Member for Shortland Pat Conroy says Labor's climate-change policies are popular with voters and Joel Fitzgibbon has misdiagnosed the reasons for the party's 2019 election defeat.
Mr Fitzgibbon, the member for Hunter and a key figure in the party's right faction, resigned noisily from shadow cabinet on Tuesday, saying Labor will struggle to win the next election if it does not start following his less ambitious stance on energy policy.
A Labor source said the right faction had reached a deal after the 2019 election for Ed Husic to take over from Mr Fitzgibbon in the shadow agriculture and resources portfolio at the end of 2020.
Mr Husic stepped down from the front bench in May last year to allow Kristina Keneally into a shadow ministerial position.
Mr Fitzgibbon has conducted a series of inflammatory media interviews since quitting the front bench, on one occasion lambasting the "cheesecloth brigade" who wanted a more ambitious medium-term emissions target after Joe Biden's electoral victory in the US.
But Mr Conroy, the junior shadow minister for energy and a member of Labor's left faction, said Mr Fitzgibbon's narrative risked consigning the party to "oblivion".
"There's a small minority in the government who think we should hug the government on climate policy," he said. "I think they're wrong for multiple reasons.
"Our climate policy won us votes at the last election. According to independent studies it was the second most important reason why people chose to vote for us.
"This has degenerated into a culture war, and I disagree with Joel's analysis of what went wrong."
Mr Conroy, who had his 10 per cent margin halved at the last election, said he had crunched the data in his own electorate and found that areas that swung the hardest against Labor had the fewest coalminers.
Mr Fitzgibbon lost 14 per cent of his primary vote in Hunter and saw his margin fall from 12.5 per cent to just 3 per cent in a seat Labor has not lost in 110 years.
A softer climate policy could arguably help Labor in a handful of mining electorates, including Hunter, but it could also alienate supporters in a host of its marginal capital-city seats.
Mr Conroy said Labor could unite its progressive and blue-collar bases.
"I believe Joel's strategy is a strategy for permanent opposition. It is a strategy that divides the two great bases of the Labor party.
"Having a progressive and well thought out climate policy that stresses the jobs we will create as well as protecting current jobs is the way of uniting our two bases.
"People who are passionate about climate policy live in every electorate in the country. They don't just live in the inner-city."
Labor's official policy is to pursue net zero emissions by 2050. The party has flagged announcing a medium-term target for the 2030s before the next election, something Mr Fitzgibbon says risks turning off its traditional working-class base.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, whose margin also halved from 10 to 5 per cent, said it was wrong to suggest the electorate was polarised on climate change.
"There's this false dichotomy that says you're either a dinosaur or a believer, and it's actually bulls---," Ms Swanson said.
"We've got net zero emissions by 2050. We know we've got to get there. How are we going to do that? I think that's what most people are interested in in the Hunter."
Mr Conroy said Labor had to show workers in the mining industry that it was passionate about their jobs but "also be very frank that the future of their industry will be determined by decisions in corporate boardrooms and governments in countries like Japan, South Korea, China and India".
He said Labor's economic policies and Bill Shorten's lack of electoral appeal had been the main factors in the party's loss last year.
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said the Hunter was ready to have a conversation about planning for a low-carbon economy.
She said the region was ideally placed to be a centre for renewables, including a mooted hydrogen export hub, and was "astonished" that the NSW government had overlooked the region when naming its "Renewable Energy Zones".
"Despite the fact our regional economy is incredibly carbon-intensive, lots and lots of people in my electorate talk to me about the need to start making that change," she said.
"We've got to plan way in advance for how we get a slice of that action.
"If Australia ever gets to that place of being a clean energy superpower, which I think is perfectly achievable, then that takes a lot of planning."
Her "gut feeling" was that families invested in the Hunter mining industry were worried about where their children would find jobs.
"They may be thinking that they'll see the rest of their working life through, but I think they're very cautious about whether their kids would work in that industry.
"We may not have the time we think we have. We'll need to respond quickly."
Ms Swanson said she was "saddened" to see Mr Fitzgibbon stand up in caucus on Tuesday to announce his resignation from cabinet.
"He's got a great political mind, good political instinct, and beyond all that he's Labor to the core," she said.
"Like him, loath him, he has absolutely dedicated himself in the past 35 years and 25 years in Parliament to representing the values of Labor."
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