The Federal Member of Parliament for a coalmining seat in New South Wales has today been re-elected Leader of Labor for Coal (LfC). Asked what she thought was expected of her in the position, Ms Taken said that one of her first priorities will be to maintain the close political, philosophical and organisational relationship with the ALP.
“We must be alive to the fact that, whatever their specific interest in coal, members of the organisation are still, first and foremost, supporters of the Australian Labor Party.”
“However, having said that, it’s clear that we must differentiate the LfC brand more clearly from that of its parent body,” Ms Taken said.
“As well as this, we can continue to disassemble to coalmining interests about getting specific government support for them,” she said at today’s media conference.
Labor for Coal was established when the ALP’s administration agreed that those of its members who wished to do so could have their membership fees diverted to the new entity.
Since its establishment, LfC’s numbers have regularly shrunk. To counteract this and its historical failure to have meaningful policies rolled out for coalmining regions, LfC has developed policy proposals on a range of other issues.
It argues that policies for health, education, energy and infrastructure are all matters of great importance to people in coalmining areas. But as it has taken on views about these issues, its focus and purpose have become unclear. Some of its members fear that LfC’s original mission – to protect the coal mining industry and communities that are dependent upon it – has been perverted.
“At the next Election we plan to run LfC candidates in all seats in which there are people who like the idea of coal, or clean coal, or green hydrogen,” said Ms Taken.
The ALP is yet to decide whether it will step aside in those seats and give free rein to LfC, or run its own ALP candidates in three-cornered contests.
The public profile of LfC varies from year to year. After the closure of particular coal mines, support for the Party tends to increase due to widespread public sympathy for the predicament faced by the industry and its workers.
Whether in government or opposition, the larger party and its smaller, more specialised partner generally work together in the National Alliance.
Observers have been surprised that, over time, the policies of LfC have taken on their own credibility and status – quite separate from the positions or priorities of the ALP. However they have often been a source of good times for selected electorates.
In the recent Federal Election, LfC won five seats. Analysis has shown that, in the seats it won, a critical number of votes were cast because of its proposed policies relating to coal mining and coal communities. These voters may have been hoping that, should it be successful in the election, the National Alliance would adopt the policy positions advocated by LfC.
However, as expected, when the Alliance won government – thanks in part to the seats won by LfC – there was no Alliance-wide commitment to most of the policies proposed by LfC.
The ALP and LfC traditionally enter into a negotiated agreement, the terms of which are not publicly revealed, relating to Ministerial positions and policy matters to which an elected Alliance Government will commit.
At the height of its influence, the LfC had branches in every State and Territory and Federal representatives from every jurisdiction. Coal has continued its inexorable decline, led globally by commercial interests. This has meant that the critical task of transitioning the economic basis of coal communities has required serious and focused consideration by the ALP itself – not farmed out to a minor party.
The difficulty of the new Leader’s challenge is illustrated by the fact that, in some jurisdictions, the LfC has been merged back into the ALP. In at least one other, it operates exclusively at the state level, being unable to get members elected to Federal Parliament.
“There are many people who care about the future of coal mining families so we ought to be doing better than this,” Ms Taken said.
If nothing else, the continued existence of the LfC will enable the National Alliance to subject people who support it to the pea and thimble trick. Spokespersons for the LfC can promise all manner of cross-subsidies and other investments to coalmining communities. Those who vote for it, as a result, may forget that all such commitments will come to nothing with the National Alliance in office unless they are supported by the ALP.
“And let’s not forget the publicity value of the way we go about our business; all publicity is good publicity,” she said.
Ms Taken brings back to the National Alliance the fascination of the public. But it remains to be seen how many votes can be won over by promises made by a subgroup of the ALP to which the ALP itself owes no loyalty or commitment.