February 2022

Essays

The repair man

By Nick Bryant
Image of Anthony Albanese

Anthony Albanese. Photograph by Joe Brennan

Anthony Albanese and the task at hand

At a time when Australia seems to be mimicking American politics, from the Trump flags and gallows in Melbourne to the alternative facts that spill from the lips of the prime minister, maybe Anthony Albanese should ape the 2020 campaign strategy of the incumbent of the Oval Office and hide away from public view. Joe Biden spent much of the presidential election year at his home in Delaware in self-imposed isolation, a sitting but secluded target. And, for much of the coronavirus pandemic, Albanese has hardly been front and centre. The Labor state premiers in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia have often appeared to be the de facto leaders of the federal Opposition. The post prime-ministerial triumvirate of Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating has also been landing punches on the government. Then there has been the swashbuckling swordplay of that Gallic musketeer, Emmanuel Macron, who arguably has done more than any domestic politician to cement Scott Morrison’s reputation as the “liar from the Shire”. So, rather than popping up every day in high-vis vests – the activewear of the wannabe prime minister – perhaps Albanese should lie low and let the Morrison government self-immolate. Labor is pursuing a small-target strategy, after all.

But, for a political warrior who has devoted most of his adult life to “fighting Tories”, any suggestion that he has been missing in action is an affront. “It’s not true. I have been out there completely,” he argues. “I’ve done more radio interviews – by the tune of three or four to one, five to one, maybe 10 to one – than Morrison has. I do a press conference almost every day since I’ve been leader … I have had not a day off this year [2021]. Not one.”

We are in the private study of his electoral office in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Marrickville, a room festooned with rugby league balls and bound volumes of Hansard, like a cross between a parliamentary library and a sports shop. Albanese is wearing a black South Sydney Rabbitohs polyester polo shirt, jeans and sneakers, and is about to take his office staff out for Christmas lunch. He is in a jovial mood, and especially chipper about how the political year has ended. During the final parliamentary session of 2021, Alan Tudge resigned as education minister, both Health Minister Greg Hunt and former attorney-general Christian Porter announced their retirement come the next election, and the government struggled to advance its legislative agenda. Albanese even caused something of a viral stir when, in a flare-up during Question Time, he told Defence Minister Peter Dutton to “Sit down, boofhead.” People have had T-shirts made with the putdown, he tells me. One admirer sent him a potato masher, a play on Dutton’s nickname “Potato Head”.

For critics who complain that the fire in the Australian Labor Party leader’s belly has been extinguished, here was the rejoinder. “I haven’t changed,” he tells me. “I won’t be intimidated by anyone. I’ll be clear about standing my ground and about my values.” For all that, Albanese concedes he has toned down his parliamentary act since assuming the Labor leadership in 2019. “People don’t want a prime minister who is the same as the leader of the government in the House of Representatives, which I was for six years.”

If the old Albo resembled a support character in The Death of Stalin, the new Albanese looks more like he belongs in The Sullivans – an avuncular and suburban father figure. He has lost weight. He wears more elegant eyewear and sharper suits, although rather than buying an entirely new wardrobe, some of his jackets have simply been re-tailored. People also noticed he had fixed his teeth, although the orthodontics had been carried out while he was still in government. Having ditched the branch-meetings mien, it looks, ironically, like he could have stepped in from marketing. 

These, of course, are the stylistic rites gone through by any aspirational politician who didn’t look ready-made for prime time. However, Albanese claims his transformation was as much existential as political. At the beginning of 2021, he was involved in a life-threatening car accident, a head-on crash in Marrickville that made him re-evaluate his approach to health and longevity. “I almost died in January,” says the 58-year-old. “I was one foot either way from checking out, and I was very lucky. That does a few things for you … I’m healthier, I’m fitter, I’m conscious about that. That’s a good thing.”

