November 2019


Picking up the pieces

By James Button
Image of Anthony Albanese

Anthony Albanese. Photograph by James Tolich

Anthony Albanese wants to be a Labor leader, not an Opposition leader

Since the Australian Labor Party’s utterly unexpected loss in the May federal election, its senior figures have agonised about why it is so hard for the party to win power in Australia. Many have recalled that since 1945 Labor has entered government just three times. The leaders who won those elections – Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd – were charismatic, ambitious and popular. They had a sense of personal destiny; from a young age they had burned to be prime minister. All of them were in some ways at odds with their party; all reassured voters they would keep the party’s more wayward instincts in check. All ran strong campaigns, told a clear and compelling story, created a mood for change. All made the tide run overwhelmingly their way, and yet of the three, only Hawke won in a landslide. As Whitlam said, the way of the reformer is hard in Australia.

Eleven days after the May defeat, the ALP chose a new leader who is not like these three. He is popular, but not a larger-than-life personality. He speaks like a normal person – not a “factional dalek”, as former senator Robert Ray described the modern Labor apparatchik – but his syntax can be unconventional, occasionally mangled. Far from being in any sense a Labor outsider, he is a political lifer, steeped in the party’s culture, language and tribal ways. His background gave him no sense of destiny, and he says he spent 17 years in the parliamentary Labor Party without hungering for the leadership, or even thinking about it. When he first ran for the leadership, in 2013, he says he only made up his mind to do so days before the caucus meeting at which he had to nominate. A decisive moment came as his Commonwealth car was approaching Parliament House and he got a phone call from Tom Uren, his mentor, and father of sorts. Uren, then 92, had been a minister in the Whitlam government, a former boxer, a prisoner on the Burma Railroad and a Labor legend. “You’ve got to do it,” he said. “You have a responsibility to your class, to your people. You are the leader we need.”

“Do you have to be born with the ambition to be leader?” asks Anthony Albanese. “I don’t think so. But now I’m prepared for it. I’m working every day on it. I’m up for it a thousand per cent.”

Can Albanese rebuild his shattered party and lead it to power in three years? If he wins power, what will he and the ALP do with it? Will he rise to what economist John Kenneth Galbraith described as the task of a leader: a “willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”? And can he tackle a different question, the most urgent of our time: How do societies continue with economics and politics as usual, when, as United Nations secretary-general António Guterres puts it, politics as usual is “a suicide for the planet”?

If Albanese, 56, came late to leadership aspirations, in another sense his rise was inevitable. Along with Joel Fitzgibbon, he is Labor’s longest-serving MP, having entered parliament in 1996. With the possible exception of Tanya Plibersek, he was the highest-profile potential leader. His friend and Left faction ally, Penny Wong, has called him “the finest and toughest politician of his generation”. Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott has praised “his long-standing recognition of the importance of business”. Former Liberal minister Christopher Pyne, with whom Albanese had a regular sparring spot on Channel 9’s Today show, told Albanese’s biographer, Karen Middleton, that he was “an unreconstructed lefty with no credibility on the economy. But I have no other friend in the Labor Party”.

Albanese is generally of even temperament but he can be emotional, and he can be funny. When his antagonist of many years, Sydney Airport Corporation chair Max Moore-Wilton, announced his retirement by media release in 2015, Albanese issued a release of his own that contained one word: “Good.” He has an 18-year-old son, Nathan, who lives with him in the inner Sydney suburb of Marrickville after Albanese and his partner of 30 years, Carmel Tebbutt, a former deputy premier of New South Wales, announced their separation early this year. He is unpolished, slightly dishevelled, and swallows a few letters when discussing the “Austrayan envi-onment”. Another friend, Victorian MP Andrew Giles, says that “sometimes his words don’t come out in the right order, but they are always his words, and they always express his sense of the world”.

Albanese has not had an easy start in his new job. When he ran for Labor leader in 2013, he lost because his opponent, Bill Shorten, had greater support in the caucus, but Albanese comfortably won the vote of ordinary Labor members. Yet among many of these members today there is disquiet, even disappointment. Some say that while Albanese might have won the election in 2019 if he had won the job in 2013, they are not sure he is the leader to win next time; better to have chosen someone young and fresh.

A more common complaint is that since the election Albanese and his team have been too passive, when they should be taking it up to Scott Morrison. In July, after Labor criticised yet supported the Coalition’s $158 billion tax cuts and a counter-terrorism bill to prevent foreign fighters from returning to the country, Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy called its new approach “bitch and fold”. Where, Labor people wonder, is their famous street fighter? Where is Albo’s mojo?

