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Looking for Albanese

Nov 4, 2019 • 16m38s

Anthony Albanese was shaped by the circumstances of his childhood. The question now is if his working-class background can help Labor reconnect to its working-class base.

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Looking for Albanese

114 • Nov 4, 2019

Looking for Albanese

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

Anthony Albanese was shaped by the circumstances of his childhood: a single mother, a council house, a love of the Labor Party. The question now is if his working-class background can help the ALP reconnect to its working-class base. James Button on making sense of the leader of the Opposition.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

So James, what do you think we need to know about Anthony Albanese to understand him and his character?

JAMES:

I think one good thing to know about Albanese is his childhood, his upbringing. He grew up in Camperdown, just south of the Sydney CBD, in an area that is very gentrified today but when he was growing up was still very much a part of working class inner Sydney.

ELIZABETH:

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist, who joined the ALP in 2011. He recently wrote about Anthony Albanese for The Monthly.

JAMES:

He’s the only child of a single mum, she was pretty young when she had him.

His mother was a very optimistic positive person he says but she was not well, so he had to do a lot of things for her including - because she had rheumatoid arthritis - he had to often like, cut up her meals, write letters for her.

You know, he would get home and sometimes she would have gone to hospital and he wouldn’t have known where she was. As he said to me, when you’re the child of a single parent, you grow up very fast, especially when you need to look after that person.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“I grew up in a city council - it was then- flat in Camperdown with a single mum who was on a disability pension. I understand that Labor governments make a real difference to people's lives…”

JAMES:

He famously says, I was raised in three great faiths: the Catholic Church, South Sydney Rugby League Club and the ALP.

His mum was a member of the ALP so, even at the age of 12 he’d been on a protest against the sacking of Gough Whitlam. You know, his mother and he had joined a rent strike in Camperdown to protest the selling off of council houses. She was one of those people who believed in the Labour party for what it did for working people rather than her own personal advancement.

In his office, her Labor Party 40 year life membership certificate is on his wall. Her crockery is in a sideboard in his office in Sydney. There's clearly... that bond is still very much ongoing, even though Marianne, his mother, died in 2002, a long time ago. And he still visits her grave once a month.

ELIZABETH:

When do the politics of the Labor party crystallise for him personally, do you think?

JAMES:

So, Where he grew up was right next to Sydney University, but nobody from his world went to Sydney University. And he reckons he was the first person in his community in Camperdown to get past year 10, let alone go to University. He was a political beast, animal, from a very early age in life, and then at University, he was really involved in student politics.
Both anger and pragmatism were part of his early make up as a political figure. And I’m guessing here but I think that anger would have been ignited in a way by the experience of being a sort of working class boy in a more middle class world, which is the world of the University. Julia Gillard says in Karen Middleton's biography of Albanese, at University he was very much a kind of militant, ‘I’m the working class guy, you’re all the middle class wankers’, and, you know, he played on that a lot, I think.

ELIZABETH:

Who did Albanese become close to in those years at university and as he kind of enters into the party more fully?

JAMES:

As a good friend of Albanese's Darcy Byrne, said to me (Darcy Byrne is the mayor of the inner-West Council there)... He said, to understand Albanese, you gotta understand the role of two figures in his life. His mother and Tom Uren.
So, after he left University, he pretty quickly went to work for Tom Uren, who was at that time a minister in the Hawke government. Uren was a huge figure and remains a kind of legend in Labor Party politics. He'd been a boxer as a young man, he’d grown up in Balmain, pretty close to where Albanese grew up. He'd been on the Burma RailRoad. He spoke his mind. And he used to say to Albanese, ‘there is no progress in hate’ - a famous line of Martin Luther King’s. Albanese says that Uren taught him how to get past anger, how not to be subsumed by anger.

The great opportunity that Uren opens up for Albanese is the access to the Canberra world. So he's been a student politician, but that's pretty much it. And the first time he's ever been on a plane is the first time he flies from Sydney to Canberra. And when the Commonwealth car picks him up in Camperdown to take him to the airport, the whole street comes out to have a look, because this is not usual practice in that part of Camperdown.

