On election night in Marrickville, Anthony Albanese cooked dinner at home for some of his staff. His friend, Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, asked to come over. In 2019, she had been marooned on an election-night panel on the ABC and had to endure the horrors of losing an election she’d hoped to win in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers. It was excruciating. She vowed never to put herself in that position again. Wong wanted to be with Albanese, come what may. “If we win, you might want me to do something, and if we don’t, you might want a friend,” she told him. Albanese prepared pasta. On the biggest professional night of his life, he received her in his Newtown Jets football jumper and ugg boots.
Election day had been brutal. Scott Morrison made one last desperate lunge for power by warning voters asylum seekers from Sri Lanka had been intercepted on the high seas. The Liberal Party followed up with text messages to voters in marginal seats. A year earlier, Morrison had sworn himself in as home affairs minister without telling the incumbent, Karen Andrews. Morrison’s agents berated public servants to get the word out about the new boat. Faced with unreasonable demands from overwrought pugilists, public servants fell back on process. There was the caretaker convention. In Operation Sovereign Borders, Morrison’s securitised construct, there were lawful chains of command. They asked for an explicit instruction from their minister. The officials had no idea about Morrison’s administrative side hustle, shadowing Andrews in the portfolio. Neither, for that matter, did Andrews. The final hours of desperate men were what they always are. Unworthy of the memoir.
After the polls closed on the east coast, the early results didn’t look great for Labor. But as the night wore on, it was clear one manifestation of old politics – an armada of illegals on unauthorised boats, Manchurian candidates in the parliament, anti-corruption commissions as a “fringe issue,” the “technology not taxes” non sequitur, sports rorts, car park rorts, “I don’t hold a hose, mate” – was past tense. Progressivism had spent a decade waiting out the Coalition’s war on process and on sense, crouching behind couches, subsisting in bomb shelters with basic rations. When the polls opened on 21 May 2022, centre-right and centre-left progressives sharpened their pencils and crept out of their fortifications with lethal intent. By evening, a red, teal and green mist was rolling through Sydney, across the electorates of Wentworth, North Sydney, Bennelong, Reid and Mackellar; through Melbourne, across Goldstein, Higgins and Kooyong; through inner-city Brisbane, in Adelaide, and in Perth.
The result was more than the unremarkable transfer of power from blue to red. It was an electoral earthquake. The Albanese government would come to power with a primary vote in the low thirties. The Liberal Party had been smashed in the inner city because of an exodus of women and educated professionals. The crossbench in the House of Representatives had swelled to sixteen. More Greens. More independents.
The political insurgents of 2022 heralded more than the end of a tired government. They promised Australians a new kind of politics. Clean and green. Idealistic. Transformational. People-powered. Metropolitan and some regional voters had rallied around an idea that representative democracy could be different. Albanese would be permitted to govern in his own right, but in an altered political landscape.
Albanese is an outsider who became an avid institutionalist, a Labor parliamentarian fluent in more than a century of tradition in Australia’s oldest political party. Master of factions and fractions. The architect of countless abstruse organisational intrigues. The great survivor of the regicidal arena. The Labor man had blasted his way to the top at a point of deep fatigue and malaise with major-party politics. Election day 21 May brought victory, but not winner-takes-all, because the new politics zeitgeist wouldn’t allow that, not if the survivor intended to go on surviving.
Albanese means to survive. The tide might be going out on the major-party era, but Albanese wants to entrench Labor as the natural party of government at the federal level. That’s his ambition. That’s his unfinished business. He wants to lay the foundation for a long-term Labor government, not necessarily with him at the apex. Albanese is a politician at his peak. But at nearly sixty, he’s entered the final season of his political life. This quest for power isn’t rote. It has purpose. Albanese believes Labor is the party of change. I say belief, not faith, because Albanese believes in what he can see. Labor governments made his life better.