When politicians undertake makeovers, they run the risk of losing a sense of self; of casting off too many articles of personal faith. Albanese is flabbergasted with such an accusation. “Well, it’s just nonsense,” he says. “I think if you look at one of the principles that I’ve said that I’ve always been about, it is being successful at winning elections. I’m not into shouting from the sidelines.”

After my recent eight years living outside of the country, it is not just Albanese who is not so recognisable to me. I am struggling to make sense of Australia. Things seem out of kilter. The centre of gravity appears to have shifted. National division, I realise, has always been part of the Australian story, but the Commonwealth presently resembles Westeros on Game of Thrones, a continent of rival kingdoms. There’s been a horrid hard-heartedness over internal border closures, and bureaucratic overreach in barring Australians from leaving the country. An electorate blessed with some of the most finely tuned bullshit detectors on the planet has as its prime minister a chronic teller of untruths. The Murdoch tabloids have even become cheerleaders for green energy. Can Albanese help me make sense of the country he wants to lead?

“I think it’s been a difficult two years for the country. And it comes in a context, as well, of turbulence leading up to where we’ve had elected prime ministers replaced four times in the decade … There’s been a law of diminishing returns when it comes to the Abbott government, then the Turnbull government, then the Morrison government, and they’re limping towards the end of the year … I can’t recall a government that had less of a sense of direction. Under John Howard, there was direction. He had a set of beliefs. This government [is] led by a marketing guy very much in the 24-hour media cycle, grabbing the next visual image. And that got him through the election in 2019 … COVID provides one part of the explanation. But even before that, there was no direction. There was no ‘Here’s the big economic reform, here’s the big social policy reform, here’s the big environmental reform.’”

Why, then, isn’t Labor campaigning on bigger ideas? COVID-19, and the massive government mobilisation it has necessitated, has turned even ideological conservatives into operational liberals. Deficit hawks have become splurging Keynesians. After decades in which conservatives’ ideas have been in the ascendant around the world, especially when it comes to the primacy of the market and a limited role for government, the pandemic has presented progressive parties with the opportunity to make a philosophical comeback. Centre-left politicians no longer need to be so timid about making the case for government intervention, but Albanese has opted for what Labor is calling “safe change”. “I make no apologies for saying we’re not gonna bulldoze the building,” he says. “To use a metaphor, in order to build a new one, it needs refurbishment. It needs renovation.”

This practical politician, who revelled in the post of minister for infrastructure and transport in the Rudd and Julia Gillard governments, when he could build coastal highways and new light-rail links, is proposing some significant repairs. He wants to boost sovereign manufacturing, make childcare more affordable, turn Australia into a renewable energy superpower and establish a national anti-corruption commission with retrospective powers, which means it could investigate some of the Morrison government’s pork-barrelling. It is “an ambitious agenda”, he claims, “but it’s one … I think, in line with where people are. People have had a huge change. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a great deal of difficulty. And we want to make sure that we promote security.” His circumspection meets this strange historical moment, he reckons, and reflects the public mood ahead of the country’s first coronavirus election. “People want their lives back to normal. That’s where people are at.”

The main political lesson he appears to have drawn from the pandemic is that COVID has entrenched the power of incumbents and killed off Opposition leaders. New Zealand has had four different leaders of the National Party since the pandemic began, he points out. The Opposition benches in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria have seen multiple changes of leadership. He lists them, state by state. “The Opposition leaders who shouted rather than argued the case are no longer there,” he says.

Albanese, then, seems to view one of his prime achievements as Labor Party leader to be that he is still in place as Labor Party leader – which, given the cannibalistic tendencies of the modern-day ALP, is a not insignificant accomplishment. Now comes the more difficult task of reaching beyond his own party, almost to the point of circumvention, and persuading the Australian electorate that he is a plausible prime minister. In the modern era, that’s the trick that each of the Labor leaders who have ousted Liberal prime ministers has managed to pull off.