Some MPs are also troubled: they don’t feel he has explained where he is taking the party. Part of the problem is their mental state after the defeat. One MP likens it to grief.

In response, Albanese keeps repeating his point: Labor needs to hold its nerve. Policy will be developed carefully, ready for the next election, not next week. The party has just recorded its lowest primary vote in nearly 100 years. It needs to slow down and think.

As for the party’s strategy in parliament, Australians have “conflict fatigue”, Albanese says. They have lost trust in politics and are sick of confected outrage on party lines. Therefore, Labor MPs are not to use the words “liar” and “corrupt” without clear cause. Questions in parliament are to go to the point, free of rhetorical bluster, and should probe the government’s weaknesses based on diligent research. Labor will not oppose for the sake of it. “I want to be a Labor leader, not an Opposition leader,” he says.

This is all sensible to say, but horribly hard to do. One MP, who is not close to Albanese but admires him, says: “I think the strategy is right – not getting into the short-term ephemera of the political debate. But it’s bloody hard work – I can’t tell you how hard the job is. It’s going to be two years of swimming through shit.”

As Labor figures await an internal report into the party’s loss, and argue over which policies to keep and which to dump, a bigger internal debate is unfolding: what kind of party is Labor now? Wayne Swan and Kim Carr do not always share opinions but in recent speeches both blamed Labor’s loss on the fact that it neglected its traditional voters and put too much weight on the concerns of its progressive middle class.

“We paid insufficient attention to the anxieties and insecurities that working-class families have about the future,” said Carr. “To many people in our working­class base, our activists seem to talk the language of the inner cities, of the affluent middle class. They see Labor and its activists as part of a class that has benefited from three decades of neoliberal economic policy and globalisation. What is really frightening is that the Labor Party has lost the capacity to communicate effectively with people who feel this way.”

Research by Carmela Chivers of the Grattan Institute supports Carr’s point. She analysed the election result in terms of three measures of social class: income, education and distance from the centre of a capital city. Using tax office data, she divided voters into five income quintiles. Four of these groups, including the poorest 20 per cent, moved to the Coalition. The second­poorest quintile recorded the largest change – 2.4 per cent – a potentially decisive shift in a close election. Only one group moved to Labor – the wealthiest 20 per cent, largely comprised of residents of the inner cities.

Similarly, Australian National University social researcher Ben Phillips found that swings to the Coalition were most likely in electorates that had higher numbers in three (sometimes overlapping) groups: people without bachelor degrees, people with income less than $100,000, and people who identified as Christian. Phillips wrote in The Australian Financial Review that blaming Labor’s loss on its poor showing in Queensland missed the point – it was simply that more voters in the three categories he identified lived there.

These findings should not be overstated. Across Australia, low-income urban seats still elect Labor MPs, while more wealthy urban areas vote Liberal. Australia has not experienced the populist revolt among working-class voters that has destroyed centre-left parties across mainland Europe, and deeply damaged their counterparts in Britain and the United States. But its traditional class-based electoral system feels less and less like a true landscape than a theatre set that could be dismantled at any time. In high-income countries, levels of education now mark the great political divide, and Labor is terrified of being stranded on only one side of it.

Weak wages growth and falling shares of full-time jobs and of home ownership show that “the economy is not working for everyone – there is a large degree of insecurity,” says Nick Dyrenfurth, a former adviser and speechwriter to Bill Shorten. But in the recent campaign, “Labor found itself unable or unwilling to talk in distinctive terms about economic security, about wages growth and living standards.”

Dyrenfurth, whose new book is titled Getting the Blues: The Future of Australian Labor, identifies Labor’s great paradox: it presents itself as the party of working Australia but it has become “an overwhelmingly middle-class, inner-city, progressive party. It’s impossible for anyone who doesn’t have a tertiary degree to get anywhere in the party.”

That paradox “makes you tone deaf and less able to communicate with a diverse electorate that doesn’t see itself reflected in the ALP”, Dyrenfurth says. “I don’t think our language problem is about class war. Our language is technocratic, soporific. Progressive terms like inclusivity and diversity come across as hollow and elitist. The term ‘neoliberal’ means nothing to ordinary people. Better to say our economy is fostering a dog-eat-dog society. People care about family, work and place – that’s what Labor should talk about.”

Shorten’s unpopularity clearly had a lot to do with the election defeat. But Dyrenfurth points out that Labor’s primary vote began falling in 1990 and has not risen above 34 per cent in the last three federal elections. “The problems are much bigger than one leader.”

