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Can Anthony Albanese pass the Australian pub test?

It’s a simple concept but can often contribute to a shock victory

Politicians in London and Washington DC will regularly lean on complex think tanks to shape and sell policy. In Canberra, there exists an even more sacrosanct and rigorous examination of political thought – the pub test. Whether you read the country’s most highbrow newspapers or the major tabloid media, their headlines will regularly lead with the pub test and how a policy matches up against it.

The pub test is a simple concept: how will the political decision or policy in question be received in the average pub by the patrons inside it? It appeals to the Australian ideals of the “fair go” that often bristles against accusations of rigid class structures. If a politician cannot explain their policy or decision simply to the man or woman sitting in their local having a schooner and, crucially, get their understanding, if not acceptance, it is often dead in the water.

The pub test is also used to access a politician’s acceptability to the electorate. Policy is, of course, important but the Australian voter also usually wants someone they can relate to on a personal level.Former prime minister Scott Morrison understood the pub test well. Raised as a rather stuffy middle-class rugby union supporter in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, he moved to the southern suburbs of the Sutherland Shire, became a diehard supporter of the Cronulla Sharks rugby league team and rebranded himself as “Scomo”. Incredibly, for a period, his blokey rebrand worked.

His political opponent in the 2019 Federal Election, Labor’s Bill Shorten was, by a margin, the bookie’s favourite to win. Shorten was seen as the more capable leader, a man who had served his apprenticeship in the ruthless world of union politics. Morrison knew that he couldn’t beat him as a politician so turned Shorten’s perceived stuffiness against him. Morrison was rarely away from the pub during the campaign trail, talking rugby league with the punters easily while Shorten awkwardly smiled at strangers. Morrison won in a shock victory.


Ultimately, the pub test that Morrison had utilised so skilfully, proved his undoing. In December 2019, Morrison famously left Australia for a Hawaiian holiday with his family while the rest of Australia grappled with the serious bushfires that destroyed homes and livelihoods in affected areas. Morrison on holiday was the picture of relaxation, giving the surfer’s “shaka” greeting with a stranger. All that was missing was a large lei garland around his neck. The country was burning and the prime minister was nowhere to be found.

The then treasurer, Josh Frydenberg’s, comments shortly after Morrison was discovered in Hawaii helped him to fail a significant pub test. There would be no repeats allowed. “The prime minister is overseas with his family,” he said. “He’s having a well deserved break and, obviously, it’s been a very busy year. He’ll be back at work shortly.”

Anthony Albanese often finds inspiration in the former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, who served from 1983 to 1991. Hawke was erudite and intelligent and, ironically, stopped drinking throughout his tenure as prime minister but he knew the value of the pub in getting a policy through with the Australian voter.

Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr understood Hawke well. “He probably used alcohol more than any public figure, any leader in our history. He was drunk a lot of the time. He obviously used alcohol as a way of bringing down barriers and gaining quick intimacy, steering people toward some emotion-laden compromise.”

In his retirement, Hawke was regularly cheered loudly for downing pints well into his eighties at the cricket. Would this Oxford-educated former prime minister have preferred cheers and backslaps for his significant achievements in economic policy and reconciliation with First Nations people? Almost certainly. Equally, they might not have been possible if he hadn’t been able to appeal to a wide cross-section of Australian voters.

Albanese has always been a fervent student of the pub test. Pubs in the inner-west of Sydney carry a lager bearing his name, just like his hero, Hawke. He is a legitimate lifelong South Sydney rugby league fan, who still turns up to his local community tennis club for a game. In the coming months, he will face his greatest pub test yet. Can he persuade the average Australian to support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament by October? So far, he is failing miserably but there is still plenty of time before final orders.