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The Guardian - AU

‘I am who I am’: Anthony Albanese rushes towards his date with destiny

Labor leader Anthony Albanese campaigning on the Central Coast
‘My objective is to leave a legacy’: Labor leader Anthony Albanese campaigning on the Central Coast. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

We are waiting for Anthony Albanese in a suburban backyard on the New South Wales Central Coast. There’s a Hills hoist, but no trees. At first the bright autumn sun is welcome – a reprieve from the stale air of hotels, planes and buses. But as the sun tracks higher in the sky, the heat becomes oppressive. Tender pale skin stings, and the men in TV-ready suits sweat. The cameramen debate the relative merits of various football songs to lighten the mood.

The Labor leader finally emerges from the house to spruik his shared equity housing scheme. In his dark suit, he’s a bit pale, still depleted from the bout of Covid that took him off the hustings for a week. It’s clear he’ll be sweltering within minutes, and he’s not carrying any water. A lack of hydration isn’t the only irritation waiting for him under the Hills hoist. The travelling media are positioned there too.

The dynamic on Albanese’s campaign media bus is combative. There are productive stretches, but anyone watching can see a chunk of the combat is performative. In the era of 24/7 media, press conferences are broadcast live, and the cameras point both at the candidate and the camera-ready inquisitors chasing their TV moments. That fishbowl incentivises clickable, shareable jousts. Policy gets short shrift, and dignity, detachment, sobriety and nuance can feel like antiquities from another age.

Aggression during campaigns comes with the territory; it thrives like a hothouse plant. The current level of aggro is analogous to the dynamic in 2019, but a lot of the questions are observably dumber. Albanese has always been a broad-brushstrokes politician rather than a wonk or a detail obsessive. Campaign hunting packs always develop a sixth sense about a candidate’s weakness. Sensing potential for “Albanese moments” from a lack of preparation or sharp recall, the 2022 contest has been running like pub trivia without the beers. What’s the cash rate? What are the six points of your NDIS plan? What does a head of lettuce cost?

Scott Morrison is more practised at smothering these narcissistic heaves in a press pack he largely holds in contempt. He sets his jaw and asserts his top dog status, barrelling on relentlessly and blanking interlocutors he regards as trouble.

Labor candidate for the seat of Robertson, Gordon Reid, Australian opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, and Labor MP for Dobell, Emma McBride, in East Gosford
Under the glare: Anthony Albanese with Robertson candidate Gordon Reid and Dobell MP Emma McBride in East Gosford. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Albanese doesn’t shun or subdue, but in the olden times, pre-glow-up, he bristled at media questions he considered trivial or absurd. This is one of the habits the Labor leader has excised in his quest to assume the aerodynamic form of a putative prime minister. He’s clearly unimpressed with the posturing, but by and large, he lets aggressive inanity pop and crackle around him.

In the backyard, we are only a couple of questions in when it becomes clear that Albanese needs water. He signals to one of his advancers. A glass is procured from inside the house and ferried down to him. Albanese is standing up with frontbencher Jason Clare, who swerves between housing policy facts and cheesy bon mots while watching for cues about Albanese’s physical wellbeing out of the corner of one eye. Albanese and Clare are with the candidate for Robertson, Gordon Reid, who is an emergency physician. Albanese chugs a mouthful of water and relays the glass back to Reid, who cups it carefully behind his back.

In a couple of hours from now, the Reserve Bank will increase the official cash rate for the first time since 2010. That development will render anything that’s transpired in the morning entirely redundant.

It is clear Albanese’s head is already in what Philip Lowe will do in a couple of hours. This is typical. Albanese might not have much talent for hustings vaudeville, but strategically, he’s two steps ahead.

Perhaps this is a survival skill you learn coming of age in the Labor left in NSW, back when the right faction were the untrammelled masters of the political universe. Albanese rose in Labor politics as a resourceful inner-city activist. He didn’t roll off the production line of the union movement. He’s always had to scrap – find his own numbers, build a power base, construct the network that sustains him personally and professionally. He’s loyal to his people, because he knows nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing was gifted. Everything is earned.