So he’s got this close relationship with his mother, but in all those formative years growing up, he has no father.
He thinks his father has died in a car accident. At the age of 14 Marianne tells her son the truth, which is that when she went on a trip to the UK at the age of 25 on a boat she had a fling with this steward called Carlo Albanese, an Italian. And, uh... Anthony is the result of that relationship.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“I guess my first response was to say well, he didn't really care about me so I would just get on with life to confirm to my mother that she was all I needed…”

JAMES:

Later in life, he discovers that his father is still alive.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“It’s a moment I’ll never forget, she said, ‘we found him.’”

JAMES:

And he makes a journey to Italy to be reunited with this man.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“The door opened and he opened his arms to me and we embraced.”

JAMES:

Carlo died some years after, but they actually managed to build some kind of late relationship.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

James, you’ve recently profiled Anthony Albanese for The Monthly. When did Albanese realise that he could be a leader of the Labor Party, or that he would like to be?

JAMES:

Albanese, who's this bloke who never expressed interest in running for the leadership, had always been this loyal number two, loyal lieutenant to Kim Beazley, to Kevin Rudd and, you know, many other figures. When he's trying to make up his mind after the 2013 election loss, there's going to be an election for the leader. He's pulling up to Parliament House, and he gets a call from Tom Uren. Ninety two years old. And Albanese asks him, what should I do and Uren says “you've got to do it. You've got to run for the leader. You gotta do it for your class, for your people. You're the leader we need.”
And Albanese says that's the moment when he really finally unequivocally decides to step out from behind the, you know, the number two position and actually put up his hand to run for the leadership.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“I firmly believe that I’m the best candidate to lead Labor back into government at the next election… I think I’m up to a hard job…”

JAMES:

He loses that contest to Bill Shorten in 2013. But I think from that point on, he really wants to be leader of the party.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Bill’s a friend of mine, he would make a very good leader.”

JAMES:

So since World War II, there have been three leaders who have taken Labor from opposition into government: Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd. And those three men, very different in many ways, but they share some characteristics - they were all very charismatic, all driven from a very young age to be leader, and all somehow at odds with the party. All of them reassured voters that they would keep the ALP’s more wayward instincts in check.
Albanese is not like those three figures. He doesn't have the same overt drive and he's not the same charismatic figure in the way that they all were. He's very much a creature of the party, he's very versed in the kind of tribal culture of the ALP, its ways, its folklore, all of that. He's really, he’s a political lifer. He's a party insider. So he’s not like those figures. Therefore, can he can he be the fourth to bring Labor from opposition into government? That's the question.

ELIZABETH:

You recently spent a day with Albaneese. Can you describe what you saw? What’s it like to interact with him?

JAMES:

What astonished me is the kind of intensity of the political life.
It started with a breakfast with the Business Council at seven in the morning, and it ended late that night with the mid midwinter press gallery ball. In between, he probably had about 14 meetings. He did an hour long interview with Mark Riley from Channel 7.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Always good to talk with you Mark….”

JAMES:

He spoke with Olivia Newton John about funding for her cancer institute in Melbourne. He spoke with a pensioner's representative with the ABC, he had a tactics meeting about Question Time.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Maybe you could give her $20m the OAG needs… yeah.”

JAMES:

In the middle of it, it transpired that Pauline Hanson was gonna be appointed to this committee.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“He has unilaterally, along with Pauline Hanson, done a deal.”

JAMES:

And what struck me, Elizabeth, that all this is when do MP’s ever get time to think? You know… this tsunami of events and meetings coming at them. One of the phenomena of modern politics is the endless campaign. Morrison is still campaigning.

If you watch Question Time, Morrison’s lines are all about the union movement rules, Albanese can’t even dispose of John Setka, Labour can’t be trusted to manage the economy - lines from the election.
The Labor Party's been in parliament, has been pretty quiet since the election. Quite a lot of people in the Labor Party are saying, has he missed his moment? Albanese's response to that is, you know, people need to hold their nerve. Labor's just experienced a catastrophic defeat. Lowest primary vote since the 1930s. It needs to slow down, think about its policies. People out there don't care at all. People in the inner city, the people who are very focused on politics, want to see labor having a stoush with Morrison out there. People just couldn't care less that this is Albanese's calculation. More than that, they actually think that the of endless biffo in Canberra, the denunciations of people as liars and cheats and all of that actually puts people off. And his strategy is actually, as he says, to hasten slowly to go after issues based on the kind of evidence, in fact, and really try and pin the government down and expose the government's poor performance on the economy in particular, but across the board.

So he’s started to make these speeches, these umm this series of vision statements and the first one last week. Gave him an opportunity to speak to the economic challenge and also to the challenge of climate change. It started to sketch out, I felt a way to talk about economic issues and about climate change at the same time.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Blue collar jobs being driven by the renewable energy revolution which is an international phenomenon.”

JAMES:

Ah we'll see if that gets him the attention, because modern politics is all about gaining momentum and holding that momentum and eventually somehow psyching out your opponent because you have that kind of momentum and energy behind you. His task, Albanese's task now is to get that kind of engine ticking over and building up a sense of labor being a… a really compelling alternative to, to the coalition.

I would say that there has been. A degree of disquiet and even disappointment amongst Labor people about his performance so far. I feel that's hasty. To be simplistic. Labor will return ruthlessly to an economic agenda in the next election. There is no doubt about that.

ELIZABETH:

I don't want to talk too much about the election, but how true is the view that Labor lost it because it lost the working class?

JAMES:

So that's very interesting figures on this. Ben Phillips in the Financial Review showed that three groups that swung really strongly against labor were people who earn less than a hundred thousand dollars a year. People who don't hold tertiary degrees and people who come from religious backgrounds, particularly Christian.

So there is really substantial concern in the Labor Party now that they are losing their traditional voters. So how does it, how does it remedy that, that is what is very much on their minds at the moment.

ELIZABETH:

Given Albanese's roots, do you think that he's in a particularly good position to recapture those working class voters, that traditional Labor base?

JAMES:

Yeah I do, I think he is. He speaks with a… sort of confidence, laconic, vernacular.

When he was infrastructure minister, he spent a lot of time out in Australia opening bridges, roads, ports. Remember it was the period after the global financial crisis when Labor was pumping a lot of money into infrastructure projects. And so his name is on plaques all over Australia. And I actually think that in that period, he spent a lot of time out in Australia just talking to people. And I think he felt that he was good at it. So I think this is a real potential strength of his. I think his own background gives him gives him, gives him an opportunity. I mean, he's not a working, as he would say himself, he’s not a working class person anymore. But he said a labor agenda should speak to people in Marrickville, in Mareeba and in some other 'M' place... I don't remember. But you know, he is, that's his challenge now.

ELIZABETH:

James, thank you so much.

JAMES:

It's a pleasure, Elizabeth.

[MUSIC ENDS]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:
Victoria Police have publicly reprimanded an officer for posting content with white supremacist associations to his personal social media accounts. The officer is also thought to have used gestures that many interpreted as a "white power" symbol, following clashes with protesters outside an international mining conference in Melbourne last week. This is the second time in recent days that the police have apologised for the conduct of an officer at the conference, after accusations of shoving, verbal taunts and the use of pepper spray and batons.
And the health minister, Greg Hunt, has announced that a quote "significant package" will be delivered to the aged care sector before Christmas -- a response to the Royal Commissions scathing interim report that was handed down late last week. The report stated that a commitment of $2.5b would be necessary to fund those currently on the waiting list for home care packages, though when asked, Hunt did not put a figure on the government's funding package. Hunt also acknowledged the use of chemical restraints as a core area of concern, although he did not specify the changes currently being discussed.

Just a note, 7am will be off tomorrow for the Melbourne Cup holiday.

I'm Elizabeth Kulas, see you Wednesday.

Anthony Albanese was shaped by the circumstances of his childhood: a single mother, a council house, a love of the Labor Party. The question now is if his working-class background can help the ALP reconnect to its working-class base. James Button on making sense of the leader of the Opposition.

Guest: Journalist and former speechwriter James Button.

Background reading:

Picking up the pieces in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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114: Looking for Albanese