Taking responsibility for the defeat, Shorten told a newspaper that he was pained to realise he had misread the mood in Queensland and Western Australia, where people “saw some of our policies as being green-left, not for the worker”, and that “we weren’t putting jobs first and foremost in everything we did”.

Shorten set out the old dichotomy: progressive, environmental causes on one side, jobs on the other. Until Labor resolves this, it will always be caught between working-class, aspirational and progressive voters, always trying to build a bridge across a chasm.

Yet if there is one Labor person whose life story might bridge those differences, it is Albanese.

In August 2011, the Convoy of No Confidence, a group of truck drivers and others furious at the Gillard government’s carbon price legislation, converged on Canberra. Albanese dubbed it the “Convoy of No Consequence”. Offended, the group marched on Albanese’s electorate office in Sydney, demanding an apology.

About 200 mostly older people turned up, one with a placard depicting Julia Gillard as a dog, and others carrying a coffin marked “Our Democracy”. Albanese came out to debate them for about 15 minutes as they screamed “liar” and “gutless maggot”. Albanese was unfazed. Before leaving, fighting back the faintest smile, he told the crowd: “I’ve been asked by our local chamber of commerce to encourage people to hang around, have lunch, and contribute to our local economy here in Marrickville. Thanks for coming.”

It was a gutsy performance, but it was also good politics. Under serious threat from the Greens in his inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler, Albanese knew that everything about this scene would play well in the media. When a protester shouted that his mother would have been ashamed of him, Albanese replied, deadpan: “I can tell you that my late mother was very proud of me.”

“To understand Anthony you need to understand the role of two people in his life – his mum and Tom Uren,” says his friend, the mayor of Sydney’s Inner West Council, Darcy Byrne.

He was the only child of a single mother, Maryanne Albanese (nee Ellery). They lived in a brown duplex council house in Camperdown, in those days a working-­class suburb just south of Sydney’s central business district. He grew up knowing nothing of his father, believing he had died in a car accident before Anthony was born. When he was 14, his mother told him the truth: on a ship to England at the age of 25, she had a romance with a steward from southern Italy, Carlo Albanese, and Anthony was the result. In 2009, seven years after Maryanne’s death and after some diligent sleuthing and astonishing luck, Albanese and his father met in Italy. The story is told movingly in Karen Middleton’s biography, Albanese: Telling It Straight.

Maryanne and her boy had an intense bond. She had chronic rheumatoid arthritis from a relatively young age, and her son often had to cut up her food, wash clothes, occasionally bathe her and write letters for her. When she was in hospital he spent long periods of time alone. He grew up quickly. “I think a two-person family is different,” he tells me. “We were friends, as well as having a parent-child relationship.”

Albanese remembers her as consistently cheerful and resilient. “She never felt sorry for herself. She valued what she had. And she was generous. She never had any money but she would never have waited for change from the paper boy.”

It was a working-class childhood from a vanished Australia. He was raised, he often says, in three great faiths: the Catholic Church, the South Sydney Rugby League Club and the ALP. Maryanne was a life member of the party – her certificate of 40 years’ membership hangs on her son’s Marrickville office wall – but she never held a position, not even branch secretary. She would have baffled the young careerists of contemporary Labor.

From an early age he went to branch meetings with his mother and grandmother. He handed out how-to-vote cards, wagged school at the age of 12 to join a rally against the sacking of Gough Whitlam, and joined a rent strike with his mother to protest against the selling off of council houses, the first signs of gentrification in their neighbourhood. He did well at school, and got into Sydney University, which was located just around the corner but in other respects a universe away. “No one in our neighbourhood went to uni,” he says, before pointing out that he was not alone. “So many of the caucus front bench are the first people in their family to go to university.”

Perhaps it was the effect of his mother’s struggles, or of being a working-class boy in a middle-class world, but at university Albanese discovered the engine of anger. He studied economics, read Keynes, Marx, Schumpeter, and developed an insatiable appetite for politics. He was good at it, was fuelled by going to rallies and sitting up all night writing leaflets. He wasn’t a great orator but he was charismatic. Gillard, who met Albanese through student Labor politics, though they were never close, described him to his biographer, Middleton, as “pretty boyo” and “very young, very working-class, indeed welfare-class kind of proud – proud of his single mother and housing commission background, and very keen to point fingers at university wankers and people who came from more upper-income backgrounds”.

