Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon is incensed over the treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile AO, who stepped aside this week as Chancellor of the University of Newcastle before even starting the role.
Earlier this month, the institution’s council heralded the appointment of the ex-Nationals leader, stating his credentials were exemplary and included strong connections to the region.
But, the decision didn’t go down well with everyone.
A member of the University of Newcastle Council, Prof Jennifer Martin, resigned in protest while the University of Newcastle Students’ Association planned a rally due to Mr Vaile’s links to a mining company.
It’s believed his chairmanship with Whitehaven Coal did not align with the establishment’s future plans, which include being carbon neutral by 2025.
Following the severe public backlash, and cries of outrage, Mr Vaile then withdrew from the position.
On Tuesday 22 June, the council reappointed Paul Jeans to the role of Chancellor.
Mr Fitzgibbon said a “new form of McCarthyism had crept into Australian culture”.
“It’s alive and well in the Hunter region, deep in coal economy heartland,” he told Parliament House.
“This 21st Century version of the Cold War doctrine has been on display at our local university where a quite extraordinary, misleading, ideological and shrill campaign has resulted in Mr Vaile’s decision to decline the offer of the position of Chancellor of the University of Newcastle.
“During the Cold War, people found themselves blacklisted on suspicion they were supporters of – or sympathised with – the Communist Party.
“Suffice to say, many on the blacklists appeared without cause and suffered greatly as a result.
“Several lost their jobs or were discriminated against in the workplace.
“In Australia today, the blacklist is not so shadowy.
“Mark Vaile’s listing has been very public.
“The crime he has been publicly shamed for is his association with the coal industry.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said the over-reaction set a dangerous precedent.
“Today the excessive progressives target those associated with the coal industry,” he said.
“No doubt tomorrow it will be anyone associated with the oil, gas and fuel refining industries.
“What’s next? The meat processing industry? The steel manufacturing sector?
“Will the blacklist extend to those who invest in, or work in, the energy intensive aluminium sector?
“Or the wool industry which regularly cops it from animal welfare groups?
“Maybe those industries that manufacture our fertilises and crop protection products?
“Who is the final arbiter of these things? Where and when will this madness stop?”
Mr Fitzgibbon admitted the world was moving rapidly towards a lower-carbon economy.
But, so too, is the Hunter region with pumped-hydro, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, battery, hydrogen, biomass and gas-peaking projects in the investment pipeline.
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
“But, the coal industry will also be with us for many decades to come.
“That’s also a good thing.
“Investment in new low-carbon technologies is growing exponentially and the investment is largely being led by large corporations with a history in the oil, gas, energy and mining sectors.
“Imagine if we argued that the chair of BHP – a coal and steel company now heavily investing in low carbon technologies – should be excluded from any involvement in local institutions which have – as part of their mission – ambitions for a lower-carbon economy.
“That would be massively counter-productive.
“Yes, Mr Vaile chairs the board of Whitehaven Coal, but he is also the chair of an investment fund, which has $1 billion worth of wind and solar technologies under management.
“Expressing interest in the largely ceremonial job on offer at the University of Newcastle, he remarked: ‘When considering the role, I took a close look at the university’s strategic plan Looking Ahead and was impressed with what I found’.
“He went on to say: ‘I’m excited by the role I can play in helping the uni deliver on its commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2025’.
“Mark Vaile would not have, and probably could not have, changed the university’s strategic direction.
“The University of Newcastle will recover from the loss of a former Deputy Prime Minister with extensive management experience, with deep connections within our state and federal governments, and a commitment to the institution which educated his children.
“The bigger concern is the misplaced campaign against one of our region’s most important industries and the message the demonisation of Mr Vaile sends to the tens of thousands of local people who work in the coal industry and associated sectors.
“This month, the excessive progressives demonised them all. Shame on them.”