The soft launch of Labor’s election campaign came in early December at the Wests Ashfield Leagues Club in Sydney, on the border between the city’s western suburbs and its more fashionable inner-west villages. With a giant hall of pokies on the ground floor and a brasserie-style restaurant on the first, the venue seemed to offer a home, architecturally at least, both to working-class battlers and the party’s more cosmopolitan elite. That, of course, is a challenge for the ALP, and for progressive parties the world over: to unite these often antagonistic constituencies under the same roof.

Two days before, at a press conference scheduled on a Friday afternoon to presumably deaden its impact, the ALP had unveiled its long-awaited environment policy. It included the new emissions target of a 43 per cent reduction by 2030, a less ambitious figure than Bill Shorten campaigned on in 2019 but more daring than what the Morrison government took to Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit. Though the architects of the new policy deny it was the product of political reverse engineering, it was obviously designed to neutralise global warming as an issue, especially in those all-important target seats in regional Queensland. Labor staffers seem delighted with how little controversy the new policy has stirred. One points me towards Peter Hartcher’s weekend column in The Sydney Morning Herald, which described Labor’s policy menu not just as small target but “no target”, a phrase I thought might displease them but that evidently meets with approval.

On this grey Sunday morning, Albanese is introduced by his deputy, Richard Marles, who delivers what could easily be mistaken for a nominating speech for the chairmanship of the National Rugby League. In contrast to ScoMo’s faux fandom of the Cronulla–Sutherland Sharks, and the heresy of the prime minister’s code-switching from union to league, Albo is the real deal: a life-long supporter of the Rabbitohs, who wore the number one on his green and scarlet jersey as a child in honour of his favourite player, the Indigenous Australian fullback Eric Simms. Morrison “doesn’t have a single memory of the Cronulla Sharks that predates his Liberal pre-selection,” jokes Marles, which points to what he calls a “chasm” in character. Albo, whom Marles claims did not have to invent his own nickname, is not “a gimmick. He is not a prop or a fake.”

That very Sunday, in a further reminder of the inseparability of blokeish Australian politics and macho Australian sport, Morrison is driven around the Mount Panorama circuit in a Ford Mustang by the six-time Bathurst 1000 winner, Mark Skaife. (“Doesn’t hold a steering wheel,” tweeted one of Albanese’s aides.) But although this stunt produces far more compelling imagery for the evening news than Labor’s launch, it underscores Morrison’s reputation as a shameless sloganeer. Australia was “looking out the front windscreen, not in the rear-view mirror,” said the prime minister into a television camera mounted on the car’s dashboard, seemingly deaf to how much that self-satirising line sounded like “Scotty from Marketing”.

Back at the leagues club, Albanese makes his entrance, not quite sure whether to handshake or elbow-bump his way to the stage. The smile is a bit forced, the waves to the small crowd a little wooden. There are no ad libs as he acknowledges the applause, and instead he mechanically recites his opening words from the autocue. “A better future,” he says, a bland line, delivered blandly that also features on his perspex lectern and a giant red screen behind him. Clearly, the stagecraft of politics does not come naturally, but he is at least aware of his limitations. “I may not always be the smoothest talker,” he tells his supporters, “but I can promise you I’ll always tell it straight.” He is a John Prescott rather than a Tony Blair, a natural deputy or backroom fixer, as the tongue-tied former seaman was during the New Labour years. But he knows he isn’t a Blair. And besides, Australia tends to prefer workhorses to show ponies.

His speech begins with a call for national unity after the divisiveness of the pandemic. Also, he pays tribute to his compatriots, with an encomium that doubles as a sledge. “Australians have simply been magnificent,” he says. “You have rolled up your sleeves and done your part. Because in Australia, in tough times, every one of us has to ‘hold a hose’.”