Class shaped Albanese’s early life. One night he brought home a friend from the North Shore for dinner. The young man, shocked to see Maryanne struggle to hold her knife and fork, told her that his mother worked as a receptionist for one of Sydney’s best orthopaedic surgeons. That conversation led to the surgeon operating to reconstruct Maryanne’s hands and feet, an intervention that Albanese says changed her life. “That taught me a lot about class,” he says. “Mum was lucky that time, but most people don’t have those networks.”

The experience taught Albanese a second lesson. Rich people could be good people, he told Middleton. The doctor and receptionist who helped his mother “were wealthy people who were good, generous, nice people”.

Class warrior he might have been, but Albanese was always pragmatic. He describes his support for Labor, which could govern as well as protest, as “an absolute gut instinct”. In a campaign to expand a left-wing political economy course that the university wanted to downgrade in favour of classical economics, Albanese was at the head of demonstrators who occupied classrooms and climbed into the university tower to change the clock to a minute before midnight. By the tenth day of the occupation, some anarchists and far leftists had instituted consensus decision-making, an endless, circling meeting. Albanese thought this was daft. He and others barged in and called for a vote to end the occupation, ensuring they had the numbers to win it.

After graduating, Albanese went to work for Tom Uren, then minister for local government and administrative services in the Hawke government. He began travelling to Canberra, taking his first trip on a plane. When the Commonwealth car first picked him up at his council estate, he says the whole street came out to have a look.

Uren and Albanese were soon close. The older man would later cite mentoring Albanese as one of his greatest achievements. Albanese says Uren taught him to get past anger, to try to learn something every day, and to talk to everyone, even if they never voted Labor. Uren was liked by farmers and returned servicemen, though they were often conservative.

In 1989, Albanese won a contest within the Left for the post of one of two assistant general secretaries of the party, and went to work at head office in Sussex Street. Although the Right ruled NSW Labor, it never slept: its efforts to crush the Left were brutal, occasionally violent, at times comic. John Faulkner, Albanese’s predecessor in the job, was shut out of the office Christmas party. When Albanese moved in, Right faction operatives rifled through his desk, told receptionists not to put calls through to him, and turned his office into a library while he was overseas. A Right leader promised that anyone who seconded a motion by Albanese would be expelled from the ALP. But Albanese could be as Machiavellian as anyone. In Rats in the Ranks, the 1996 documentary about betrayal and power lust on the Leichhardt Council, Albanese, who never appears on camera, is the ghost in the machine, the invisible capo some of the plotters report to. He later told journalist Katharine Murphy: “I got presented with a trophy for the best non-appearance in a feature film.”

Albanese was stepping towards lead roles. He won Grayndler in 1996, and through the long Howard years he rose to be shadow minister for water, environment, employment services and ageing. Nevertheless, being part of the NSW Left meant you always came second. But as ideology died across the West with the end of the Cold War, the ALP Left came in from the cold, and an opportunity opened for Albanese.

After Labor won power in 2007, Albanese became minister for transport, infrastructure, regional development and local government in the Rudd and Gillard governments. He established Infrastructure Australia to provide independent advice on big projects and to try to take the politics and pork-barrelling out of those decisions. The Sydney Aviation Capacity Study commissioned by Albanese was acutely sensitive, says a former senior public servant. Labor MPs from western Sydney were anxious about the creation of a new airport near their seats, while Albanese might have lost his seat if the study had found that all flights should remain at Sydney’s existing airport. But the former bureaucrat says that Albanese, unlike many politicians, instructed his public servants to provide him with the best advice, regardless of any political difficulty it might cause him. “It took some courage, and I can’t speak too highly of him in that regard.”

Albanese was also leader of the House – a dragon-slaying job, especially in Gillard’s minority government. It meant being in parliament at all hours, negotiating with the independents whose support kept Gillard alive, and steering through a huge amount of legislation even as the government teetered daily on the brink of defeat.

Independent MP Tony Windsor says that before he worked with Albanese, “I had this view that he was a bit of a smart-arse – I guess from his media appearances. But I got to quite like him personally and admire his work ethic. No one worked harder than him for Gillard – and he was a Rudd supporter. A lot of the others – [Joel] Fitzgibbon and others – were trying to undermine her. He didn’t do that. He just got on with the job. He was a big player in getting a lot of stuff through that parliament.”

 While holding down these jobs Albanese spent years fighting the Greens to hold Grayndler. He fronted pub crawls and history walks, and became a part-time DJ, often playing at Labor events. Before the 2016 election The Daily Telegraph produced a page-one graphic headed “Save Our Albo” – this from the Murdoch empire that Albanese had accused of anti-Labor bias in the past. He even has a beer named after him, the Albo Corn Ale, though Grayndler, once working class, is so gentrified these days that an Albo macchiato might have been more fitting. All the while, he worked his branches and counted numbers, and slowly a local celebrity became a national figure.

