Joel Fitzgibbon Labor resources spokesman emissions targets
Joel Fitzgibbon (Image: AAP/Paul Braven)

On Monday morning, an energised Joel Fitzgibbon wanted the world to know that Labor had lost its base. A state byelection loss at the Upper Hunter over the weekend, deep in New South Wales coal country, was a sign working class men and women, with mining in their veins, were abandoning the party, leaving the ALP headed for another electoral disaster.

Every election brings with it a narrative. And just over two years on from the 2019 election, the story about Labor’s loss has hardened into one about the party’s failure to speak to blue-collar voters and offer miners a future. Through six media appearances before 9am on Monday, Fitzgibbon had helped strengthen the narrative.

But narratives are reductive, and can quickly sweep up all complicated data points. Upper Hunter has been a Nationals seat for 90 years. And while Labor certainly faces challenges, a look at the numbers suggests mining country alone will not decide the party’s electoral future.

Where is coal country?

“We have to win coal seats,” jittery Labor folk in the Hunter Valley told The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

But coal miners alone don’t decide an election. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the sector employs about 252,100 people, or less than 2% of the population.

Most “coal” seats are not traditional Labor strongholds. In Queensland, the heart of Morrison’s miracle, Maranoa, Flynn and Capricornia are the big mining seats. The former hasn’t been won by Labor since 1943. Labor picked up Flynn in the 2007 Ruddslide (when the seat was created), but haven’t ever since. Capricornia, home of Adani country, has historically been stronger territory for Labor, but the LNP’s Michelle Landry has held it since 2013.

Head north to Dawson, where George Christensen got an unexpected swing, and where the opposition has already unveiled a miner as its candidate, and Labor has won once in nearly 50 years. Herbert, taking in the Townsville area, was also a Labor target in 2019 — yet it’s only been held by the party once in 25 years.

These are marginal, bellwether seats, but hardly Labor’s base. Elsewhere, Victoria’s coal centre, the Latrobe Valley, falls in Gippsland, held forever by the Nats. Western Australia’s coal region centres on Collie, in the Coalition safe seat of O’Connor.

It’s only NSW coal country that could be described as Labor’s heartland. The party won Paterson, Robertson and Hunter in 2019, as it often does, but copped substantial swings in each. In Hunter, the Fitzgibbon family heirloom, there was a 9% swing against Labor. One Nation got a whopping 22% bump on primaries. In neighbouring Robertson, the swing was 5%. It was the same story in Paterson — although that’s a seat Labor only picked up in 2016 after 15 years of Liberal rule.

It’s swings like that which put the anxious grandstanding of people like Fitzgibbon, and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, into perspective.

Labor’s problems aren’t just mining

The point is, we’re talking a handful of seats here. In the context of an incredibly tight election (the closeness of 2019 is often strangely forgotten), a handful of seats really matter. But this is not the entirety of Labor’s “blue-collar base”.

If the party loses a seat or two in the Hunter, things get tough. They need to make gains in Queensland, a state where they got positive swings in just two seats, and hold nothing north of Brisbane.

But the obsessive focus on miners obscures the fact Labor’s support base, the places it could be grown, and the things voters in those places care about, are pretty diverse. For example, the Morrison government’s toxicity in Victoria could put Melbourne targets such as Chisholm and Deakin well in play for the ALP. Nothing to do with coal.

Coal also doesn’t explain why the party can’t win highly multicultural seats in Sydney suburbs such as Reid, Bennelong and Banks, despite its post-Whitlam support for immigrants. It doesn’t explain the swings against the party in the diverse mortgage belts of Western Sydney last time around.

And it obscures the electorate’s complicated relationship with climate politics. The Australian Election Study found more voters rating the environment as the most important issue than at any point since 2007. Polling in the Upper Hunter found voters divided over what they want and expect about coal’s future. The party went full high-vis on the weekend, and didn’t come close. Maybe it needs to go another way.

Coal country is difficult for Labor. But the bigger problem is when a handful of seats get turned into a self-fulfilling narrative about a party that doesn’t know who it stands for.