Trust, integrity and, above all, authenticity are the leitmotivs of the speech. Prime ministerial character is on the ballot. “Having already shown Australians and the premiers and the media and his colleagues and the parliament and France and the United States that he can’t be trusted, Scott Morrison has now reached a point where he can’t even trust himself.” To draw bright lines of distinction, he takes more pot shots at the prime minister. “I won’t run and hide from responsibility. I won’t go missing when the going gets tough.” It is a measure of how damaging Morrison’s Hawaiian holiday during the 2019–20 bushfires has become that Albanese does not even need to mention it specifically.

The speech is hardly a barnstormer. Throughout, Albanese’s chief of staff, Tim Gartrell, who is sitting with a typed copy marked at various points with the handwritten word “CLAP”, frequently leads the applause. But there seems to be a tacit understanding from the audience that fiery rhetoric will not win the upcoming federal election, and that the defining line of the speech offers a sensible approach to regaining power: “We are seeking renewal, not revolution.”

Looking on from the side of the stage are Labor talents more luminous than their leader. Richard Marles, an old boy of Geelong Grammar School, has more polish. Tanya Plibersek has more star power. Kristina Keneally has more message discipline. But what’s noticeable that Sunday morning is the affection in the room for Albanese, which feels real and deeply rooted. It is not the same personality cult of the Kevin 07 campaign, which always appeared weird and confected. But there is a lot of love for this working-class lad who was raised by a single mother on a disability pension in public housing, who became the first member of his family to go to university – at the Gothic revival quads of nearby Sydney University, no less, the closest thing Australia has to Brideshead. “I’ve never forgotten where I came from,” he tells the audience. “I’m proud of it. I never felt the need to pretend to be anything other than who I am. With me, what you see is what you get.” That, in essence, is his pitch. Honest Albo. The political plain-speaker. And he really does come across as an uncomplicated character. He is a politician who seems to defy psychiatric portraiture, because there doesn’t seem to be much to decode or deconstruct. What you see is what you get.


On the wall of his Marrickville office is a campaign poster from Labor’s 1972 campaign, featuring Gough Whitlam and his winning slogan, “It’s time.” This Labor iconography is a throwback to more rousing times, and also serves as a reminder that only three Labor leaders since the end of the 1940s have defeated a sitting Liberal prime minister. Albanese suffers from a stature gap with all of them. Whitlam was more visionary. Bob Hawke was more charismatic. Kevin Rudd was more brainy, and seemed destined early on to have the word era attached to his name. Nor is Albanese a Paul Keating, another product of Sydney’s working class. Not even close.

“People romanticise the past all the time,” says Albanese, when we talk about the lessons to be drawn from his election-winning predecessors. But it is worth remembering, he says, that Whitlam lost the 1969 election, that Hawke won in 1983 with a benign slogan – “Bringing Australia Together” – and Rudd secured victory by being “very safe”. He recalls the defining moment of the 2007 campaign, when Rudd assailed John Howard’s “reckless spending spree” and claimed to be the true fiscal conservative in the race: “This sort of reckless spending has to stop.”

Albanese also rejects as folklore the notion that Labor’s breakthrough victories were built on bold manifestos and “programmatic specificity”. “Frankly, we’ve got more policy out there than Hawke had in the lead-up to ’83,” he says. “And we’ve also got more policy out there than Rudd had at this stage of the cycle in 2007 – I was there. On tax, for example, Gough went to an election with no tax commitments. Hawke went to an election with no tax commitments. Rudd went into an election with no tax commitments. None of them [did]. None of them – that’s the truth.”

Besides, arousing the passions of Labor’s true believers is not his aim. His task is that Australian perennial challenge: to win over sceptics squeamish about changing governments. “My job isn’t to get people who are already going to vote for me, and who voted Labor in 2019, to get their pen and mark the one with more intensity. My job is to get people who didn’t vote Labor – enough of them – in 2019. To get an additional, I think it’s 1.4 million people we were short … We’ll call it a million people. A million people I need to get to do that. And what they want is someone who’s confident about their position, who is clear about their values, and who, even on areas where they disagree with, is respected for being able to put that forward. And, you know, I’m no shrinking violet.”