As infrastructure minister, Albanese travelled the country opening bridges, roads and railway tracks, and meeting Australians who lived far from inner Sydney. In 2012, he came out to support Rudd in his first challenge against Gillard as PM. Choking back tears, he told journalists that he despaired at seeing Labor’s legacy in government devalued by incessant in-fighting. He said he wanted to get back to “fighting Tories”, a stock NSW Labor phrase that no doubt baffled most of the country. He offered his resignation to Gillard and she, describing him as “a great Labor man with a great Labor heart”, refused it.

Sometime in these years, a man who had never shown any interest in the leadership decided that he wanted it very much. He had his “terrible working-class teeth” fixed, sharpened his suits and glasses, brightened his ties. After he lost the vote for leader he bided his time, loyal to Shorten, at least in public, but with subtly different views about the party’s direction.

These views are not predictable. He is a left-winger who believes in market economics. Almost from the time he entered parliament, and long before his position became fashionable inside the ALP, he worked hard for gay and lesbian rights, including marriage equality. But when the Left sought to bind all caucus members to support marriage equality at Labor’s 2015 national conference, Albanese stood up in the Left caucus, a lone voice, and called for a conscience vote in parliament. Without it, he said, the party would have to expel its conservative Catholic MPs, who would vote against the proposal for religious reasons. He thought that was both wrong and likely to ensure that the initiative failed.

When Labor lost in May this year, Albanese’s hand was straight up for the leadership. Other contenders, Plibersek from the Left and Chris Bowen from the Right, counted the numbers then quickly withdrew. Jim Chalmers, seen by many as a future leader but much more junior than the other three, chose not to run. “I have waited a while,” Albanese told a recent Business Council of Australia breakfast in Parliament House. “I have been pretty patient. That has given me some time to think about my agenda and what it is.”

I spent the day of the Business Council event, September 17, with Albanese. He began his speech “by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are having this great breakfast”. Then he got straight to the point. “It’s a signal, it’s not very subtle. We are here and we want to work with you. We want to cooperate to face the challenges of the nation, which are significant, particularly on the economic front.”

In May 2018, Shorten had said that the BCA’s support for the “Liberals’ tax handout to the big end of town” had exposed it as the “political arm of the Turnbull government”. A month later the BCA threw a low punch of its own, tweeting that the government’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 26 per cent was “­appropriate and achievable” while Labor’s 45 per cent target was “economy wrecking”. But as soon as Albanese took the podium, the message was clear: the war was over.

“I am a proud trade unionist, but I understand you need businesses before you can have workers in the private sector.” The businesses represented in this room, he said, were the most unionised, paid the best salaries and provided the best occupational health and safety. They should be natural allies of the ALP. “I would be disappointed if there are any non-Labor voters in this room,” he said, to a few laughs.

The business leaders came away impressed, according to a BCA official. They might have been equally pleased to read in The Australian Financial Review that Chalmers, Albanese’s shadow treasurer, visited 42 boardrooms in September.

Albanese left the breakfast early to go straight into an hour-long interview with Seven News’s chief political editor Mark Riley. The morning unfolded in a torrent of events. He met Olivia Newton-John to discuss funding for her institute for cancer research. He met Penny Wong and MP Pat Conroy to discuss Labor foreign policy, ran a tactics meeting for that day’s Question Time, then a caucus business and innovation committee meeting on the future of work – and that was all before lunch. Later he led Labor’s attack in Question Time, met ABC executives and a pensioners’ representative, and polished a speech for that night’s press gallery Midwinter Ball.

As so often happens, it was an unexpected event that dominated the day. Midmorning, it emerged that Morrison had appointed Pauline Hanson as deputy chair of an inquiry into family law, just as Hanson was on the radio claiming that women routinely lie about domestic violence in order to win custody cases, which seemed to torpedo any chance of her impartiality. Albanese quickly called a media conference to respond, before racing into Question Time. How do MPs ever get time to think?

