Australia Letter: Anthony Albanese looks comfortable in charge, but more pressure is coming

An upcoming referendum could weaken the authority of a prime minister who has overseen some important achievements in his first year at the helm

Today marks exactly a year since Anthony Albanese became Australian prime minister. The boy who grew up in cramped council housing had finally climbed on to the world’s stage. The Labor Party leader vowed that he was going to be a “builder”, a man that could build trust after Scott Morrison’s largely chaotic years in power.

The son of an Irish-Australian woman and an Italian father, he used his victory speech last year to give some insight into his political philosophy. “It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing ... can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister. I want Australia to continue to be a country that no matter where you live, who you worship, who you love, or what your last name is, that places no restrictions on your journey in life. I hope that my journey in life inspires Australians to reach for the stars.”

Albanese made his name in the left-wing faction of the party, but after becoming leader of Labor in 2019, he slowly moved into the centre to court Australia’s business community. In his first year in office, the self-described “battler” from the inner city has enjoyed one of the best starts of any Australian prime minister. He has deliberately set cautious targets, and slowly set about delivering them.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend, Albanese maintained that his slow and steady approach will continue to win the race with Australians. “I believe that Labor should be the natural party of government – that our values sit with a majority of Australians, the values of a fair go and not leaving people behind, but also of not holding people back. Those are values of aspiration for a better life. And in order to do that, you have to have a programme that takes people with you on the journey of change. And I’m a firm believer in under-promising and over-delivering.”


Albanese looks comfortable in the top job. The formerly scruffy rabble-rouser has been replaced by a mature and eloquent statesman wearing tailored suits. In a recent survey where Australian voters were asked for their preferred prime minister, Albanese outpolled the opposition leader Peter Dutton by 53 to 20 per cent. He has the wind on his back and can plot his political course largely as he wishes, with little threat from the opposition.

Albanese has had key wins, with the major headlines being better support for medical services, the passage of a federal law to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and significantly improved relations with China. Last week China agreed to remove costly sanctions on Australian timber, a legacy of the damaging diplomatic row between the countries under Morrison.

Albanese trusts his foreign minister Penny Wong implicitly and together they are slowly improving the country’s working relationship in Beijing. While Australia needs China’s investment to function fully, it also needs to keep the United States onside for defensive purposes.

Last week, Albanese was due to host US president Joe Biden, with the leaders of India and Japan in Sydney, before Biden was forced to cancel at the last minute due to lingering debt ceiling negotiations in Washington. Albanese used last weekend’s meeting of the G7 countries in Hiroshima to further underline Australia’s strategic importance in the Asia-Pacific region.

While Albanese has started very well, he does face significant pressure points in the coming months. His campaign to deliver a voice for indigenous Australians in parliament looks increasingly perilous and if the referendum doesn’t pass, it will significantly weaken his authority. He is also facing criticism from the left of Parliament House, while the Greens say that he is too slow, too steady, and far too quick to tickle the tummy of corporate Australia while ignoring those in poverty.

Albanese’s support of a 2019 tax cut backed by Morrison’s Liberal Party which would increase the top tax bracket from $180,000 to $200,000 (€110,500 to €122,800) is set to cost $313bn over a decade. For a man who was versed in left-wing politics as a student, Albanese is bizarrely supporting trickle-down economics, with the poorest citizens unlikely to benefit.

Historically, the Australian Labor Party is notorious for only holding power for a short period. Bob Hawke’s long tenure as prime minister from 1983 to 1991 remains a rarity. Albanese will be grimly aware of how quickly things can change in Australian politics, especially for Labor. He knows his Australian history and will be determined to write a new improved chapter for his party.