In Albanese’s youth, change meant moving hard and fast, crushing forces that would thwart him. Experience has taught him subjugation might be victory, but it is not change. Change happens when free minds change. Change requires time, patience and persuasion. Watching Tony Abbott obliterate elements of the Rudd/Gillard reform project taught Albanese nothing persists until a majority of people see that its time has come. Important things can be erased from the record with a stroke of a pen.
Albanese’s plan to claw back legitimacy and lay the ground for an extended period of Labor government pushes against the mega-trend of major-party depletion. It might be impossible. He might lack the required fleetness of foot. He’s confident, so he might succumb to hubris, the Achilles heel of prime ministers. He might forget important things he learnt about leadership during Opposition. Change requires public investment, and the Labor government has little money to spend. Political journalism can be febrile, shallow and obsessed with spectacle. Albanese lacks the obvious X-factor; he’s not a showman. It’s likely his project will be misunderstood. Events, domestic or international or both, might cruel his prime ministership. Confidants might betray him. His colleagues might cut him down for just cause, or for sport.
While the world got more dangerous, while domestic needs became more acute, Australia spent a decade marking time because the Coalition was fractured and directionless, and when it came to facing the existential challenge of the age – the climate crisis – feckless. Voters might now be too impatient to let a new Labor prime minister creep up on them slowly and engage them more quietly. They might scorn Albanese’s attempt to defy gravity; his retro desire to make the old politics new.
He might fail. But he will try.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN EAST GOSFORD AND MARRICKVILLE
This is a story about chaos and stillness. As I boarded Albanese’s press bus early on 3 May 2022, pundits were in overdrive about whether today would be the day Morrison lost the federal election. These prognostications were pegged to the precedent of 2007. The talking heads noted the Reserve Bank of Australia hiked the cash rate during the 2007 election, and John Howard lost. Interest rates up, incumbents down. Ipso facto. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Weaving past the cameras, bags and bent backsides in the aisle of the bus, I wasn’t yet minutely locked on what the RBA governor, Philip Lowe, might or might not do at 2 p.m. Washed in the general ambience, I was also floating, untethered, in the moment. Big day. Bad day. Portents. Do a live cross from the campaign bus. Try not to sway.
I was travelling with Mike Bowers, Guardian Australia’s photographer-at-large. We were there to conduct a mid-campaign interview with Albanese. As we rolled out of the city towards the electorate of Robertson, on the NSW Central Coast, with Labor press wrangler Alex Beech doing the daily roll call up the front, Bowers and I were in a huddle about logistics. We needed to get to a house in Gosford, get all the gear off the bus, half do the press conference, but also get around to the front of the house before the conference ended so we could vanish into the motorcade without causing a ruckus. I would knock off the interview in the back of the car between East Gosford and Marrickville. Mike would shoot some new portraits on the way and then back at the Albanese home.
Bowers insisted we shoot a portrait of Albanese and his dog, Toto. Albanese’s press office hedged, because that would mean a stopover in Marrickville. There was no particular hostility to the idea; the problem was a portrait in Albo country would take time they didn’t have. It was also an incursion on the candidate’s private space, and Albanese’s unobserved universe was shrinking as he closed in on the prime ministership.
Bowers held out for the image because Albanese adores the dog (or that bloody dog, as some of his colleagues prefer) like a child. The cavoodle has been Albanese’s constant companion through the roller-coaster of recent existence. If this was to be his last portrait as Opposition leader – and one way or another, win or lose, we both knew it would be – Bowers was determined to capture Odysseus with his talisman.
The Gosford visit was structured around Labor’s new “help to buy” scheme – a housing initiative that had been the centrepiece of the campaign launch in Perth a couple of days earlier. Journalists spilled off the bus onto the front lawn of the suburban house and trudged around the back to set up for a press conference under the Hills hoist.