But I suspect Albanese’s front-running impulse was formed much earlier. He spent chunks of time alone as a kid because his mum battled crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He had to learn to be resilient and self-reliant, and trust his own instincts and judgments. Kids who want for nothing can live in the moment, but kids who deal with adversity learn to play three-dimensional chess. Life teaches them to anticipate what’s coming, because if you do that, you can control your environment. Mostly, these qualities serve Albanese’s interests. But sometimes they wall him off. They prevent him from focusing or listening when people are trying to help.

In any case, Albanese is spruiking his new housing affordability policy in this backyard in Gosford because he’s personally invested in it. This policy speaks to the circumstances of his own life, and it unfurls his conviction that government is a tide that lifts all boats. But the campaign vignette is a placeholder – a curtain raiser to the Reserve Bank. So if a Sky News journalist wants to get personal, chipping at him about why he hasn’t sold his investment property to increase Australia’s housing stock – go ahead. Do your worst.

Albanese sips his water and conserves energy while the daily hustings ordnance screams and explodes overhead, showering him in embers.

Assuming nothing, planning for everything

A sharp-eyed political friend of mine in the first week of the campaign characterised the contest as a tussle between a bloke who doesn’t deserve it (Morrison) and one who isn’t up to it (Albanese). This pithy framing goes to the heart of Albanese’s challenge. To win, he has to convince the voters tired of Morrison that he represents safe change.

Albanese was a late convert to his own manifest destiny. Leading, craving the Lodge, wasn’t his original plan. Albanese’s preferred candidate for that position was Greg Combet. But Combet burned out and destroyed his health implementing a carbon price, and he suffocated in the toxicity of the Rudd-Gillard civil war. When his Combet plan flamed out Albanese faced a choice: step up when the moment presented, or remain forever counsellor and kingmaker.

The moment presented. He stepped up, and Albanese wants to win. He wants it enough to drink and eat sparingly, to try to listen more, lose his temper less, to ask for what he needs and sometimes imagine he doesn’t know it all.

Having gone into the contest believing he was completely match fit and would enjoy six weeks of conversations, answering every journalist’s question, he crashed inelegantly into the asymmetric warfare of a national campaign, in the process remembering why Labor has only won a handful of federal elections since the second world war. He was sufficiently humbled by his opening day hustings stumble to ask for more targeted support.

The contest in 2022 is very hard for strategists to read. There is significant voter disenchantment. The mood is very different in different parts of the country. Polls suggest major party support is bleeding to populist micro-parties and integrity independents, and no one is sure how that protest vote ultimately distributes. The national polls have Labor in front. Labor is tracking better than it was at the same point in 2019, but not as strongly as 2007. But national poll metrics are useless.

Ten byelections in different parts of the country will decide the 21 May result, and Albanese’s date with destiny is now all very real. There’s a cop at the front gate on the rare nights he gets home, and another in the front seat of the car when I’m bundled into the back to have a conversation for this piece.

Everybody is rallying. His partner, Jodie, makes sure he has Panadol, Hydralyte and a bite of lunch. As the election clock counts down, the praetorian guard is out in force – Jim Chalmers, Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally, Katy Gallagher, Mark Butler, Tony Burke. Two of the “roosters” who made and broke Labor leaders back in the day are also supplying counsel in the background – Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan. Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating came to the campaign launch and they are on the phone. He has an able national secretary and campaign director in Paul Erickson.

Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese, Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong after Shadow Treasurer Chalmers spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra, Tuesday, April 5, 2022
Albanese with members of his praetorian guard, Jim Chalmers and Penny Wong. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Just before the campaign, Albanese scheduled an extended session with Bill Kelty in Melbourne. Kelty, the mercurial, intense, at once visionary and pugnacious labour movement veteran, coached him to look for common interest, for “structural ways of bringing people together”. Kelty talked to him about how Labor governments achieved economic reform. Albanese and Bill Shorten are not close, but he says he’s spoken to his predecessor about campaigns. He’s in contact with old mates, including a friend from primary school who is now a wharfie in Perth – with business leaders and union officials he trusts. He’s exchanged messages in the course of this week with Mike Cannon-Brookes, a sometime tennis partner who has launched a raid on AGL, and with Alan Joyce, the Qantas boss.

Albanese is assuming nothing, but planning for everything. Morrison paints his opponent as a hapless parliamentary tragic with no grasp of the practicalities of running a government or an economy. This is ridiculous, given Albanese sat at the heart of two governments and steered an agenda through the 43rd parliament when Labor lacked a majority in both houses. He understands governing is an institutional game, and he understands just how fast a transition from opposition to government goes – and how events can blow your agenda off course.

He’s reflected deeply on what went wrong in the Rudd-Gillard period. He’s proud of those two parliaments, and the Labor achievements, from the NDIS to paid parental leave. But he says one of the reasons the wheels came off was the government trying to do too much too quickly, and sometimes without proper deliberation and process. When he took the party leadership, he distilled his objectives: “What is a Labor program of achievable reforms in our first term that make a difference to people’s lives?” He needed to triage and prioritise. “We are very consciously clear about what we are doing. I have in mind the 2025 campaign, not just 2022.”

Albanese knows if he wins on 21 May, he’ll be in Japan within days, meeting Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida and Narendra Modi. His team are mapping a potential transition that will include a restructure of the public service and personnel changes “to reflect where our priorities are”. Shadow ministers are already reaching out to senior public servants, and the elite of Canberra’s bureaucracy during the caretaker period thinks about how to implement an alternative program.

As we speed towards Sydney this week, Albanese tells me that when parliament resumes, any new government will need the “structures in place to drive the change, the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia, the creation of the National Reconstruction Fund” and to make sure bodies like Infrastructure Australia have serious boards. Past experience tells him “the structural things need to be put in place early”.

“One of the first things I’ll do is get the premiers and chief ministers around the table, not to make decisions, but to open up genuine dialogue,” Albanese says. “I need to convene a full employment summit with employer organisations, unions and civil society. How we get productivity will be a big focus, how do we get more secure work.”

He wants to revive a process the Morrison government started with business and unions during the pandemic to find common ground with industrial relations reform. He says small businesses need a seat at that table. He notes there was productive dialogue under the Coalition’s process “and then nothing happened”. He says positive change “doesn’t have to start from zero because there are productive relationships there”.

So Albanese’s got a mud map of his first 100 days, a strong support crew and a personal network he’s spent a lifetime accumulating. But winning or losing – that is on him.

Albanese has two weeks to circumvent or crash through the sideshow of the hustings and persuade voters he’s the man for the times.

Psychologically, emotionally, practically, this campaign puts Albanese back in the house of his childhood, a place where people love you unconditionally but they can’t always help you.

It’s all on him.

In a dialogue with voters

Albanese is looking out of the car window as we close in on Sydney’s inner west. “We are back in Albo country,” he says.

His sense of place – this distinctive urban topography, the diverse community, the grasslands where he gets out of his head and walks the anxious dog he’s besotted with, this neighbourhood where his mother lived and died, where he grew to adulthood, where his son grew up, where his marriage ended, where his new relationship began – is one of the great anchors of his life. It has shaped him as a person and a politician.

Albanese with his partner Jodie Haydon.
Albanese with his partner Jodie Haydon. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“Albo country” is sacred land. Albanese learned his political skills in this neighbourhood before he hit his teens – how to organise, how to connect with people, build a network – how to value what you have, and get what you need.

In a dehumanised profession, Albanese is master of the political transaction, but he remains emotional and empathetic. Believing in things and accumulating the power you need to deliver them sometimes involves hiding until you are strong enough to prevail, and sometimes brawling until your knuckles bleed.