Modern politics is built on momentum, on winning the media battle every day, on trying to establish psychic leverage over one’s opponent that can be carried into the campaign to come. As Albanese tries to dial down the rhetoric, Morrison, belatedly recognised by Labor as a formidable opponent, turns it up. Every parliamentary day he taunts Labor about losing the election, about John Setka and links to militant unions, about corruption in NSW Labor. He sets “tests for Labor” on bills to deregister unions or drug-test social welfare recipients. He stitches bills together – what Albanese calls “wedgislation” – so that, for example, Labor is forced to vote in favour of $3.9 billion being taken out of a key infrastructure fund in order to establish a drought fund, otherwise it will be accused of not supporting drought relief for farmers.

Leaders cannot duck this daily combat, yet it cannot consume them since it means nothing to the people whose support they must win. They have to craft from the chaos of politics ideas that will reverberate in the minds of an indifferent public. These ideas must be built on deep analysis or they will be torn apart, but they must also be simple – the simplicity on the other side of complexity. The ideas must also be capable of being distilled into one or two lines that will be spoken over and over, and that will capture a national mood, as they did for Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd. What will they be for Albanese?

When I sit down with him, I ask him to respond to J.K. Galbraith’s definition of a leader’s task. What is the major anxiety of the Australian people at this time?

“Security of work and income,” he says, straight off. “In spite of the fact that we are a more affluent society, people’s insecurity is there. Regional communities are worried about jobs disappearing. In Queensland some of the smaller towns are losing some of their character because the workforce isn’t permanent, jobs are going to contractors, people are coming in and leaving, not raising families, not being connected.”

He sees a widespread sense of disempowerment. “People from the Centrelink down the road often come into my office needing help because they have to put in something online, they can’t talk to someone. That can be incredibly alienating for people who don’t have those skills. Part of the job of leadership is to convince people that you can’t stop change, but government’s role is to shape change in the interests of a majority of the population.”

I ask Albanese whether he agrees with Carr and Swan that Labor has to move past the agenda of its inner-city activists. He won’t go there, perhaps because he represents one of Australia’s most progressive seats. “It’s a false dichotomy. A true Labor agenda should appeal to people whether they live in Marrickville, Macquarie Fields or Mareeba… Labor has to talk about issues of jobs, equality, opportunity – they will be at the centre of our agenda.”

And what will that agenda be? First, it will be more focused. “Last election we had 284 policies costed – it opened us up to a scare campaign about all of those,” Albanese says.

That focus will be relentlessly on the economy. Once again, the party has painfully learnt that “economic credibility is a gateway through which Labor must pass” before it can bring its other policies to public attention, as Shorten wrote in an analysis for the Fabian Society of another election defeat, in 2004. Labor’s next platform is likely to include support for higher pay for low-wage sectors such as childcare, disability and aged care, and increases to Newstart and other forms of social security. It might include more training opportunities, minimum standards for the gig economy, more regulation of labour hire firms and protection for low-paid workers, including temporary migrants, who are increasingly exposed to serious exploitation. In a volatile economy, Labor will look at helping workers carry entitlements such as superannuation from one job to another.

Albanese is likely to be most adventurous in infrastructure policy. Governments have looked for nearly 40 years at a high-speed rail between Melbourne and Sydney, even up to Brisbane, and always baulked at the cost. But Albanese has a vision of a train speeding from Melbourne to Sydney, and one day to Brisbane, with thriving local economies built along the line. “Australians have all been on high-speed rail overseas. They want it. You’d never be driven by this, but focus groups go nuts about it.”

And climate change? Albanese sees it as “part of the jobs agenda. The solution to climate change will lead to the creation not the diminution of jobs. Jobs in renewable energies, public transport, emissions free transport modes … If we don’t act there will be less jobs, a smaller economy, as well as being devastating for the climate.”

Albanese says the media chatter that Labor will abandon 2030 and 2050 emissions targets is wrong. “But let’s acknowledge we lost. It is quite an absurd question – Will you maintain the target that you set in 2015 for 2030? It’s a 15-year target … We will have targets, you need targets to drive change through the economy. But we will know where we will be by 2022.”

I read him the quote from António Guterres, about politics as usual being a suicide, and I quote BHP head, Andrew Mackenzie, who said that climate change posed a potentially “existential” threat to the planet. Does he feel their sense of dread?

“I have anxiety but I think it’s important in our language that we don’t scare people. We need to bring ­people with us. I have great faith in human ingenuity. Some people would have seen solar panels as an inner-city issue. There are more solar panels on roofs in Blacktown than in Marrickville. The transition to a clean­energy economy does require urgent action but it can be done whilst continuing to improve living standards and continuing to enjoy a positive lifestyle. I want to put things in the positive rather than the negative. You’re far more likely to bring people with you by promoting hope rather than fear.” He doesn’t support the protest methods of groups such as Extinction Rebellion. “Shutting down cities – that won’t win people’s support. That just alienates them.”