Daily combat between the press pack and the candidate had descended into pub trivia. The atmosphere was oppressive. It seemed possible someone could ask Albanese to recite all the elements of the periodic table, and if he fluffed the answer it would be the lead story on the television news. In Gosford, the provocation was minor. A Sky News reporter asked whether he’d sell one of his investment properties to increase Australia’s housing stock. I can’t remember the answer. I suspect it was, “Next question.”
We joined the motorcade without incident. After a time weaving through the backblocks of Gosford, we stopped at a local coffee shop. The wranglers deemed that an opportunity to get some pictures in the can, sending Bowers into a scramble. Albanese loitered by the water’s edge, pale in the sun in his sharp dark suit. A pelican surveyed the Labor leader.
Locals zero in. Incoming – a sixty-something prosperous-looking man. My guess is Morrison supporter. Looks like a self-funded retiree. I can see Albanese bracing, one eye on me, the other on the man, then a furtive glance at Bowers gambolling across the carpark with his camera and a light under his arm.
This isn’t an official event. The venue and surrounds have not been advanced. No hecklers have been ejected from the scene. Reality is coming in hot. The country needs a change. Get this done, the bloke says to the Labor leader, to the astonishment of all of us. Albanese relaxes instantly. He advises his new friend to persuade a couple of his friends, particularly given we are in Robertson, a Liberal-held marginal seat. The local looks confused. Albanese translates: if you think Scott Morrison needs to go, engage your friends and send a few more votes my way. Elections are a numbers game. This is clearly a new thought. He’s clearly a civilian.
We make our way to the café. Bowers takes some shots of Albanese and partner Jodie Haydon having coffee while locals mill around. A bloke in high-vis walks past with a scowl, shaking his head. It’s not clear whether the problem is the coffee or the candidate. A woman engages me, and gestures at Albanese. “He’s going to win, right?” I shrug, noncommittal. She looks stricken. “Surely he’ll win,” she insists. “Morrison can’t win, surely.” I shrug again. “It’s tough for Labor to win.” That’s all I’ve got. She looks crushed.
With the caffeine inhaled, we scramble out of the café and head back to Sydney. There is communication between the cars. We pull over at a rest stop. Haydon is ejected from Albanese’s car and I am in. The interview ensues with scenery whipping past. I’m posing questions and listening closely to answers, but in some part of my head I’m a kid again in the back seat of Mum’s car during one of the many trips we did between northern New South Wales and Sydney. There’s also a message from the news editor: can I write some commentary for this evening, assuming the bank hikes interest rates?
The interview is over by the time we arrive in Marrickville. Albanese’s house is full of cops, but the elusive muse Toto is nowhere to be seen. My brain is in overdrive. I’m war gaming a structure for the campaign essay, the RBA decision is bearing down, I’m trying to work out how I can surreptitiously watch the Lowe press conference while Toto is procured for Bowers’ camera. Albanese tracks down his son, Nathan, who has the dog at his mother’s place. There’s some discussion about how to get Toto back. I’m nervous about getting this commentary done. I’m also anxious about being in Albanese’s house; he’s tired and I don’t want to intrude. Where’s the dog? Do we need the dog? Should I head back to the city?
Albanese watches me standing in his living room racked with relentless, unavoidable calculations. He picks up the TV remote and turns on one of the news channels. He points at the lounge. Grateful, I sit. There is an overwhelming noise at the front of the house and the sound of skidding on floorboards. Toto is home, flying down the hallway, overcome by the sight of her master. A joyful reunion ensues. Bowers gets his pictures and I get the RBA governor.
Philip Lowe calling time on the era of free money feels epochal; certainly bigger than the contest we are currently in. But Albanese isn’t watching. I’m in such a frenzy it takes me a few minutes to notice this. He’s wandered off through the back room, towards the yard, nudging a ball for Toto. The only unoccupied segment of my brain is confused. Am I preventing him from watching something he should be watching? This detachment – it’s nuts, right?