The shifting politics of climate change has helped. Labor’s modest emissions target has drawn ecumenical support from the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. “Younger people get it as well,” Albanese says. “Each new generation of new voters – they get it.” The economics of climate change have changed, now that renewable forms of energy are so cheap. The argument is no longer just “a moral one”, he says. It is about cheaper fuel bills and job creation. When adverts for VB started spruiking how the beer was now brewed with solar energy, Albanese sensed that global warming was no longer the third rail of Australian politics. “We have an opportunity to end the climate wars.”

In his view, the rollout of Labor’s environment policy could scarcely have gone better. “If this was an Olympic sport for landing degree of difficulty, then climate change, you know, you get a 10.0 for making the landing.” As so often with Albanese, the thought is a bit jumbled and the delivery a little mangled, but you get the idea.

This career politician also seems well positioned to straddle the divide within the progressive movement between Labor’s traditional working-class base and the professional managerial class, the left-leaning members of the inner-west elites. He has watched over the years as the streets he grew up in have become more gentrified. His parliamentary seat of Grayndler is a microcosm of urban Australia, with its mix of blue-collar families and professionals, not to mention the 40 per cent of his constituents who speak a language other than English in their homes. He can hold a Tooheys as comfortably as a craft beer or a macchiato.

Albanese also knows what it feels like to be the target of elite sneering, which perhaps gives him more of a visceral connection with the battlers. Ever since making his parliamentary debut in 1996, he has been mocked for his mangled syntax, his penetrative Strine and his knockabout political style. “Parties can’t fall into the trap of being elitist,” he says. “They can’t look down upon people who worked for a living.” He cites the backlash from the Twitter left against Labor’s candidate in last year’s Upper Hunter byelection, Jeff Drayton, a local miner. “It was all like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ Well, I respect workers wherever they work. I make no apologies for that. A worker in a coalmine, where they’ve been working for 20 years, is not the enemy.”

The challenge of energising younger progressives, for whom the identity politics of gender-neutral language and transgender rights is so delineating, is more vexed. Albanese can point to a long history of championing LGBTIQ rights. During his maiden speech to parliament, he voiced support for equality on the basis of sexuality and introduced a private member’s bill during his first term as an MP on superannuation for same-sex couples. But he is also wary of what he considers the illiberalism of the left, and the purity tests and cancel culture it has spawned. “I think it can be alienating. The idea that someone is sexist if they don’t use a term ‘she/her’ is, I think, just not a reasonable thing to do … People can use whatever title they themselves want. But they shouldn’t seek to impose that.”

I bring up the blokeishness of Australian politics. The macho posturing. The fact that he is trying to get so much political mileage out of his lifelong devotion to the Rabbitohs. The boorishness of turning elections into a contest over who is the most manly Australian everyman. Doesn’t it overlook the fact that half of the electorate is female? “I am who I am,” he says. “I like rugby league. But at the same time, I also have a history … There are many women in parliament because of me. I have always supported changing the culture in the Labor Party. Half my shadow cabinet are women … You know, I have policies on domestic family violence. I was the first to speak about that in the parliament. We have a whole range of policies that ensure women gender pay equity.”

Albanese is a canny enough politician to spot the trip-wires of the cultural combat zone. Is it Australia Day or Invasion Day? I ask. “[I] understand First Nations people saying that it is a traumatic day for them, and I respect that. But we also need to respect the fact that for many other Australians, it’s a day for them, as well,” he says, with finely calibrated equipoise. What about a royal commission into the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire? “What could a royal commission find? I’m interested. No one’s been able to tell me.” It is the most exasperated he has been during our 80 minutes together, and he clearly thinks it is a bit rich that Kevin Rudd is leading the charge for a royal commission after appeasing the media oligarch in the past. “I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch in my life,” he says, then underscores it. “I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch in my life.” How would he deal with the possible return of Donald Trump as United States president? “I’m not dealing with hypotheticals,” he replies, again playing it super-safe.

