Australia’s national Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has rejected suggestions that blue-collar workers have turned their backs on the Labor party following a loss in the Upper Hunter byelection over the weekend.
This comes as Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon warned that Labor’s primary vote in regions like the Upper Hunter had “collapsed to existential levels” and that its brand as the blue-collar party was in jeopardy.
The Upper Hunter byelection loss should act as a wake-up call, he said. “They (voters) say we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” he told reporters.
Fitzgibbon has threatened to quit the left-wing party, concerned that voters did not trust the party to protect blue-collar or mining jobs as it focussed on inner-city progressives.
Fitzgibbon, whose electorate shares similar characteristics to the Upper Hunter, resigned from the shadow cabinet halfway through last year’s term due to having opposing views on climate change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison held similar views, saying Labor had lost touch with blue-collar workers.
In response, Albanese downplayed the loss, saying the Upper Hunter has classically been a Nationals seat for over 90 years.
He told ABC radio that Labor’s recent state election victories in the resource-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia proved otherwise.
Albanese also pointed to the popularity of independent candidates and minor parties at the Upper Hunter byelection.
“Let’s get some perspective here. There’s been a lot of very short-sighted analysis—ahistorical analysis—behind this byelection,” he said.
When asked if he was losing the blue-collar base, Albanese said: “The evidence is there that that’s not the case.”
He pointed the finger instead at the national Coalition government of presiding over an increasingly casualised coal-mining workforce and the use of labour-hire firms.
“The current government does not stand up for miners, doesn’t stand up for any workers, and is undermining the pay and conditions of those miners,” he said.
“I won’t cop this idea of Scott Morrison—the party of WorkChoices—somehow being the friend of the workers. It’s just nonsense.”
He then noted that for any Labor representatives to adopt the Coalition’s rhetoric undermined the Labor party, and they should advocate for the working class instead.
The Upper Hunter byelection was triggered by sexual assault allegations against former state Nationals MP Michael Johnson. His successor Dave Layzell managed to hold the seat with a two-party-preferred swing towards the Nationals.
Labor faces a challenge to win the next federal election, as it must win back seats in resource-rich Queensland electorates while holding on to the Hunter Valley electorate, where it suffered major swings against it at the last election.