He expresses less of a sense of urgency than the head of the UN, or even of BHP. His comment about the protesters struck me. These young people are palpably terrified about their world. They are the canaries in the coalmine. “I can see it in their eyes,” Albanese’s own climate change and energy spokesperson, Mark Butler, told Guardian Australia. “They think our generation is from a different planet.”

While Butler says that Labor’s determination to address climate change is unshakeable, not everyone inside the party shares his view. In early October, Opposition resources spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon, who represents a NSW coal seat, called on Labor to reach a “sensible settlement” and adopt the Coalition’s lower emissions reduction target. Yet if Labor renounced its 2019 election policies – the bare minimum needed for Australia to play its part in trying to keep temperature rise to anywhere near 1.5 degrees – it would deeply divide the party.

To date, Albanese has kept quiet on this disagreement between Butler and Fitzgibbon. In the past he had a strong record on climate policy: in Opposition he designed Labor’s first emissions trading scheme, and he pushed party leaders to go harder on the issue than they initially wanted, according to two staffers who were present. He helped the former Labor government put two emissions trading schemes through parliament. The first was defeated on the votes of the Greens. The second got through, and began to reduce Australia’s emissions, but was killed by Tony Abbott.

Today, Albanese, like many Labor MPs, sounds wary when discussing climate policy. Maybe that is no surprise. It has destroyed the careers of two Labor prime ministers. It has opened the party to internal conflict – mining unions against progressives – and external attack on all sides.

In 2019 Labor promised that by 2030 it would reduce emissions by 45 per cent over 2005 levels, and generate half of all electricity from renewables by 2030. Analyst Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute described the policy as “sound enough … a workable model that could encourage investment”. It was ambitious and would have faced huge opposition had Labor won power.

But there were problems. Labor did not explain clearly enough how it would reach its targets, and without such explanations, backed up by careful modelling, it struggled to show why its target of 45 per cent was so different from the government’s of 26 per cent. The minutiae of climate policy can be mind-numbing, so the task falls to politicians to tell a story that is transformational, not just technocratic: we must do this and here is why. Without such a story, the Queensland Adani mine became a bigger problem than it needed to be. Butler said he opposed the mine going ahead, but Shorten and others were equivocal. As a result, Labor looked tricky, and this cast doubt on its entire climate policy. If you stand in the middle of the road in politics, you get run down.

In politics as usual, a party that seeks to govern cannot get too far ahead of the people. So where are the people? Rebecca Huntley, head of Vox Populi Research and one of Australia’s best-known social researchers, has conducted regular focus groups for environmental non-government organisations in the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane over the past few years.

Huntley says that since about 2014, concern about climate change has been growing among Australians, but slowly. “Some don’t fully buy the science, especially any talk about catastrophic climate change in the next decade or so,” she says. “They are patriotic: ‘Aussies are such great inventors, we can solve this problem.’ People who are unsure in their views about climate change are often bored by the messages, resist seeing it as an urgent issue. They hate you projecting into the future more than 12 months. They say, ‘I am just trying to survive, pay off the mortgage before I retire, get my kid into a property.’” Huntley stresses that the people she is talking about come from many backgrounds. “They are in IT, nurses, workers in the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme]. They are ethnically diverse.”

So what should Labor do, in Huntley’s view? “If I was to give Albo some advice: nothing should come out of your mouth about emissions, carbon, the Paris Agreement. Leave that to others. I would talk about the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower with the combined efforts of government, business, and unions. Talk about how Port Augusta now has the world’s largest tomato farm run by renewables, with a desal plant run by solar.”

Albanese will certainly take this advice. He is right that he needs to tell a story of hope. Both mainstream politics and great protest movements have always been built on hope. While discussing ways to respond to climate change on a recent visit to Australia, the pre­eminent American chemist John Warner made a powerful point: “Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’ He didn’t say, ‘I have a nightmare.’”

In time, probably soon, climate change will touch every part of the economy and society. It will exacerbate inequality not only between countries but within them. Tony Windsor says he cannot believe how quiet most farmers are about climate change when they are so knocked about by it: “City people can just buy another air conditioner and put their houses on stilts.” But cities and towns will be hit too, and low-income people will be among those most hurt by cuts to government budgets, and by fire, heat and lack of water. Day by day, the irresistible force of physics will batter against the immovable object of our politics. And slowly, agonisingly, perhaps too late, politics will move. When cricketer Shane Warne calls climate change “humanity’s most pressing challenge” and fears it will kill the game he loves, you know we are living in a new world.

