At a popular bar in the heart of Melbourne in 2016, a slightly pudgy middle-aged man stood behind a turntable leading the crowd to an Iggy Pop song “The Passenger.”
“It’s good to have fun, as well as fight the Tories,” he shouted to the crowd, who responded with applause and chants of “Albo, Albo, Albo.”
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Six years later, the scarf, T-shirt, and beer gut are gone, replaced by a suit, tie, and fancy tortoiseshell glasses. And he’s about to be sworn in as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister.
For Anthony Albanese, 59, the personal transformation came after he collided head-on with another vehicle near his home in suburban Sydney in January 2021, a crash that nearly cost him his life.
“I was within a foot of the exit and I was very lucky,” he told The Monthly magazine in Australia earlier this year. “That does a few things for you.”
He completely changed his appearance, prompting incumbent Scott Morrison to accuse him of trying to be “someone else on the campaign trail.
But Albanese, who was raised by a single mother in public housing, insisted he had simply decided to get healthy. “That’s a good thing,” he said.
At the same time, it changed the Labor Party’s political strategy, paving the way for an election victory on Saturday that ousted Morrison’s Conservatives after nine years in power.
Three years ago, Albanese took charge of a disheartened and frustrated party following Labour’s surprise electoral defeat. He then deliberately avoided criticism of the government’s pandemic strategy and instead worked with Morrison at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak.
But he backed away from that approach before the election. Rather than aim for radical change, as Labor did unsuccessfully in 2019, Albanese focused on delivering concrete gains for voters on basic issues, repeatedly criticizing Morrison for the failings of his government.
“I hope there are families in public housing watching this tonight,” Albanese said in his victory speech Saturday night. “Because I want all parents to be able to tell their children no matter where they live or where they come from, in Australia the doors of opportunity are open to all of us.
Albanese will take the reins of an economy in which the cost of living and interest rates have risen faster than real wages amid a growing fiscal deficit and high national debt. Whether he governs with a majority of parliament or not, he will have to work with a cross bench of lawmakers made up of Greens and pro-climate independents who want to see more significant reductions in emissions and concrete plans to move away from fossil fuels.
Albanese is one of the first prime ministers in decades to have a working-class education. He regularly says that he was raised to love three things from the moment he was born: the Catholic Church, the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and the Labor Party. He developed a lifelong love of music, politics, and sports, and even has a beer named after him: Albo Corn Ale.
Speaking in Melbourne on the last day of the campaign, Albanese broke down in tears as he paid tribute to his mother, saying his running for prime minister spoke to his “courage”.
“The very humble beginnings of his life have really shaped him in terms of his values and approach to life and government,” said Nicholas Reece, a former senior adviser to former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and a senior fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Still, Reece said that despite his far-left background and working-class roots, Albanese would not be a “radical or revolutionary leader.
“He will be a reforming prime minister, he will be a sensible prime minister and he will be a prime minister who understands the very important role that government plays in improving people’s lives,” the former Labor adviser said.
Albanese joined the Labor Party shortly after starting university and quickly became a prominent power broker in the party’s left-wing faction. He won a seat in the federal Parliament, representing the working class neighborhood where he grew up, and at the age of 33 he was sworn in as a member of Grayndler in 1996.
As a powerful factional warrior on the Labor left, Albanese is considered a shrewd political player by his opponents and within his party. As his decades-long political career earned him many enemies, Albanese has also amassed a number of close allies within Labor’s top leadership, including Mark Butler and Penny Wong, who is set to become foreign minister.
In parliament, Albanese earned a reputation as one of the Labor Party’s “attack dogs” – members who are ordered to bring down the other side, allowing their party leaders to appear more positive and stately.
He accepted the job and kept it when Labor took power in 2007 after 11 long years of opposition under then Prime Minister John Howard.
‘Downtown Bomb Thrower’
In an interview with local media during the campaign, Howard described Albanese as a “left-wing, inner city bomb thrower. Albanese said the characterization left him “without a problem.
Albanese also had a front row seat to the chaotic intra-party disputes between Gillard and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which sparked a decade of leadership changes at the top of Australian politics. Albanese was one of the few politicians whom both sides trusted during the power struggles.
As House leader during Gillard’s minority government, Albanese developed a reputation for being a skilled negotiator, something that could help him after the 2022 election. He has worked with independents and minor parties to organize the passage of important reforms, including a national carbon price and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“It has learned unity — the whole party has learned that if you go down the path of disunity or short-term decisions, you end up in a bad place,” said Michelle Grattan, a professor at the University of Canberra who has written about the la country’s politics for decades. “He will be reasonably cautious,” she added. “I think it will depend a lot on the team.
On the campaign trail, Albanese was much more discreet than Morrison, who was constantly looking to shake hands, make roti, or look for a ball or a tool or something he could pick up while taking a photo.
Albanese, on the other hand, looked a bit uncomfortable when he met the public. Instead, he would gravitate towards babies and dogs. During the 2016 performance at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel, he dedicated one of his songs to his dog, Toto.
During the campaign, Albanese would light up at the mention of nation-building projects and happily list his accomplishments in the area. After all, he was Australia’s infrastructure minister for six years, through two changes of prime minister and multiple cabinet changes.
‘I underestimated my whole life’
However, although his electoral strategy worked, Albanese personally had a difficult campaign. He stumbled over economic figures and policy details in a way some Labor officials thought would be fatal.
And despite the victory, Labor has only won around 33% of the vote in the primary so far, on track for its worst result in decades and the lowest for any incoming government since the Second World War.
But that didn’t faze Albanese on election night. Dressed in a suit, he said he “has been underestimated all my life as I outlined an optimistic vision of an Australia that empowers women, takes climate change seriously and looks out for working families at a time when inflation is the highest in decades.
“I am here not to take up space, but to make a positive difference every day,” he added.
Beneath his new buttoned-up exterior, the old Albanian glimpses from time to time. During an event to kick off the six-week campaign in April, he stayed true to his roots as a working-class rocker.
“In the words of the great Ramones, he said, “Hey! hey! Go.’
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