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A decent man with a modest plan: Is Anthony Albanese the Prime Minister Australia needs?

Is Anthony Albanese about to become Australia's next Prime Minister? Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Is Anthony Albanese about to become Australia's next Prime Minister? Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Addi Road is a kind of sanctuary for Anthony Albanese.

The Labor leader often visits the community centre and food relief operation, run out of an old army barracks in the part of Sydney's inner west which he's represented in Parliament for more than 25 years.

The charity's mission speaks to both Albanese's past and his ambition for the future.

Raised in public housing, he's promised no one will be left behind if he's elected Prime Minister.

It's perhaps no surprise he's retreated here after another stumble on the election campaign trail the previous day - this time his failure to recite the six points of his NDIS policy at the insistence of a hostile press pack.

These are busy times at Addi Road.

About 280,000 hampers left the food pantry in 2021, more than double the number than in the year before COVID-19.

Anthony Albanese chats to a child who gatecrashed one his campaign press conferences. Picture: AAP

Anthony Albanese chats to a child who gatecrashed one his campaign press conferences. Picture: AAP

The centre's chief executive, Rosanna Barbero, thought demand would tail off as the economy reopened and people returned to work.

It hasn't. It's gone up, as cost-of-living pressures tighten.

When he fronts the media, Albanese repeats his mantra: "No one left behind, and no one held back. That is Labor's approach."

A journalist reminds the Labor leader that he's refused to commit to review, let alone raise, the rate of Jobseeker, the $45-a-day payment for adults out of a job. It's the sort of promise which could help some of those turning to food relief.

But Albanese offers his usual response: "We will consider what we can do in every budget."

The stance appears to conflict with his mantra. But it's consistent with his strategy, and the image being projected as he treads a careful path toward May 21.

A decent man. A modest plan. Not Scott Morrison.

Is he up for it?

Albanese during a campaign stop at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Albanese during a campaign stop at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Written off by critics and some of his colleagues 18 months ago, Anthony Albanese is on the precipice of ending Labor's eight years in electoral exile.

Labor needs a net gain of seven seats next Saturday to govern in its own right.

The task seemed impossible for a while, as the Coalition's stocks rose and the Labor leader languished in obscurity.

But as the Coalition's shine of incumbency through the COVID-19 pandemic started to fade, and the scandals and missteps of the Morrison government tallied up, Labor's prospects have risen.

Yet doubts have always surrounded its leader: questions of competency, of capacity to lead and inspire.

Albanese might have shed 20 kilograms and declared himself prepared for the election fight, but he can't match Morrison's pace and energy on the the campaign trail.

Some observers have described the week Albanese spent in COVID isolation, when his more polished colleagues including Jim Chalmers, Jason Clare and Penny Wong took centre stage, as a positive rather than a negative.

His stumbles have invited the question: Is Albanese up for it?

"I've been underestimated my whole life," Albanese said at a press conference in Brisbane, held after opinion polls revealed his personal rating has slumped after the opening-day unemployment gaffe.

If Labor wins, the 59-year-old will join Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd as the only Labor leaders to have taken the party from opposition into government since World War II.

Anthony Albanese was written off by critics and even some of his colleagues. But now he's on the precipice of leading Labor out of opposition. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Anthony Albanese was written off by critics and even some of his colleagues. But now he's on the precipice of leading Labor out of opposition. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd came to power running presidential-style campaigns built around their personal charisma, says ANU professor and co-author of A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Frank Bongiorno.

The three men were authoritative figures, the types of leaders who rubbed up against the traditional Labor culture.

"Albanese is a very different figure from all of those," Bongiorno says, likening Albanese's style to that of wartime Labor prime minister John Curtin.

Bongiorno considers Albanese a test case in whether a low-profile federal Labor leader can succeed against an unpopular opponent, as Steve Bracks and Annastacia Palaszczuk did at a state level.

Albanese has made his unpopular opponent - Morrison - a central figure in his campaign pitch.

He's attacked through contrast, casting himself as the Prime Minister's opposite: a leader who'll show up, rather than shirk responsibility.

'He built a bridge'

"A left-wing inner-city bomb thrower" was the phrase former Liberal prime minister John Howard used to describe Albanese in a Mother's Day assault in the News Corp tabloids.

Scott Morrison similarly paints the Labor leader as a radical leftist, attempting to convince voters his opponent is too extreme to run the country.

A product of the NSW Left faction, Albanese has pushed progressive causes throughout his political career, including opposing asylum seeker boat turn-backs in 2015 (a position he no longer holds).

Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese butted heads during their time in politics. But Fitzgibbon says the Labor leader has brought the party together. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese butted heads during their time in politics. But Fitzgibbon says the Labor leader has brought the party together. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Colleagues on either side of the party's divide say Albanese has been a unifying figure since taking over as leader after the 2019 defeat.

"I think what he's done best is build the bridge between the diverse wings of the party," says retiring Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who entered Parliament alongside Albanese in 1996.

"We represent people living in both Surry Hills and Singleton, and to do that successfully, you have to accommodate all views, needs and aspirations.

"That is something Scott Morrison, ironically, is struggling with himself.

"I think Anthony Albanese has built that bridge very well ... and if he wins on May 21 it will be thanks to that capacity more than anything else."

Fitzgibbon quit Labor's frontbench in 2020, convinced it would sleepwalk into another election defeat unless it shifted to the centre on issues including climate action.

Anthony's lived a Labor life, you know, that is who he is.

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher

The NSW Right faction heavyweight was far more upbeat about Labor's hopes when he announced last September that he wouldn't contest the next election.

In the period between the two events, Labor dumped its negative gearing changes and agreed to back tax cuts for high-income earners. The franking credits policy had already been ditched.

The opposition later announced a 2030 emissions-reduction target below what Bill Shorten took to the 2019 election, dumped its electric vehicle sales target and declared its full and unequivocal support for the mining sector.

Labor has also shelved its plan to pay superannuation on paid parental leave, conceding that it wouldn't promise policies it wasn't certain it could deliver.

Anthony Albanese visits the Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine outside Singleton during the campaign. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Anthony Albanese visits the Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine outside Singleton during the campaign. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The stripped-down policy agenda was a recommendation from Labor's internal review into Shorten's surprise election defeat.

The "small target" strategy has limited Labor's exposure to attacks on the policy front, but has also left Albanese open to accusations that he doesn't have a plan or a vision.

Albanese bristles at suggestions that he's without an agenda, framing his $5.4 billion childcare reforms, his plan to modernise the nation's electricity grid and his proposed investments in local manufacturing as nation-shaping initiatives.

The Labor leader says he's thinking about not just this election, but the next one. He talks about leaving a legacy, and seems baffled at Morrison's ambivalence towards the idea of one.

"Why would you do this job if you did not want to lead Australia to be better?" Albanese said in a speech on May 7.

'He's lived a Labor life'

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher describes Anthony Albanese as "incredibly decent". Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher describes Anthony Albanese as "incredibly decent". Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Albanese talks often about being raised by a single mother in a council flat in Camperdown.

His upbringing is at the heart of his pitch to become prime minister, an authentic narrative through which he explains himself, and his vision, for Australia.

He also uses it to push back.

"This is personal for me," thundered Albanese in the press conference after the NDIS stumble, as he described how his late mother Maryanne - who suffered from undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis - was forced to descend the staircase on her backside because she didn't have the type of support the scheme provides.

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher describes her colleague as "incredibly decent", a characteristic she says is undervalued in political leaders.

Gallagher says Albanese's upbringing means he understands the real-life implications of the political rows he's fighting.

She cites the wages debate which has erupted in the final fortnight of the campaign, in which the Labor leader is backing an increase to the minimum wage to match skyrocketing inflation.

"He understands the impact for people living hand-to-mouth is real ... because he's been there," she says.

"Anthony's lived a Labor life, you know, that is who he is. It's where he comes from, and it's what motivates him," she says.

'They need a better government' 

Anthony Albanese addresses the party faithful at a campaign rally in Launceston. Picture: AAP

Anthony Albanese addresses the party faithful at a campaign rally in Launceston. Picture: AAP

The auditorium at Launceston's Tramshed function centre is filled with Labor supporters holding "ALBO 2022" and "Strengthen Medicare" placards.

The faithful are ready to be roused by the man they hope will soon become Australia's prime minister.

Over the course of a 35-minute speech, a mix of positive vision and piercing attack, there are claps, cheers, boos, cries of "shame" and spurts of laughter.

But aside from when the Labor leader walks on and off the stage, the supporters remain in their chairs.

Albanese isn't the sort of public speaker whose words lift an audience - even one as partisan as this - to their feet. He doesn't captivate. He's not magnetic.

His agenda has been characterised as similarly uninspiring.

Albanese's offering was perhaps best summed up not in this address to Labor loyalists, but at the end of a speech to a business luncheon in Sydney two days earlier.

Speaking at venue not far from Camperdown, the Labor leader said his childhood wouldn't have been possible without "good government".

He spoke of those who just wanted a fair go in life.

"They just want to get ahead. Be rewarded for their hard work. Live a good life. Set their kids up to fulfil their potential," he said.

"To make that possible, they need a better government."

This story A decent man with a modest plan: Albanese's attack is his contrast to Morrison first appeared on The Canberra Times.