Labor rank and file angry at ‘captain’s pick’ for preselection of Joel Fitzgibbon’s key Hunter seat

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<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The Labor party is facing an internal backlash over a “captain’s pick” preselection for the key seat of Hunter, with rank and file members demanding a say in who will replace the outgoing MP Joel Fitzgibbon.

On Wednesday, the Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he would be backing five-time Olympian and former coalminer Daniel Repacholi for the Hunter Valley seat, who has also won the support of Fitzgibbon and the CFMEU.

He announced the party would open nominations for key seats in NSW this Friday to “get candidates in the field” ahead of the election, but said Hunter and Fowler – where Kristina Keneally has also been controversially selected to run – would “be determined, if necessary, by the national executive”.

The move has angered branch members in the Hunter region, who say they had been denied a ballot when Fitzgibbon took the seat over from his father, Eric Fitzgibbon, in 1996, and the rank and file had not had a say since 1984.

Related: ‘No connection’: Labor candidate says Kristina Keneally does not reflect diverse western Sydney seat

Cessnock nurse Emily Suvaal, who had put herself forward to be Labor’s candidate for Hunter, said she had wanted to “bring a discussion around improving healthcare for regional communities to the forefront” and was disappointed by the process.

“As a registered nurse, I know the most important thing we can do to improve our local health services is to elect a Labor government at the next federal election.

“I am deeply disappointed that my fellow Hunter party members will not get a say in who their candidate is at the next election, however, I will campaign alongside whoever is selected as Labor’s candidate to achieve an Albanese Labor government.”

Shakil Ahmed of Bangladesh, left, silver medal, Daniel Repacholi of Australia, centre, gold medal, and Om Mitharval of India, bronze medal, after the men&#39;s 50m pistol final at the Belmont Shooting Centre during the 2018 Commonwealth Games
Daniel Repacholi (centre) after winning gold in the men’s 50m Pistol final during the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Photograph: Tertius Pickard/AP

Morgan Campbell, the president of the Cessnock branch of the party, had already written to members advising that he would run, saying there had not been a rank-and-file ballot for a vacancy in this seat since 1984.

“We must have one this time,” Campbell, a former ASIC and APRA lawyer and former councillor, said.

“Rank and file party members know their local area and work their guts out for the cause. If it wasn’t for us, there wouldn’t be a Labor Party.

“Every time a deal gets done the party gets smaller and more closed off from ordinary people.”

Clayton Barr, the state member for Cessnock, said he believed there were many “bright and talented branch members” that could become our next federal member of parliament.

“It is absolutely essential that we the rank and file are provided with a chance to decide who we want to take to the next election as our candidate.

“It was 1984, back when Joel Fitzgibbon’s father, Eric, won a rank and file pre-selection that branch members last had their say on who our federal member would be. We look forward to exercising our democratic right.”

Albanese said on Wednesday that the party was preparing for the potential of an election later this year, despite early next year seen as the more likely date.

“We want to make sure that we’re ready. We have had issues with Covid which mean that people can’t attend branch meetings, people can’t participate in the Labor Party in the usual way,” Albanese said.

The party will open nominations for a week on Friday for Hunter, Fowler, Reid, Banks, Robertson and Page.

The Labor leader said he would recommend Repacholi and Keneally be endorsed.

“With Kristina Keneally continuing her contribution to our Caucus and to the national parliament in the House of Representatives as the Member for Fowler, and Dan Repacholi, an outstanding Australian, a Cessnock hall of famer, someone who’s been a five-time Olympian, someone who has been a small business person currently operating in the mining industry, to be the candidate for Hunter, will be my recommendations if there are contests in those seats,” Albanese said.

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He said in Reid, Banks, Robertson and Page there would be a suspension of the rules to allow for online voting because ballots could not be conducted in the normal way.

“These are target seats and we have outstanding candidates putting themselves forward. In a couple of those seats, it’s likely there will be ballots because we have more than one outstanding candidate putting themselves forward,” he said.

Albanese has been forced to defend the party’s preselection processes after the right agreed to install Keneally into Fowler to avoid a messy preselection skirmish over the NSW Senate ticket. The NSW senator and backbencher Deb O’Neill had secured union backing for the number one spot on the Senate ticket, relegating Keneally to the unwinnable third position behind the left’s Jenny McAllister.

Keneally’s endorsement sidelined community candidate Tu Le, a Vietnamese-Australian lawyer, who said the party should seek to represent the Fowler community with someone who lived in the seat and represented its ethnic diversity.

After last week’s decision, the centre unity faction further angered Le’s supporters by excluding her from a caucus meeting that endorsed Keneally for the seat last Friday.

Albanese said on Wednesday that he believed Le would make “an outstanding contribution in the future” for the party.

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