He is bolder on renovating the Constitution, a subject that comes up when I ask him about what a post-Elizabethan Australia would look like. “I support a republic, but I think the first priority, as I’ve said very clearly, has to be recognition of First Nations people in our Constitution. We’re diminished by that. That, for me, is absolutely the most significant change that we need as a country … We are planning to advance reconciliation through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And I think that is the debate that Australia needs to have.”

As 2021 drew to a close, Albanese had the self-confident air of a politician who thinks the four-point electoral strategy he mapped out after becoming leader in 2019 is unfolding as planned. The first phase was to conduct a review of why Labor unexpectedly lost the last federal election (the post-mortem blamed an unpopular leader in Bill Shorten and the self-sabotage of unpopular policies such as its franking credits proposal). Then came vision statements (phase two), a platform (phase three) and the policy rollout (phase four, which seems hard, frankly, to differentiate from phase three). The aim, as he is fond of saying, was to “enter the fourth quarter kicking with the wind”. But, to continue in the sporting argot of Albo-speak, is he scoring enough goals or making any line breaks? The commonplace has it that governments tend to lose elections rather than Oppositions winning them, but surely Labor cannot rely solely on Morrison scoring own goals. The member for Cook is a more accomplished player of the political game than that, and the Liberal Party is an election-winning powerhouse. It has beaten Labor in seven of the last nine contests, and the truth is that Albanese can’t just do a Biden.

As this election year cranked into gear, Albanese became more prominent, intensifying his attacks on the Morrison government’s handling of the Omicron outbreak and calling for the free distribution of rapid antigen tests, a people-pleasing shift in Labor policy. Now in full campaign mode, he also indulged one of his political hobbies, outlining his vision for a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane.

Back in November 2019, when he unveiled his four-phase game plan, he urged patience. “Elections are actually won on election day. Not one month, not six months before.” But he has left it very late. And even accepting his premise that Hawke and Rudd won on manifestos of cautious change, there remain crucial differences. Both had a groundswell of public support. Both had the look of winners. Both had cut-through, something Albanese has conspicuously failed to achieve. “Sit down, boofhead” is hardly going to elevate him to The Lodge. Nor his dream of dinky-di bullet trains.

When it comes to his plausibility problem, Australia’s ongoing political recession and the churn of recent prime ministers unquestionably help. After watching the scything of tall poppies such as Rudd and Turnbull, and the rise of those such as Tony Abbott and Morrison, the electorate has got used to lesser, municipal figures filling the role. So, while 10 years ago it would have required a leap of imagination to envisage Anthony Albanese rubbing shoulders with world leaders at a G20 summit or representing Australia at a royal funeral, now it is easier to visualise. Albanese hasn’t needed to close the stature gap. Others have done it for him.

The idea is also taking hold that it doesn’t necessarily matter that Albanese pales in comparison to the Labor giants of the past, because the more relevant parallel is with a recent Liberal legend. Frequently he is being compared to John Howard, another uninspiring Sydneysider who hardly fitted the identikit image of an Australian prime minister when he beat Keating’s exhausted Labor government in 1996. Few thought the bespectacled Howard had it what takes to dominate Australian politics, but he did so for more than a decade.

Over the past 40 years, Australia has lived through the reform era under Hawke, Keating and Howard, and the revenge era of Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull. A Morrison victory would prolong what could easily become a regression era of further national drift and democratic decline. So, perhaps the best the country can hope for right now is “renewal not revolution”. It wouldn’t be inspiring. It wouldn’t be poetic. It might not even be clearly articulated. But maybe it’s time for a mechanic rather than a Messiah. And maybe Albo is the repairman for the job.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a broadcaster and writer, who has just returned to Australia after covering the Trump years for the BBC. His latest book is When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.

@NickBryantNY

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