Lowe’s press conference ebbs, then we roll straight into a presser with Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg. Have you just lost the campaign? is the first question. Morrison frowns. “Of course not,” the prime minister says. Frydenberg – who has the worst poker face I’ve seen in politics – is flushed with the exertion of looking unperturbed.
In Marrickville, Albanese is less combatant, more breeze, wafting through his place of retreat, curling out a door, rising into the sunlight, with a delirious dog yapping down below. I can imagine the scene back in the city right now: the strategists and staffers crowded around the televisions in Labor’s campaign headquarters, watching intently, parsing every word, drafting the lines, praying this reversal is a sign from God – so why is Albanese powered down, throwing a ball to a dog?
Months later, during one of our conversations for this essay, Albanese is tethered by the weight of the office and hermetically sealed in his Parliament House suite. He’s sitting behind the desk. His chosen art, a milky yellow Lloyd Rees landscape, hangs on the wall, his books are on the shelves, and a crush of advisers desperate for his attention queues outside the door.
I ask him whether he remembers that day in the campaign, the rate hike day. “Sure,” he says.
“Why did you check out and play with Toto? Why not watch what was happening? It was pretty important.”
Australia’s thirty-first prime minister looks at me with pity. Possibly encouragement. A look a parent would give a clueless child before engaging an after-school tutor and a life coach.
“I thought in advance they’d increase rates,” Albanese says. “I don’t think that day was a decisive factor in the campaign.”
Mentally, Albanese was already where instinct told him the campaign story would end. With him in the Lodge. Unnecessary diversions or exertions drain energy. Clear the clutter. Focus on future tense. You never win the war if you get bogged down in the wrong battle.
“I never thought it was certain, but I thought we’d win.”
The unbearable lightness of being
Anthony Albanese intuits as much as he plans and calculates. He’s a gut-instinct politician. Everybody who knows him says this. While his backroom advisers and his more technocratic, policy-obsessed colleagues put together PowerPoints and flow charts and strategy documents, weighted by facts and counterfactuals, Albanese is often cartwheeling several steps in front, light as a tumbleweed.
When he fronted the voters shortly after Scott Morrison called the election on 10 April, Albanese was armed with a script the brains trust had prepared for the opening salvo of the campaign. The opening call to action had been honed down to the semi-colons, as these things always are, because the initial framing of the contest matters. Think about John Howard opening the 2004 election contest asking voters who they trusted to manage the economy and national security. A trust pitch from late-term Howard was about as audacious as it comes, but it proved the winning overture when the opponent was Mark Latham. That question framed the battle. But in 2022, Albanese threw out his script and winged it. The result was in no way memorable.
After the long struggle to reach the top of Labor politics, after a lifetime of making his own luck, Albanese couldn’t visualise a situation where he wasn’t battle-ready. He didn’t listen when people who cared about him said, you can’t know what it’s like to survive a campaign until you’ve stood at the apex of one. Read your bloody briefing pack. Do your homework. The prime minister has deep belief in his own strategic judgment, and that conviction gets reinforced because on the big political calls Albanese is mostly right. Often, but not always, because only deities have perfect judgment. Voters didn’t notice the Labor leader’s day-one campaign improvisation. It was suboptimal but innocuous. But day two of winging it was hard to miss. Albanese had opened the contest in expansive spirits, believing the voters wanted a conversation, as opposed to imbibing talking points on wash, rinse, repeat. He was probably right about that, but the travelling press pack arrayed between a putative prime minister and the public was in a febrile flex. Albanese failed the day-two pop quiz: what was the official cash rate? What was the unemployment rate?
Some voters were destabilised by the brain fade. The baby-faced assassins of the press gallery got high on the pursuit, forgetting that the only cohort people despise more than politicians are preening journalists. The inquisition from the fourth estate got worse, as Albanese fluffed various iterations of Trivial Pursuit as the campaign dragged on. The drive-by aggression probably helped him. But that opening lapse by Albanese wasn’t unimportant. In a way it was revelatory, because it showed he wasn’t entirely prepared. When I say he was unprepared, I mean unprepared for the unavoidable prelude to government: the campaign.