As more people become persuaded of the reality of climate change, Labor has an unprecedented opportunity to close the gap between workers and progressives, to tell a story that rings true to both. For some years now, political analysts have struggled to explain what could replace the economic order established in the 1980s, usually described as neoliberalism. Although this order has run its course and increasingly failed to uphold the interests of working people, good ideas about what will replace it have been scarce. The answer must be an economy that continues to provide jobs and material opportunity while genuinely addressing both climate change and our use of natural resources, which is overwhelming the planet’s capacity to cope. In our current system, the only party that is likely to turn these ideas into laws is the ALP.

Albanese is smart, experienced and straight-up. Australians will probably like him. But will he excite them? Will his narrative be compelling? When he speaks he can be waffly (“I want a positive agenda, not a negative agenda”) and at times long-winded. If his words don’t stick in the mind, his ideas might not either. A former Victorian state MP told me he had planned to vote for Albanese in the 2013 leadership vote among ordinary members, but found his message so unfocused that he switched to Shorten.

Getting his story right is no doubt one reason why Albanese has appointed Tim Gartrell, a former national secretary of the ALP, as his chief of staff. Gartrell, a highly regarded strategist, famously coined the term, “the vomit principle”, to describe the task of a campaigning leader. In other words, the moment you think you will be sick if you have to say a line again is the moment the public might finally be listening.

“I know it’s all about distilling our message,” Albanese says. He has asked shadow ministers to develop five key points for their portfolios. These will shape a series of “vision” speeches setting out his thinking; the first, on the economy and jobs, will be delivered this month. Albanese maintains the tide is already starting to turn Labor’s way. He hears echoes of Donald Trump in Morrison’s recent speech about international bodies such as the UN promoting “negative globalism”. He predicts that as the Liberals shift right, Labor will take the ground they leave.

That battle is yet to come. For now, it’s politics as usual, and so, on a Monday evening in early August, Albanese travelled to the 3 Weeds hotel in Rozelle and walked up the stairs, past the pokies, and into the room where the Balmain-Rozelle branch of the ALP was having its monthly meeting. It has been 128 years since Balmain, Tom Uren’s branch, convened the first meeting of what became the Australian Labor Party.

A crowd of 30 to 40 people – big by today’s standards – had turned out to hear Albanese talk. They were a mix of ages but mostly older and nearly all middle class. Balmain still has public housing, but unlike Maryanne Albanese 40 years ago, its residents don’t belong to the ALP.

Albanese began by welcoming new branch members. He noted that 2000 new members had joined NSW Labor since the election. He had just come back from the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land. It was clear, he said, that Indigenous Australians still want their voice enshrined in the Constitution as set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Yet the government had no plan to do that, and no plan for the economy.

How can the party fight back, a man asked. Albanese said it would take discipline and time. Other questions flew. Did franking credits hurt? Why was the result so bad in Queensland? Why was Andrew Leigh, a highly capable MP who is not in a faction, left out of shadow cabinet? How could Labor debunk the myth that it could not manage the economy?

The talk turned to climate change. Albanese said it had to be reframed as a conversation about jobs. He had been to towns revitalised by renewable energy. “We can win this debate. There is so much Labor can do in this area,” he said. The audience was listening.

Albanese’s next audience will not be a small room of true believers but a distracted, distrustful 25 million. Can he tune in to the forces working on their hearts, minds and wallets, and on the planet upon which our lives depend?

On this August night, Albanese did what he has always done: he made his case, took questions, sought support. Here’s the problem; here’s how Labor, and only Labor, can solve it. He stayed for the whole meeting, then stuck around for a beer.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Image of Archie Roach

A way home: Archie Roach

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

Image from ‘The Irishman’

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Image of Napoleon Bonaparte

Revolutions past

Labor and the Liberals have abandoned their old ideological contests as they battle to define the values of the new middle class

More in The Monthly Essays

Street scene from a roundabout in Deloraine, Tasmania

The rotten core

A Tasmanian inquiry uncovered decades of catastrophic failure to protect young people in the state’s care and a bureaucratic tangle that sheltered their abusers

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in rolled sleeves standing in front of Hansard library

After robodebt: Restoring trust in government integrity and accountability

The attorney-general makes the case for reforms to Australia’s institutional checks and balances

watercolour and pencil drawing of plains-wanderers

Notes on a disappearance

Urban spaces, camouflage and the fate of the plains-wanderer

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality