Anthony Albanese’s “captain’s pick” to run for Labor in the seat of Hunter, Daniel Repacholi, once suggested on social media that opponents of coalmining should “sit in the dark and freeze” in winter, stoking further anger among rank and file members about his preselection.
The party’s national executive met on Friday to agree on a process that will see Repacholi endorsed for the Hunter valley seat, which is being vacated by Labor’s long-serving right-aligned MP Joel Fitzgibbon.
Repacholi has won the support of Fitzgibbon, the CFMEU and Albanese, but the decision to preselect the five-time Olympic shooter and former coalminer has sparked a furious backlash among branch members in the electorate.
While Repacholi’s Facebook account has been deleted since he was announced as a candidate, Guardian Australia has seen a 2016 post in which he declared “If you don’t support coal then sit in the dark and freeze this winter”.
Guardian Australia understands concerns about some of Repacholi’s social media activity were raised at a factional meeting of NSW union leaders last week by state secretary, Bob Nanva.
The Australian reported on Friday that Repacholi had called India a “shit hole” after he had attended the Commonwealth games in 2010, and referred to a separate post where he had claimed his favourite quote was “Size dosent (sic) matter when you have 130 kg pushing it”.
Repacholi has apologised for his remarks on India, saying he had posted something “stupid and offensive” after the trip. “It was wrong and I apologise unreservedly. The post in no way reflects my very fond memories of my time in that wonderful country.”
Fitzgibbon, however, excused the remark, saying “he could have found better words”, but had since apologised.
“It shows that Daniel Repacholi is a normal, larrikin Australian. He says what he thought were, I suppose, funny things at the time on arriving home from competing at the Commonwealth games,” Fitzgibbon said.
The outgoing MP has long been agitating for the party to reconnect with its blue collar base – particularly as it outlines its position on climate change – and says Repacholi will be able to hold the seat for Labor given his background.
Fitzgibbon suffered a near 10% swing against him at the last election, with One Nation securing 21.6% of the primary vote, and the Nationals picking up 23.5%.
But rank and file members are angry that the views of long-serving branch members are being ignored, and say a ballot would have preselected a candidate who better reflected the diverse views of the electorate. It is understood some members have resigned as a result of the decision, while others have vowed not to volunteer for Repacholi’s election bid given their anger at the party.
Cessnock nurse Emily Suvaal and local councillor Morgan Campbell had both indicated their intention to run for the seat.
In a letter obtained by Guardian Australia and sent to the national executive from nine out of 10 branches in the electorate, branch presidents called for a rank and file ballot, saying the party needed to recognise voters in the electorate were evenly split between urban Lake Macquarie and the regional lower Hunter valley.
“For Labor to win the seat of Hunter we need a candidate who can win enough votes across the entire electorate. Local ALP members very much want to keep the seat and know the electorate,” the letter says.
“We believe they will choose the candidate who is best suited to represent their region and who will also give Labor the greatest chance of keeping the seat.”
The letter notes that Repacholi “only joined the ALP in the past two weeks”, and that under current rules he would not be eligible to stand for preselection.
For the forthcoming election the Nationals have preselected 28-year-old school community relations officer James Thomson, while One Nation has announced Singleton pub owner Dale McNamara, who contested the upper Hunter byelection, as their candidate.
Repacholi could not be reached for comment.