be charming to the progressives too,” one supporter says.
Swinging the pendulum back too far?
Some party stalwarts question Fitzgibbon’s diagnosis over what went so wrong in 2019, arguing that by pointing the finger at the party’s policy agenda, he absolved himself of any responsibility.
And could swinging the pendulum back too far lose centre-left voters?
State Labor in NSW had an even more ambitious climate and energy policy than federal Labor, but MP Clayton Barr suffered just a 2.7% swing against him in a seat that covers much of the same area, just two months before Fitzgibbon went to the polls.
Those who are sceptical of the positioning also point to the Upper Hunter byelection, where Labor went as pro-coal as it possibly could. It ran a former coalminer, Jeff Drayton, and saw its vote drop to just 21%.
“I think people in the northern parts, if you are concerned about coal, or are a One Nation voter who worries about political correctness, then you have better options than us, and you always will do,” another Labor figure said. “That is the lesson of Upper Hunter.”
No election is ever a repeat performance, and a 2022 election in the middle of a global pandemic will be fought on different issues to the last. It begs the question – is Labor fighting the last war?
Will the coal industry’s fate be as divisive a political issue in 2022 as it was in 2019, when Adani was centre stage and the climate wars raged unabated? Will Repacholi be the best candidate to talk about economic recovery, or managing the health system in the middle of a pandemic, or whatever issues end up defining the 2022 campaign?
The only question that matters, really, is whether gambling on Repacholi will save the Hunter. And will Labor’s working-class base, which has been in gradual long-term decline since the late 1980s, really come back into the fold so easily?
It’s a bet the party cannot afford to lose.