Joel Fitzgibbon says the threat of a Nationals or One Nation coup in his Hunter seat has dissipated enough for him to quit politics.
The Labor veteran announced on Monday that he would leave Parliament at the next election, sparking a scramble among potential candidates to contest the once-safe seat.
A handful of names emerged almost immediately, including five-time Olympic shooter Daniel Repacholi, former Cessnock councillor Morgan Campbell, Cessnock nurse Emily Suvaal, Teralba barrister Stephen Ryan and mining union delegate Jeff Drayton.
Sources said several unions were backing Ms Suvaal, the wife of Cessnock councillor and mayoral candidate Jay Suvaal.
Mr Campbell, a 29-year-old lawyer who has worked as a staffer for Cessnock MP Clayton Barr and former NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay, was a Cessnock councillor from 2012 to 2016.
He said he had been encouraged by Labor branch members to run for preselection and was "seriously considering it".
Mr Repacholi said, if elected, he would make decisions based on the interests of the electorate and not a faction.
"I'm not particularly interested in factional arrangements, but I note that both the Right and the Left support the mining industry," he said.
"That's a good thing."
Labor has yet to decide if rank-and-file members or its national executive will choose the candidate.
I was able to announce my departure from the Parliament when I was able to conclude that we are now better placed both to hold the seat and to win government.Joel Fitzgibbon
Mr Fitzgibbon, a heavyweight in Labor's Right faction, and his father, Eric, have represented the electorate of Hunter since 1984.
The 59-year-old has held the seat since 1996 but lost 14 per cent of his primary vote in 2019 under pressure from little-known Nationals candidate Josh Angus and One Nation coalminer Stuart Bonds.
Mr Angus won 23 per cent of the vote and Mr Bonds 21 per cent, combining to cut Labor's margin from 12 to 3 per cent after preferences.
Labor performed poorly with Mr Drayton as its candidate in the Upper Hunter state by-election in May, winning just 21 per cent of the primary vote, but Mr Fitzgibbon said on Monday that he expected Labor to hold the federal Hunter seat.
"I was able to announce my departure from Parliament when I was able to conclude that we are now better placed to hold the seat and to win government," he said.
"That was my passageway out of the position, a position I've loved for a long time, but 25 years, I think, is long enough."
Mr Fitzgibbon's close shave in 2019 and Bill Shorten-led Labor's surprise loss to the Coalition that year prompted the Hunter MP to mount a very public campaign to bring the party back to what he considered the centre of politics.
The former defence and agriculture minister resigned from the shadow cabinet in November last year, claiming Labor risked losing its blue-collar base while appealing to more progressive inner-city voters.
He believed at the time that Labor was "as far from forming a government than at any time in my 25 years in the House of Representatives" and that it would continue to struggle electorally until it started following his advice to set more modest emissions targets.
"The Labor Party since the 2013 election has had, I suppose, at least two energy policies and two climate change policies," he said at the time.
"And I note that both of them has been rejected by the Australian people."
Mr Fitzgibbon's continued agitating over climate and energy issues prompted Shortland MP Pat Conroy to tell him to "shut up" after Labor performed poorly in the Upper Hunter by-election.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese told Sky News on Monday afternoon that he wished Mr Fitzgibbon well.
"We've had a few differences over the years, but we've had many more beers than we've had differences together," he said.
"Look, from time to time, Joel's been one-out on issues. He advocates on the record what his views are.
"It's on the record, also, that I have some differences with those views. And that's fine. We're a democratic party."
On Monday, Mr Fitzgibbon said he was "proud" to have been "part of the push" to reposition the party.
"I do genuinely believe that the Labor party had drifted too far to the left, and I think the 2019 election is a reflection of that.
"Since then Anthony Albanese has taken back the centre ground and dispensed with all those crazy tax policies we took to the last election.
"He's reaffirmed our commitment to the legislated tax cuts, which is very important. He's visited a coalmine. He's made our support for the coalmining industry very clear.
"He's taken a more moderate stance on climate change. I think people are listening to us again."
Mr Fitzgibbon said he would not endorse a candidate but regarded Mr Repacholi highly.
"They all bring their strengths, but he's a person of a very high profile, a local, well known, worked in the coalmining industry, now runs a big mining services operation and, of course, a five-time Olympian.
"He's a member of the Cessnock city hall of fame.
"I know Daniel. He's intelligent and very sympathetic to Labor's ideals."
Mr Albanese echoed Mr Fitzgibbon's words on Sky, describing Mr Repacholi as a "very strong candidate".
Mr Fitzgibbon said he had told Paterson MP and factional ally Meryl Swanson in 2019 that he would not run again but had changed his mind several times since then.
He was relieved to have finally pulled the pin on a sometimes frustrating political career.
"I'm feeling very good, like lifting the weight of the world off my shoulders. It's been coming for a long time.
"It's a matter of great regret that in my 25 years I spent only six years in government, but it doesn't mean I wasn't able to achieve a lot.
"I can't take credit for all of it, by any stretch, but I'm proud that with other business and community leaders the Hunter's economy is stronger, far more vibrant and far more diverse than it ever was when I was elected a quarter of a century ago."
He said he did not have a job lined up in industry.
"I don't have any particular plans, other than a hope to keep working in some way, but to work more like 40 hours a week rather than 60 to 80 hours."
He said he would participate in the campaign to the extent that the selected candidate wanted him to.
Asked if he would stay involved in politics, he said: "I cannot imagine me ever being outside the public policy debate."
He said both parties had a "responsibility to build a community consensus on climate change policy".
"Both say we should act. Yet neither has demonstrated a willingness to take the issue outside the political contest," he said.
"That's because both the right and the left continue to see political opportunity in perpetuating the climate wars. This political game must end."
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