Now that we are back on familiar territory, I point out that Scott Morrison believes he’s in a message war, not a conversation. Morrison won in 2019 by treating the campaign as a message war, and he’s adopted the same approach this time. Albanese isn’t communicating as though he’s in a message war. He’s in a dialogue with voters. I’m not sure that conversations win elections, not in an age as cluttered and superficial and dangerously untethered as this.

Albanese and Toto.
Albo and Toto. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Albanese says he wants to be prime minister, not chief tactician, or a campaign director in exile, like Morrison. What he’s trying to do is show people how he would lead. “Part of what you have to do from opposition is reflect the character you would be in government,” he says. “You can’t just flick a switch.”

Albanese says Tony Abbott’s style of opposition leadership – reductionist, brutal, hyper partisan – changed Australian politics fundamentally, and not for the better. “You have to treat the Australian people with respect,” he says. “You have to give them more than a slogan and spin. I think that’s an investment in national cohesion.”

But what if it’s not possible to win that way? He shrugs. “I am who I am. I’ve led Labor in a way in which I’d want to lead government … One of the problems of this government and the reason for this failure this term is they went through an election [in 2019] bagging us and not having any coherent policy agenda. That’s reflected in a government that is incoherent and idling. There is no reason [for this government] to exist other than Scott Morrison being able to occupy a position. That’s not my objective. My objective is to leave a legacy, to make a difference, otherwise I don’t know why anyone would do this.”

‘I’m just focused’

I leave his campaign bus on Wednesday. On Thursday, the pub trivia is whether Albanese can name the six points of his disability policy. He can’t. A sonic boom of Albanese’s new brain fade ensues on the nightly news and colleagues fight despair about the vacuousness of these tests, raging at the gap between the stagecraft and the gravity of the challenges the country faces. They fear the impossibility of the task.

The Labor leader disappears into a huddle of preparation for an appearance on the Q&A program. The audience lifts him. He steps through that unscathed. By Friday morning, Albanese is back in his neighbourhood, back with the hunting pack. This time he’s brought his water and he’s sheltered in shade. He sips at the start of the press conference.

From my desk in Canberra, I can see his brain working; something gathering. When the questions start, I see an Albanese I’ve lost sight of as he’s tried to be better, tried to do what the party needs him to do.

I see the person who feels as much as he calculates. I see a person who didn’t find his father until his mother died because he didn’t want to hurt her. I see a person who wants to be prime minister to give battlers the same opportunities as he had.

Albanese talks to members of the public during during campaigning on the Central Coast.
‘You have to treat the Australian people with respect’: Albanese talks to people on the Central Coast. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

He probably should be in a marginal seat, kissing a baby, talking about the childcare policy. But he’s home in Grayndler, renewing his purpose by following the breadcrumb trails of his life. The citizens of “Albo country” are milling around the edges of this press conference, willing him to succeed.

This morning, Albanese hasn’t got Labor’s six point NDIS plan, or the price of a lettuce, or a slick soundbite. But he’s got lived experience. Fire in the belly, heart on the sleeve, film of moisture in the eyes.

Albanese can tell the journalists what disability support services are for. Services restore dignity to people like his mother, who had to bump down a flight of steps on her backside because she couldn’t walk. This isn’t soundbite politics. This isn’t the package, but politics with purpose. Politics about something. Politics with some skin in the game.

Before I left him, I asked Albanese what he would do if he lost. He hopes he can win this, but he doesn’t know if he can. He knows his game plan has kept Labor in this contest, but he doesn’t know if he can close it.

“I’m focused on getting a majority Labor government on the 21st of May,” he says. But what happens if you lose? “I am focused on that. That’s my sole focus.”

You aren’t having nightmares about other possibilities? Morrison’s second late May miracle?

“I’m just focused. I’ve been focused for three years on a strategy I outlined on the day I became Labor leader.”