On May 22, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) decisively lost the by-election in the Upper Hunter constituency of New South Wales (NSW). Following on the heels of the 2019 federal and NSW elections, it’s the third time in two years that the ALP has lost an election that it expected to win.
Labor insiders and commentators were keen for us to learn all the wrong lessons from the defeat. Pundits were soon speculating about potential successors to NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay, as if the ALP’s problem could be reduced to one of bad leadership. Joel Fitzgibbon, a rogue right-wing Labor backbencher, was on hand with a predictable sound bite, claiming that Labor must go further in its embrace of coal if it wants to be successful.
But Labor did embrace coal — and it didn’t win votes in return. The lesson should be clear: If the ALP cannot win a by-election by supporting coal in the area that employs the highest proportion of coal miners in NSW, repeating the trick won’t be successful anywhere else. The party needs to find a new path.
Coal Won’t Win Labor Votes
For years, Joel Fitzgibbon has served as the de facto leader of Labor’s pro–fossil fuel company faction. The Upper Hunter by-election put his proposed strategy for the federal Labor Party to the test.
Labor preselected a coal miner to stand as its candidate. The party was vocal in its opposition to a moratorium on new coal mines, committing instead to the expansion of coal mining in the Upper Hunter region. At the start of the by-election, McKay stated that we should keep mining coal from the Hunter Valley so long as there’s an export market for it.
Labor followed Fitzgibbon’s strategy to the letter, but he has tried to explain away the defeat by suggesting that Labor’s brand is tarnished. According to Fitzgibbon, the party needs to do even more to convince workers of its commitment to coal.
But Labor’s pro-coal policies are already hard to distinguish from those of the Coalition. Why should workers whose livelihoods depend on coal mining back Labor over the Nationals or Liberals when they’re all offering the same product?
There’s a more fundamental problem with Fitzgibbon’s proposed solution. Coal mining cannot continue in the Hunter Valley forever — and coal miners know it. In the not too distant future, the market itself will render the industry unprofitable.
Anyone who promises that coal mining will continue forever is lying to miners and their families. The only alternative is to discuss what will come after coal.
It’s become conventional wisdom in the ALP to assume that workers in the Hunter are not ready for a frank conversation about what will happen when the mining companies leave their region. However, when I was campaigning in the by-election, I spoke to many coal miners and their families about what a decarbonized future might look like.
These workers did not react with hostility or by shutting down. They understood that their jobs might not exist for very long. Their main concern was to ensure they could still provide for their families.
The truth is, miners and their families are ready for a conversation about what will come next in the Hunter. To say otherwise is patronizing. If it were possible to convince coal miners that their jobs would be safer under Labor, this by-election should have supplied the proof. Instead, Labor’s primary vote dropped by 7.3 percent.
Labor strategists had hoped that preferences from pro-environment independent candidates would flow on to Labor. But this didn’t happen either. The only result of Labor’s pro-coal posturing was to drive away voters who are concerned about the environment, without making any gains on the opposite flank.
We Need a Green New Deal
In seats like Upper Hunter, Labor cannot credibly call for more fossil fuel projects. To do so would be dishonest as well as ecologically destructive. Coal mining is dying, and workers know it.
Instead, NSW Labor must advocate for a Green New Deal (GND). A GND could decarbonize our economy, provide a just transition for fossil fuel workers, and renew regional communities.
The Hunter Valley will require a GND tailored to the needs of its different towns and regions. In some towns, the mining companies own and operate the local buses, the town hall, and the local shop. This infrastructure will have to be taken over and revitalized with public investment. And local communities should guide this investment.
We shouldn’t assume that every job in mining can or will be replaced by one in renewable energy generation. Some workers may shift to manufacturing wind turbines or solar panels. Other may prefer to gain new qualifications and enter a different field altogether.
Distant politicians or corporate boardrooms should not dictate the future of employment in the Hunter Valley. We should help individual workers to choose their own lines of work. And the labor movement must negotiate with employers to ensure that workers close to retirement are the last to leave the mines.
It will take hard work to restore Labor’s credibility and build support for a GND. However, that task will be much easier with an honest policy that is clearly different from the Coalition’s. Giving communities the final say on the future of jobs and infrastructure in their region is the only way to convince workers that there is a future in well-paid, union jobs for them beyond coal.
The typical response from NSW ALP strategists is to say that a GND would make Labor unelectable. They claim that a “pragmatic” climate policy is the only one that can attract swing voters. But these so-called pragmatists have presided over two state election losses, three federal election losses, and three corruption scandals since 2011.
It’s nonsense to say that Labor can’t afford to embrace a GND. After all, when it comes to electability, NSW Labor already has nothing to lose.