Inside Story

The making of a prime minister

How did Australia’s thirty-first PM make it to the Lodge?

Frank Bongiorno Extract 15 August 2023 5506 words

“Order, regularity and trust”: Anthony Albanese and his dog Toto waiting on Commonwealth members of the diplomatic corps at the Lodge in September last year. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Anthony Albanese says he has been underestimated his whole life. And perhaps he has. As he made his way up through the ranks of the Labor Party, few doubted that he was a scrapper willing to take up the fight for his side. His side — perhaps “tribe” is a better term — was Labor, but there were also the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Roman Catholic Church. These, says Albanese, were the three faiths of his people — the working class of inner Sydney — embodied for him in his beloved mother, Maryanne.

But Albanese was also that very modern species: the student politician who came to parliament via a career as a political staffer and party official. His only experience of paid work outside of professional politics occurred while he was a student. After university, he was employed as a staffer by that doyen of the Sydney left, Tom Uren. He married Carmel Tebbutt, who would also become a politician and rose to the position of deputy premier of New South Wales. He spent more than a quarter of a century in parliament before becoming prime minister. His was a long game, and there was nothing inevitable about where it led.

These were the outward expressions of Albanese’s rise: prominent in campus politics at the University of Sydney; NSW Young Labor president; rising political staffer; NSW Labor assistant general secretary at twenty-six, and therefore de facto leader of the left in the party machine; member for Grayndler at thirty-three. He would go on to hold senior positions in the shadow ministry during the Howard era and cabinet office under Rudd and Gillard, as well as being leader of the House. But Albanese’s more private world disclosed a complexity barely hinted at in these impressive career landmarks.

Albo — the nickname that attached to him from boyhood — was born in Sydney on 2 March 1963 and raised by his mother, a disability pensioner and Labor Party member, in public housing in Camperdown. The official story was that Anthony’s father, an Italian ship’s steward named Carlo, had died in a car accident soon after marrying his mother. They had met while Maryanne was travelling on an ocean liner to Britain.

Early in his teenage years, Anthony learnt from Maryanne that she had never married Carlo, and that he had not died. Nonetheless, Anthony made no attempt to find his father for many years. He was close to his mother, who held lofty ambitions for her son: she told friends Anthony would one day become prime minister. In the meantime, she had a short-lived and unhappy marriage to another man, whose surname Anthony briefly adopted before reverting to that of a father he had never met.

Albanese attended Catholic schools and then the University of Sydney, where he studied economics. The university had a broad left that took in a wide range of ideologies and affiliations, and Albo, a charismatic figure, got on well with people across the spectrum of radical politics. His affiliation, however, was with the ALP Club, and he was best known on campus for organising a successful campaign to defend the teaching of political economy, a program that offered a left-wing, Marxist-inflected alternative to neoclassical economics.

But Albo regarded grown-up Labor politics as the real game. He had joined the party in 1979, still at school, and would later rise through the ranks of the Young Labor organisation, which, unlike the NSW Labor Party, had a left majority.

Albo was determined that NSW Young Labor would remain left, and he displayed an early ability to round up the necessary numbers. The origins of the NSW Labor left, also known as the Steering Committee (and from 1989 as the Socialist Left), stretched back to the Labor split of the 1950s. Of its sub-factions, the “soft left” was closely associated with the Ferguson family: Jack, who was Neville Wran’s deputy premier, and his sons. The alternative and rival “hard left” was the group to which Albanese gravitated. While the right was their mutual foe, there was no love lost between the two left sections.

Anthony took over many responsibilities connected with his mother’s precarious health and finances. While mother and son were devoted to each other, the absence of his father shadowed Albanese’s life. Even the pronunciation of his name was unsettled, then as now.

Tom Uren, a former boxer, prisoner of war and leading minister in the Whitlam government, took him on to his staff and became a mentor and even something of a father figure. Uren was by this time an elder statesman of the NSW left but on the outer in the Hawke government, which had little interest in taking up the kind of ambitious policy associated with Uren’s time as urban and regional development minister (1972–75). A deep affection developed between the older and the younger man. Before the decade was through, Uren was publicly describing young Albo as a future Labor leader.

In 1989, Albanese won the position of assistant general secretary of the NSW Labor Party. This was no bit part. Having emerged in the early 1970s out of a power-sharing arrangement between the majority right and minority left factions, it was one of the toughest gigs in backroom politics. As the left’s man in the Sussex Street party office, the assistant general secretary could expect relentless obstruction, and not a little hostility; there was no pretence of comradeship across factional lines. On one occasion, while Albanese was overseas, his rivals from the right faction turned his office into a library and changed the locks.

But Albanese was already a tough political operator. For many ordinary Australians, their first encounter with him would have been in a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the 1994 election for mayor of Leichhardt, Rats in the Ranks, even though he remained off-screen. Albanese was alone among the main players in refusing to cooperate with the filmmakers and appear on-screen. In this, he showed an astuteness about the damage that might have been done to his political career if he had been seen as centrally involved in the plotting of what proved to be an unseemly struggle for a minor local office.

The future prime minister won preselection for the safe Labor seat of Grayndler ahead of the 1996 federal election that saw the defeat of the Keating Labor government by a resurgent Coalition under John Howard’s leadership. Normally, preselection would have been a near-guarantee of election. On this occasion, there were predictions that it might be more difficult because of the controversy aroused by the building of a third runway at Sydney Airport. Albanese faced a candidate from the No Aircraft Noise Party, who won enough of the vote to reduce the Labor candidate to a bare majority of the primary vote.

In his first speech to parliament, Albanese began by thanking his mother, who had raised him “under very difficult economic circumstances” and instilled in him “a strong sense of social justice and fairness.” His “politics as a democratic socialist,” he said, had “been developed from my experience in life.” He defended the public sector and criticised “strict adherence to dry economic philosophies.”

These were noble words, but he soon showed on the floor of the House his fighting instincts, honed in Sussex Street and party conferences at the Sydney Town Hall. In April 1998, he made a memorable attack on Howard: “You can trim the eyebrows; you can cap the teeth; you can cut the hair; you can put on different glasses; you can give him a ewe’s milk facial, for all I care; but, to paraphrase a gritty Australian saying, ‘same stuff, different bucket.’” The usual phrase would have been “same shit…” but Albanese was sufficiently familiar with parliamentary rules to know that he would not have got away with that.

He continued: “Here is a man who lived at home until he was thirty-two. You can imagine what he was like. Here were young Australians demonstrating against the Vietnam war, listening to the Doors, driving their tie-dyed kombi vans, and what was John Howard doing? He was at home with mum, wearing his shorts and long white socks, listening to Pat Boone albums and waiting for the Saturday night church dance.” It was very impolite but contributed to Albanese’s image as a bomb-thrower.

There was more to Albanese than such fun and games. He opposed a bill that Liberal parliamentarian Kevin Andrews introduced to overturn voluntary euthanasia legislation in the Northern Territory. He pursued reforms to allow same-sex couples to gain access to each other’s superannuation on the same basis as heterosexual couples. These years also provided Albanese with an opportunity to demonstrate his devotion to another part of that Sydney working-class trinity: he was centrally involved in the successful campaign to save South Sydney from the National Rugby League’s effort to get rid of it.

As Albanese’s standing in the party grew, his views on matters such as the leadership came to count for a great deal. He supported Kim Beazley in both of his periods of leadership (1996–2001 and 2005–06) and Simon Crean (2001–03), until the latter decided, without consulting him (or, indeed, the caucus), that Labor would oppose a new airport for western Sydney. He opposed Mark Latham’s ill-fated ascension to the leadership in December 2003 and three years later supported Beazley against Kevin Rudd while maintaining a strong relationship with the man who would take Labor to victory a year later.

He also gained increasingly important shadow ministries. After Labor lost the 1998 election, he was shadow parliamentary secretary for family and community services. Later, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and the arts were added. He arrived on the frontbench as shadow ageing and seniors minister after the 2001 election loss, followed by education and training, and then the environment. When Rudd became leader, he got the infrastructure and water portfolios. Having come to be seen as a skilled tactician, he rose to become manager of opposition business in the House.

Here was the story of a man playing to his own strengths and interests, rising steadily rather than as a shooting star (in contrast with Latham), building trust with straight-talking, discretion and competence, and wielding power and organising numbers in the party as an old-school factional leader.

Albanese’s marriage to Tebbutt, the birth of a son, Nathan, and the devastating death of his beloved mother in rapid succession in the early years of the new century mellowed him. He enjoyed warm friendships with some members of the opposition. And he commenced a search for the father he had never known. In a highly emotional encounter, he met an elderly Carlo on a visit to Italy in 2009. A missing part of his life fell into place.

Albanese was a heavy hitter in the Rudd government that came to power in 2007. With ministerial responsibilities covering infrastructure, transport, regional development and local government, he had an important role in a government that said it wanted to renew nation-building after years of neglect under Howard-era market fundamentalism.

The establishment of Infrastructure Australia was integral to this effort: there were major investments in road and rail, but the global financial crisis distracted the government from its larger ambitions towards everyday survival through quick, smaller-scale spending projects. Albanese, as a member of the left long sceptical of inflated claims for the value of markets, supported the thrust towards a more ambitious role for government.

Albanese was leader of the House — and therefore responsible for the smooth running of parliament — as well as a loyal Rudd supporter, despite his misgivings about some of the prime minister’s bad calls, notably the abandonment of legislation for an emissions trading scheme. He was dismayed as Rudd’s critics moved against the prime minister in mid 2010 in favour of the deputy, Julia Gillard. Albanese and Gillard had an association going back to student politics but had never been close. Albanese believed the switch ill-judged, but he took on the task of talking with Rudd to persuade him that he should not run in a leadership contest that he was destined to lose badly.

While known to be a loyal Rudd supporter, Albanese continued as a senior minister in Gillard’s government both before and after the 2010 election that sent Labor into a minority government facing a resurgent opposition led by Tony Abbott.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Albanese managed to avoid the impression that he was a plotter. Trusted on both sides of the bitter Rudd–Gillard rivalry, his reputation as a party man, his astute leadership of the House and his capabilities as a minister made him valuable to whoever was in office.

His factional leadership was another reason why he was to be taken seriously. Albanese’s value only increased when Labor, lacking a majority in the House, depended on the support of Greens and independents. He formed excellent relations with the independent parliamentarians on whom Labor depended for continuation in office. Some 561 pieces of legislation were passed during Gillard’s prime ministership, and each required someone to reach beyond the Labor Party to gather the numbers needed. That someone was often Albanese.

He also had the melancholy duty of engineering the replacement of Harry Jenkins as speaker with the Queensland Liberal National Party member Peter Slipper, a manoeuvre Albanese had devised to get Labor an extra vote in parliament. While many regretted the idea when Slipper became mired in scandal, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and Albanese conceived and executed the plan well.

Rudd’s destabilisation of Gillard’s leadership couldn’t but draw a figure of Albanese’s standing into the fray. Just how involved in the decline and fall of Gillard he became remains contentious. But when Rudd challenged Gillard’s leadership in February 2012, Albanese held a media conference in Sydney at which he shed tears for what the government had become. There were references to his mother and her three great faiths and to the values on which he had been raised. What the party had done in June 2010 in replacing Rudd with Gillard was wrong, he said, and he would now be voting for Rudd. “I like fighting Tories — that’s what I do,” he added.

It was a supreme performance of the party man, an old-fashioned demonstration of tribal loyalty in an era of fluid identities and shifting allegiances. Gillard had refused his offer to resign, she won the leadership vote, and Albanese continued as a minister in a tired, staggering government.

Rudd defeated Gillard in a second bid to return to the leadership on 26 June 2013. Nobody accuses Albanese of doing the numbers for Rudd, yet few doubt that his involvement behind the scenes must have been significant. Those who recalled Rats in the Ranks might have been reminded of Albanese’s presence during that drama, always off-screen but a player nonetheless. Albanese’s reward came with the office of deputy prime minister. He was conscious of the honour. As so often at significant moments in his career, he would return to where he had come from: “It says a great thing about our nation that the son of a parent who grew up in a council house in Sydney could be deputy prime minister.”

That was true, but he would have only a few weeks in the job. On 7 September, the government was swept from office and Abbott became prime minister. There were small consolation prizes for Albanese: an inner-city pub had named a beer after him, and he had been given the chance to host the ABC’s music video program Rage.

Rudd had left a parting gift. The parliamentary leadership was now to be decided, in part, by a vote of the ALP’s rank and file. Party members’ votes would count for half the weighting; those of a diminished caucus would make up the other half. Bill Shorten, a figure from the Victorian right, contested the leadership; so did Albanese, representing the left. There were weeks of speeches and debates. Most agree that the ritual was a positive one, generating friendliness and goodwill, and engaging ordinary members in a novel outbreak of party democracy. Indeed, the experiment was seemingly so successful that it has never been repeated.

Albanese won the rank­and-file vote easily, but Shorten gained sufficient support in caucus to win the contest. Several members of the left voted for Shorten; Albanese was left to lick his wounds just ahead of a final, emotional visit to his dying father in Italy.

In running for the leadership, Albanese had formally announced that he regarded himself as a potential future prime minister. Inevitably, and even allowing for the protections that Rudd’s reforms offered an incumbent leader between parliamentary elections, that also made him the most obvious alternative to Shorten. Whenever Shorten was faring poorly in public esteem, there would be chatter about the possibility of an Albanese leadership.

Meanwhile, Albanese worked hard to raise his public profile, to show that he was neither just a Sydney brawler nor a man destined to rise no higher than second-rank portfolios. His profile was raised by a regular slot on Nine’s Today with his Liberal Party friend Christopher Pyne. He cooperated with a biography written by leading journalist Karen Middleton, which was published in 2016. (I have relied on it, among other sources, for information.) A photograph of a young and handsome Albanese from 1985 — dubbed “Hot Albo” — circulated widely on social media from the time of the leadership election of 2013, quite obviously with his cooperation.

Albo also cultivated an image of retro hipness as “DJ Albo,” performing the role of disc jockey at pubs and clubs — sometimes for charity, sometimes as a party fundraiser — with an emphasis on 1980s and 1990s numbers. He assured journalists that it was “part of who I am” and not a publicity stunt aimed at winning over younger voters. In truth, it was likely something of both.

Labor’s strong performance at the 2016 double dissolution election largely put paid to chatter of a change of leaders. Shorten had almost edged out Malcolm Turnbull, who seemed a beaten and bitter man on election night. In the circumstances, Albanese quickly ruled out any challenge to Shorten, who therefore retained the leadership unopposed.

In the years ahead, prominent members of the political class found it increasingly hard to visualise a future Albanese prime ministership. Some considered him worthy of it but thought that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others believed that he had kept too many of his old left-wing sympathies. Inevitably, new prospective leaders gained attention, notably Tanya Plibersek, a fellow member of the NSW left. But Albanese had the virtue of patience. His views might have become milder over the years, but he had the lodestar of his upbringing. It was hard to accuse him of believing in nothing, of being a mere careerist. He could also sound the right note at the right time. His 2018 Whitlam Oration was widely perceived as a call for the party to “engage constructively with businesses” at a time when Shorten’s rhetoric seemed likely to alienate “the big end of town.”

He was entering an era, too, in which the political insider was on the nose. Albanese celebrated twenty years in parliament in 2016, managing in that year to hold off a challenge in his electorate from the Greens after a redistribution in their favour. The Greens challenger professed radical ideas of a kind that might once have been close to those of a younger Albanese. Albanese’s marriage to Tebbutt ended in early 2019 — they had been together for three decades and married for nineteen years.

Both personally and professionally, Albanese seemed to have reached a crossroads. As the Coalition government lurched from one crisis to the next, and from one leader to the next — Malcolm Turnbull to Scott Morrison in 2018 — a Shorten Labor government seemed more likely than not. A Labor victory at the 2019 election would have ended any prospect of an Albanese prime ministership.

Since September 2013 Albanese had been shadow infrastructure and transport minister, also covering tourism — responsibility for cities was added in 2014. But the best he could look forward to in a Shorten government was a role of secondary importance, doing the kinds of things he had done before. He was not close to Shorten and was never part of his inner circle; Albanese was only brought onto the tactics committee in 2016, ahead of that year’s election.

Shorten and Labor’s shock loss at the 2019 election changed things entirely; Morrison retained the prime ministership and Albanese assumed the Labor leadership without a contest. The Victorian right’s Richard Marles was his deputy. Albanese had secured the prize he coveted in vain in 2013, but the pathway to the prime ministership, even in the third term of a deeply mediocre government, looked treacherous. Morrison’s majority was, like Turnbull’s had been, a small one, but the margins needed to win many seats had blown out, especially in Queensland.

Labor jettisoned the policies that were seen to have created trouble at the recent election, working hard to counter a perception that its environmental policies were a danger to job opportunities without alienating too many voters committed to countering global heating. And it waved through income tax cuts that would, when they reached their third stage in 2024, involve large gains for high-income earners.

Morrison’s ill-judged response to the devastating bushfires during the summer of 2019–20 gave Albanese and Labor their first chance to gain ground. Morrison was taking a family holiday in Hawaii while the fires raged. The poor impression created by his absence was compounded by his office’s decision to obfuscate about his whereabouts.

Albanese, meanwhile, was on duty and conspicuous in the media, giving interviews, visiting bushfire sites and serving meals to firefighters. He avoided an aggressive partisanship, allowing Morrison to make, and then suffer for, his own errors. Albanese also called for volunteer firefighters to receive financial compensation for their efforts. It was a masterly performance.

After the bushfires came the Covid-19 pandemic. These were dark days, but an unexpected opportunity for Morrison to rebuild his credibility. The government instituted measures that helped avert both mass death and economic disaster. The formation of a national cabinet that included leaders of all state and territory governments excluded Albanese as opposition leader.

Inevitably, the decision-makers hogged the limelight, Morrison’s own approval rating recovered, and Albanese disappeared from public consciousness. Disruption of the normal schedule of parliamentary sittings also reduced visibility. But in retrospect, Albanese’s low profile was advantageous. It allowed him to maintain a decent distance from the government, which was beneficial when things eventually went wrong.

In the meantime, Albanese was able to offer bipartisanship on most major matters and to appear constructive while his party quietly went about developing new policies. Labor’s victory in a by-election in Eden-Monaro in July 2020 might have helped his leadership survive in dark times. He had formed a new romantic relationship, too, with Jodie Haydon, which boosted his personal happiness.

But a month after that by-election, several leading colleagues had a meeting with him that was also a warning: the party would be defeated if an election were to be held then, and he needed to improve his performance. In the wider commentariat, too, were several who thought Albanese not up to it. Even in May 2021, when Labor’s prospects looked rather better, political historian and journalist Chris Wallace thought Albanese “a bloke past his prime.”

At the end of 2020, Morrison appeared to be coasting towards another victory, and some suspected he might call an election sooner rather than later. In January 2021, Albanese was badly injured but fortunate to survive a car accident when a young driver hit his car in Sydney. The year that followed, however, saw Albanese recover both his personal health and his political fortunes. Morrison muddled pandemic management; Albanese stepped up his criticism, arguing that the prime minister had “two jobs,” quarantine and vaccination, and that he had failed at both. A new round of restrictions became “Morrison’s lockdowns.” Meanwhile, Albanese and Labor benefited from the perception that the government was hostile to measures to counter global warming, to women’s rights, and to clean and accountable government.

Labor entered the campaign for the 21 May 2022 election ahead in the polls and modest favourites to win. Albanese seemed to many to lack star quality, but he looked good, having lost weight and acquired stylish glasses. While no one could discern any great wave of enthusiasm, Labor seemed to have a fair prospect of at least minority government. Albanese has a reputation for an excellent memory, especially for figures, so it was remarkable that early in the campaign he found himself unable to recall the Reserve Bank’s cash rate during a media conference. The unemployment rate also eluded him. The media were ruthless, and Morrison pounced, presenting this lapse as evidence of Albanese’s unfitness for the prime ministership.

When, later in the campaign, Albanese responded to another question from a journalist that he believed the minimum wage should be increased at the same rate as the present level of inflation, 5.1 per cent, there was initially adverse media reaction, with Morrison now calling him a “loose unit.” In reality, Albanese’s response helped to provide Labor’s campaign with some much-needed ballast amid the activities of a media pack that seemed more interested in testing his memory than his policies.

Albanese performed effectively in the three formal debates. Labor ran a professional and disciplined campaign under national secretary Paul Erickson and, notwithstanding the occasional setback, by election day Albanese had every reason to be hopeful.

Election night began at Albanese’s Marrickville home with Penny Wong, a factional colleague, close confidant and shadow foreign minister. She would later introduce Albanese when he made his victory speech. As he had done on several occasions in the campaign, Albanese spoke feelingly of his mother, and he committed his government to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for a First Nations Voice to Parliament, a treaty and truth-telling.

Labor had won a narrow majority, with a primary vote in the low thirties. Independents and Greens had taken seats, mainly from the Liberals, but the size of the crossbench was widely interpreted as a symptom of disillusionment with the old parties and an old politics. Albanese, a factional warrior from way back, in some ways seemed an unlikely herald of a new order. But he had come a long way since his 1998 excoriation of John Howard as the latest in the Liberals’ “pantheon of chinless blue bloods and suburban accountants.” Albanese could now have passed for a suburban accountant himself.

Still, he hit the ground running. He and four colleagues were sworn in the Monday following the election, just ahead of an overseas visit to Tokyo for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”) with Japan, India and the United States. High in the government’s early priorities was repairing Australia’s international relationships, including with France — which resented what it saw as Morrison’s dishonesty over the purchase of submarines — and with China, which had placed relations with Australia in the deep freeze.

Albanese — as well as foreign minister Wong and defence minister Marles — spent a good deal of time overseas in the early weeks of the new government, during what was a period of considerable international turbulence following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wong visited several Pacific nations in an effort to counter Chinese influence in the region. Albanese undertook a tightly controlled visit to Ukraine himself.

Rising inflation, accompanied by climbing interest rates, contributed to the most serious cost-of-living crisis in three decades. Energy prices were particularly troublesome, especially in light of Labor’s pre-election commitment to get prices down. In December 2022, after a tussle between the minister, Chris Bowen, and energy companies extending over several months, the government used its powers to intervene directly in the energy market to cap coal and gas prices.

An October 2022 budget delivered by treasurer Jim Chalmers advanced the implementation of election commitments in areas such as the extension of paid parental leave, higher subsidies for childcare, and more social and affordable housing. A May 2023 budget would offer further cost-of-living relief for the most vulnerable and a boost to Medicare bulkbilling. The parliament also agreed to industrial relations reforms intended to strengthen enterprise bargaining and boost wages, especially for women. A bill for the long-anticipated and long-delayed federal anti-corruption commission passed before Christmas 2022.

In the first year of the government, there were consultations and inquiries across a wide range of areas, including a royal commission into robodebt, the Coalition government’s illegal effort to extract money from welfare recipients by raising fictional debts against their names, created by averaging their income over a year. The Reserve Bank, criticised for its recent interest rate hikes when its governor had previously given the impression an increase was unlikely before 2024, was also the subject of an inquiry, as was Australia’s immigration system and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

A consultation was launched on a proposal for an Australian Universities Accord, and another led to the launch of a new cultural policy, Revive, followed by a major financial boost to the national collecting institutions. And amid all this, the parliament found time for a two-week period of mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Albanese attended the coronation of Charles III in May 2023.

The emphasis was on order, regularity and trust — a rebuke to the Morrison government but also, arguably, to the Rudd and Gillard era. Albanese had some of the instincts of the “lone wolf,” as journalist Katharine Murphy put it, but his approach in both opposition and government had become increasingly collaborative. He relied on the competence of a strong frontbench, and he made it clear that he wanted to re-establish Labor as the natural party of government.

Like Hawke, even in his first year Albanese was criticised for being too moderate, too cautious in pushing back on Coalition-era initiatives, too attached to old ways. Several of the new independent parliamentarians expressed outrage when the government reduced their staffing entitlements. There were also criticisms, from the outset, that Labor’s middle path on the shift from fossil fuels to renewables lacked sufficient ambition.

In its defence policy, the government added crucial detail to the bare bones of the Morrison government’s AUKUS agreement, with expensive plans for nuclear-powered submarines. Critics argued that the government was surrendering Australia’s sovereignty to the United States, an accusation that Albanese and Marles denied.

The government introduced only modest increases to JobSeeker — the unemployment benefit — in its May 2023 budget, which delivered a small surplus that the treasurer said was likely to be a one-off. Yet it was committed to fulfilling its pre-election promise not to dismantle the Morrison government’s stage three tax cuts, despite the windfall they would offer the wealthy. Albanese wanted to avoid accusations of breaking a core election promise, or of profligacy.

In one area in particular, however, his approach seemed to owe more to Whitlam-era idealism than to the more cautious and pragmatic Hawke tradition. The Albanese government’s commitment to holding a referendum on the First Nations Voice to Parliament before the end of 2023 remained steadfast, even as an otherwise demoralised opposition, led by Peter Dutton, did its best to use obstructionism as a means of reviving the Coalition’s political fortunes.

These had declined to alarming levels for the Liberal Party especially, and voters were unimpressed by its attempts to lay blame for the nation’s difficulties, such as the rising cost of living, at Albanese’s feet. At a by-election on 1 April 2023 for the outer-suburban Melbourne seat of Aston, long held by the Liberals and recently vacated by scandal-plagued ex-minister Alan Tudge, Labor won a two-party-preferred swing of more than six percentage points. It was the first time since 1920 that a federal government had managed to win a seat in such circumstances.

It was hard not to read into that result a wider verdict on the performance of the government. Commentators wrote of a sense that the country was being run by “adults,” and Albanese’s own image as a likeable, trustworthy and competent leader contributed something to that impression. We do not yet know if Anthony Albanese will be a short- or long-term leader — the last in the procession of two-to-four-year prime ministers that we have had since Howard, or a more lasting proposition. His age works against Howard-like longevity, but he could well emulate Hawke’s eight years. •

This is an edited extract from the new edition of The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers from Barton to Albanese, by Mungo MacCallum and and Frank Bongiorno, published this month by Black Inc. Inside Story readers can order a copy at a 30 per cent discount by using the code InsideStory at checkout here.