To understand Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese fully, you have to visit his childhood home in the inner city Sydney suburb of Camperdown. Albanese grew up with his single mother, Maryanne, and her disability pension funded a small, spartan council property facing a narrow busy road filled with lorries bringing deliveries to the nearby Sydney fish market throughout the night.
Albanese’s politics and leadership are constantly informed by his past and present. Today, he lives in the luxurious prime minister’s residence by Sydney harbour in Kirribilli, but his late mother is never far from his thoughts. Arthritis robbed her of the ability to use her hands and the chance of a job. Albanese was selling newspapers after school from the age of 12 to augment the family budget. He remembers his youth vividly. He has often said that he will ask himself what would his mother do when he is challenged with a difficult decision.
Albanese grew up attending Labor Party meetings on a Wednesday and rugby league matches on a Saturday; Mass was a non-negotiable every Sunday. His mother was always with him. He was inspired by Labor prime ministers such as Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, with Hawke ultimately having the strongest influence as a pragmatic dealmaker across the political divide with a broad appeal to the average Australian.
Like Hawke, Albanese is extremely bright, but also easily engages with everyday Australians, a stark contrast to the often bumbling previous prime minister Scott Morrison from the conservative Liberal Party who decided to take a holiday to Hawaii in 2019 while Australia faced some of its worst bushfires in history. Albanese in contrast was seen driving to the worst-hit areas in his car with supplies to help those affected.
Albanese arguably owes his election success in May 2022 almost solely to Morrison’s follies. It took 12 years for Labor to unseat the Liberal Party at the national level, and Morrison was a key architect. Morrison’s arrogance during the pandemic, manifested through a slow roll-out of vaccines and an inability to work with state leaders, cost him votes and trust. But the damage was really done in 2021 when a former female Liberal staffer alleged she had been raped in Parliament House, highlighting a poisoned culture within the Liberal Party that asked uncomfortable questions about Morrison’s ability to relate to women.
Albanese undoubtedly benefited from the disastrous last years of Morrison’s government. The diehard fan of the South Sydney rugby league club knew all he had to do to succeed early in his term of office was to kick simple goals. Shortly after taking office, his government steered through a landmark climate change Bill mandating that Australia reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050. It also increased the minimum wage.
Diplomatic relations with China had frozen completely under Morrison, costing the country billions of dollars in trade. Albanese met Xi Jinping in November and utilised his talented minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, to re-establish relations with Pacific neighbours that had soured under the previous government. Albanese also rebuilt trust with Emmanuel Macron, after Morrison’s government had cancelled a multibillion dollar deal with the French to supply submarines to Australia.
Last month, Labor won the New South Wales state election under Chris Minns and ended 12 years of Liberal leadership. The Liberal Party now has only Tasmania under its control. Albanese has an extremely strong platform on which to drive his policies forward.
One of his biggest challenges is to enshrine an indigenous voice to parliament in the Australian constitution, which would be voted on in a referendum. The voice would be a way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to directly advise all levels of government about laws and policies that affect their lives. This is a serious challenge given the Australian constitution has been changed only eight times since it took effect in 1901.
Australia also faces a stark cost-of-living crisis, and Albanese’s prolonged honeymoon period will likely end with the announcement of his first budget in May. One of Labor’s slogans in the federal election was “everything is going up apart from your wages”. It was strong rhetoric, but it prompts the question to Albanese: what are you going to do about it? Australians are waiting. He has made strong strides in rebuilding trust both nationally and internationally, but he had a very low bar to step over. The challenge for Albanese now is to set challenging goals and achieve them. Few will bet against him.