Just hours after Bill Shorten was consigned to the electoral coffin, Albanese fronted the Unity Hall Hotel in the inner Sydney suburb of Balmain, which the Labor Party claims as one of its birthplaces. The other is the Tree of Knowledge in the central Queensland town of Barcaldine, a site that represents troubling symbolism for today’s ALP as the party reels from a brutal electoral rejection by large parts of regional Australia.
“I know what it’s like to do it tough,” declared Albanese, referring to his childhood, living with a single mother in public housing in the inner Sydney suburb of Camperdown. But in the following few days, as more prominent caucus members such as Chalmers and acting shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen fell by the Labor leadership contest wayside, Albanese was already re-directing the Labor Party away from class warfare to the politics of aspiration.
Unless something unexpected turns up, he will be effectively, if not officially, be endorsed by default as the new Labor leader on Monday, with the deputy’s position likely to be contested by two Victorian frontbenchers, Clare O’Neil, 38, and Richard Marles, 51.
More moderate approach
Meanwhile, the entire ALP has plunged into a re-think on whether a more market-based system should be introduced to reduce Australia’s CO2 emissions, and a possible retreat from its controversial franking credits and negative gearing policies. Supporting this more moderate approach, Albanese has emphasised pragmatism and consensus. He seems to be channelling the Chinese economic reform leader, Deng Xiaoping, who said in 1978: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”
Not that we can expect a record four decades of economic growth after the election of an Anthony Albanese-led Labor government, should that ever occur. But he wants to communicate to an electorate used to the gig economy and a dwindling union membership that Labor is still relevant. Albanese knows that many of the ALP’s supporters are despairing after its performance last Saturday when Scott Morrison led a split Coalition government denuded by ministerial resignations to a stunning electoral win.
Albanese’s comments come at a time when the global political zeitgeist is emphasising consensus and even “togetherness”. This comes after three years of disruption marked by the US-China trade war, Brexit and the extraordinary political meltdown currently under way in Britain, plus the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. Even the $US50 billion man, Charles Koch, who has been famous for decades as a fiercely partisan backer of the US Republican Party’s extreme right, is now behind a re-badged business body called Stand Together. Koch has told his supporters that “while many people have gotten ahead, too many people are falling behind. Our charge is clear: we must stand together to help every person rise.”
For long-time Labor man Albanese, however, there is a paradox in his recent conversion to what former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called “new thinking”. From his early days as assistant state secretary of the NSW ALP, Albanese has been a prominent spear thrower for the Labor left, and once described his life’s vocation as attacking “Tories”.
This has led some commentators to question the “legitimacy” behind the New Albo. For the sake of editorial convenience or otherwise, they are ignoring numerous precedents. Labor’s great wartime prime minister, John Curtin, was once a left-wing firebrand, and an early supporter of the Marxist Socialist Party in Victoria. But a shift in attitude through experience and wartime exigencies led Curtin towards a moderate social democratic position.
A more recent, highly relevant precedent and model for the “Anthony Albanese Alteration Plan” is Bob Hawke, who won a record four consecutive elections, and who died two days before the May 18 election. Hawke entered the trade union movement as the favourite son of the left, but became a consensus Labor prime minister – “Bringing Australia Together” was his 1983 election campaign theme. He opened up the economy, making Australia more resilient in facing up to the challenges brought on by the dot.com stockmarket crash, the Asian Financial Crisis, and the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis.
Even more recent, Lindsay Tanner, a one-time leader of the Victorian ALP left, was a moderate and cautious finance minister in the Kevin Rudd-led Labor government.
Albanese hails from the NSW Labor left, which was earlier referred to as the Steering Committee. He started mixing in Labor ranks when the divisions between the left and the ruling right faction in NSW politics were so well defined that so-called “independents” – those without factional alliance – belonged to a rare political species. It was a time when a budding leader of the ruling right in the NSW ALP, Paul Keating, referred to members of the left faction as “Balmain basket weavers”.
The paradox turns to irony when examining the dynamics between the caucus factions, Labor’s pre-election policy package, and Albanese’s long-standing leadership ambitions. Looked at in retrospect, it was the negative inter-action between these three factors that played a part, although not a leading part, in Labor’s defeat.
It’s said that a losing policy has no parents, but Shorten’s radical program effectively had two – shadow Treasurer, and leading member of the NSW right, Chris Bowen’s belief in its efficacy and fairness, and Shorten’s internal Labor Party calculations. Shorten believed Labor had to “stand for something” but he also calculated that a radical policy program was the best antidote to any possible party splits corroding his leadership, particularly from the left, and would help shore up Labor’s unity.
More particularly, Albanese’s name as a possible Shorten successor was raised inside the caucus during the first five months of political and popular domination enjoyed by Malcolm Turnbull after he ousted Tony Abbott from the top job on September 14, 2015, and again just before Shorten’s wins in the so-called “Super Saturday” round of byelections last July. The radical nature of Shorten’s proposed changes to the tax regime, and Labor’s ambitious plan to reduce CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, were – Shorten and his caucus supporters calculated – also an insurance against any internal instability generated by members of the party’s left.
This knowledge of internal ALP tensions over Albanese’s frustrated leadership ambitions plus the “move to the next generation” argument were behind the push to make Queenslander, and acting finance spokesman, Jim Chalmers, the new leader, although, in the end, the push came to naught.
Then there is Albanese’s personality. Popular among Labor’s rank and file, and with a solid caucus backing, Albanese is a stubborn arguer, impressive parliamentary performer, and has a strong reputation as a former infrastructure minister. However, his poor diction and overall lack of polish should not be worn as a mark of working-class street cred at a time when he is reaching out across class, religion, ethnic groups, and higher income levels for support.
That leaves another factor – the regions. In Chalmers’ home state of Queensland Labor suffered a 4 per cent drop in its two-party preferred vote last Saturday. This disaster forms a stark contrast with Labor history. Not only is Queensland the state where the Tree of Knowledge stands, but it elected what is arguably the first Labor government in world history in 1899.
A minister in that government, and subsequently prime minister on three separate occasions, was Andrew Fisher. His electorate was Wide Bay and his home town was Gympie. Last Saturday the Coalition scored 55 per cent in its two-party preferred vote in Gympie, and the nativist One Nation Party scored up to 20 per cent in its primary vote in some suburbs.
No wonder some in caucus and outside were tempted to make a leap to the next generation and a move north from the southern states. But, at least for now, it is not to be.