This lack of preparation revealed the candidate was running several steps in front. Albanese was expanding, thinking (and saying) he would answer every journalist’s question. He was already in dialogue with the Australian people, which is a post-victory status. Albanese fell to earth: you can’t get to round three without surviving round one. Campaigns aren’t a conversation, and they certainly aren’t coronations. Campaigns are message wars mediated by an incurious, deadening apparatus intent on seeking heat, not light. The media will happily knock you flat, because the only thing better than a nightly gaffe leading the 6 p.m. news is a comeback story by the close of the campaign. Australians love a comeback story and in the digital age, where hyperventilation drives audience engagement, which drives clicks and shares and who knows how many TikTok memes, politics and reality television are sometimes indistinguishable.
Albanese’s lightness is a signature. This man can dance between raindrops. If we think back to the days of Rats in the Ranks, a documentary about internecine politics in Sydney’s inner west, Albanese was able to play a starring role while remaining entirely off-camera. One of his long-time friends, Meredith Burgmann, feminist, activist and former president of the NSW Legislative Council, says Albanese once gave her a critical bit of advice. “I was fighting a particularly awful preselection thing, and he just said – you’ve got to keep them dancing. At the time I had no idea what he meant by that, but now I do. What he meant was they can’t see you as having no further moves. You’ve got to keep them dancing.” Election campaigns nail a choreographer’s feet to the earth, and Labor leaders always face tougher scrutiny because, in the main, Rupert Murdoch and the editors who live to please him would sooner see a camel pass through the eye of a needle than a progressive in the Lodge.
Lightness is one of those attributes: sometimes help, sometimes hindrance. Albanese’s lightness revealed he wasn’t protected by numbing layers of callouses and scar tissue built up during three years of Opposition. The pandemic had disrupted politics. The biggest public health crisis in a century had required representative democracy to be more than a spectacle of pulverising, naysaying partisan politics. He wasn’t entirely battle-ready because he hadn’t done three years of town halls where at least half of the fifty people who turn up are there on the misapprehension that you are Scott Morrison, or the state premier. He hadn’t done the grinding in the parliament, with the associated intra-day arbitrary media flagellation, because parliament didn’t sit as often, and when it did, it had to attend to saving lives and livelihoods, not furnishing training opportunities for alternative prime ministers.
Albanese is a savant about numbers because he’s had to build his own political machine. He didn’t arrive with a trade union base. He’s had to count every advance, every vote, maintaining a meticulous ledger in his head. If you have numbers, you win; if you don’t, you lose. A number falling right out of his head on day two of the contest jolted him, and it jolted the campaign. Penny Wong says the early campaign stumbles were an existential crossroads. “You either step up, or we are all dead,” Wong says. “Anthony knew that. You don’t go through that kind of experience without finding more in yourself.”
But Wong says victory wasn’t all on the leader. Winning or losing wasn’t “just about him, it’s the architecture of the group who were pulling for him.” The team rallied. Albanese was reminded of the lesson he’d absorbed in stages over the previous three years: winning takes your intuition, but it also takes a village, with PowerPoints and spreadsheets. Use us. Let us help.
Albanese needs this prompt periodically, not because he’s particularly arrogant but because he’s self-made. He’s not used to having a trailing support crew to bail him out. He’s not from the upper middle class. He wasn’t raised with the expectation of a network to open doors and magic away problems. Getting by or sinking without a trace – that responsibility has been all on him. That can make a person solitary. It can make a person default to dreaming and strategising and periodically running right off the rails in their own head.
If you want to understand Albanese – who he is, how he functions, what he will do with power, how he will lead, how he will work with the progressive parliament Australians elected on 21 May, what we know about him, and what we are yet to learn – there’s only one place to start.
At the beginning.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY