ANTHONY ALBANESE’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PART TWO: The Irritable PM and his ‘Albanistas’

Headshot of Christopher Dore
Christopher Dore
The Nightly
10 Min Read
Anthony Albanese is facing growing disquiet from within his own party.
Anthony Albanese is facing growing disquiet from within his own party. Credit: William Pearce/The Nightly

WARNING: Coarse language

“He needs to get his head out of his arse.”

That’s the very candid and extremely blunt advice to Anthony Albanese, from a Labor mate.

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“Good timing,” another Labor MP, an ally, opens with “ … you can chronicle the decline and fall of the Albanese government.”

And with what counts for optimism within Labor’s ranks these days: “Albo is not necessarily fucked …”

And that’s from an enemy.

Curiously, despite holding a persistent lead in the polls, landing a shameless broken promise, and facing a lacklustre Opposition, so many Labor souls are worried about Albo.

Anthony Albanese, the knockabout university activist, our 31st prime minister, is the first to have emerged from the once-cowered, now dominant, Hard Left of the Labor Party, and easily the most universally liked politician to have ever scrambled his way into The Lodge.

The Nightly has spoken to senior government leaders, ministers, MPs and advisers to capture the mood within the administration.

Behind a united public front The Nightly has uncovered a barely dormant air of dismay, both with Albanese and his “Albanistas”, the left-wing cabal of like-minded and sycophantic advisers and MPs who run the government.

Oblivious, Albanese is convinced his team, regardless of faction, is unified and confident.

“They’re all Albanistas today mate,” Albanese tells those who think otherwise, “… the whole party.”

As many of his quiet comrades quietly fumed, by the end of his first full year in power and about to embark on the final 12 months of Labor’s first term, Albanese was “fucked, tired, downbeat”, says one of his confidantes.

Surrounded by the adoring “Albanistas”, many he has known since his raging beer-soaked student politics days, he was emotional, and out of sorts.

Too much world travel, too many ‘how-good-is-it-in-The Lodge’ moments, and too many ice creams and beers at the tennis.

And certainly way too much Voice.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese has been facing growing dissent from some sides of Labor. Credit: AAP

In short: he was suffering a horrid and lengthy breakout of “victory disease”. And none of the ascendent Albanistas could diagnose it.

“Who are the hard heads in the party who give good advice … because half of (the Albanese cabal of the advisers) don’t have two fucking clues.”

The cracking honeymoon ended with a slow burn but screeching hangover.

He is “agitated”, as one business leader describes him, and has taken to calling younger journalists and otherwise matey editors with his own voice — to express displeasure about anything and everything, mostly at being portrayed as callous, or clueless, on cost of living. He reckons he knows the readers of The Daily Telegraph better than the editor.

In one call during his summer holiday, he raged to another media executive, littering the tirade with colourful expletives. The serious ones.

The good old Albo dismissively insists he’s not angry at all, but poorly briefed journalists, press conference lackeys, kinda piss him off. They don’t even know what they’re asking, laments Irritable Albo, the sentimental guy, who pines for the days when John Laws and Laurie Oakes ruled the airwaves.

HI, IT’S ME, I’M THE PROBLEM, IT’S ME

“I think he’s in quite a lot of trouble,” says one government insider. The pool of scare campaigns the Coalition can draw on is growing. “The first thing is the big mistake of the Voice referendum and hanging so much off that … for the first 18 months in power, (voters) were worrying about their cost of living — Albo was crying … about something they weren’t interested in.”

“How could he have made such a dumb mistake.”

Add, and stir: my-word-is-my-bond and border security, here come the boats! Oh, and by the way Albo’s mate, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles, has let rapists, murderers and pedophiles run amok on our streets, and your taxes are paying for their food and rent!

You don’t need to be political ad guru Neil Lawrence to come up with a filthy effective scare campaign using that raw material.

The Prime Minister simply won’t accept he’s presiding over any serious problems.

“We are stable, it’s a stable government. No scandals, no one has had to resign, frankly, no major issues confronting the Government, which is why people focus on trivialities,” he tells colleagues.

Albanese already has the messaging swirling in his head come election time, most likely March 2025, to deflect the Coalition’s sharpest scythe. I stand up for my values. I make the difficult calls. I promised Indigenous Australians a referendum on the Voice, I did it, I turn back the boats, I put real tax cuts in your pockets, and, by the way, real wages are increasing, interest rates are falling, inflation is heading in right direction, we’ve given you at least one budget surplus, possibly two. So get stuffed, Peter Dutton. And anyway, the voters don’t like you, mate, and they love me, I’m Albo.

So why the long Labor faces? “People are thinking we are going to lose the next election,” one Labor insider says, sincerely.

Albanese doesn’t get it, says another, because “he thinks he can spin everything”.

But unfortunately for the master, you can’t spin the math.

The fact is, according to the numbers, the government is perilously close to tipping into minority if, as expected, Labor loses seats in Western Australia and doesn’t make inroads elsewhere, such as Queensland, where there is some hope. “The tax cuts are probably the first thing he’s done that has defined him in Queensland,” one Queenslander says, then pauses “… beyond the Voice.” Let’s see how he goes down with locals at Rockhampton’s Beef Week in May, where previously Bill Shorten was a flop.

Labor people don’t so much fear Peter Dutton and his Coalition but on election night “we will be talking about the Greens, and how we stitch (a working majority) together”.

It’s the drift that has others in a dark mood. Purpose is everything for so many in Labor. Being in power is not always enough, if you waste it. Social reform, economic reform, any effing reform, is more important to so many true believers than the politics, Albanese’s absolute expertise.

The problems Albanese believes don’t exist but infuriate others centre on his obsessions that “mean jack shit” to everyone else, most notably the “quiet Albatross” around his neck, the Voice.

The pervasive pessimism comes down to a fear Labor may well be “squandering its opportunities at a rate of knots”.

A risk-free, small-target, shallow campaign, the lack of a serious agenda, coupled with a sluggishness when confronted by unforeseen events since coming to office has exacerbated the anxiety.

YOU ME AND STAGE 3

“Exhausted”, a dithering post-Voice PM had his “feet stuck on fly paper” over how to deal with the cost of living crunch and was in quick succession confronted with existential touchstones for Labor’s dominant left: Israel and border security. Two black hole topics where Labor’s beating heart and suburban Australia’s head part ways. And that never ends well for anybody.

According to friends, Albanese hit his lowest point following the death of his friend, backbencher, Peta Murphy. Ironically losing Murphy, and the subsequent prospect of losing her suburban Melbourne seat in a by-election, helped ratchet Albanese out of a funk. Reeling, personally and professionally, Albanese was steeled to do something. Finally.

Only problem, what he was being told to do was the very thing that helped kill Rudd, Gillard and Abbott: break a solemn, and in Albanese’s case often-repeated, promise. But if you’re going break trust with voters, do it in a way that lines the pockets of struggling families, even if it’s just a few bucks a week. “He’s giving more money to more people, you can’t lose that policy,” says one MP.

Actually, wrong, breaking trust with Australians wasn’t the only problem for Albanese.

The other, ethereal, one combines two touchy topics: his ego and his future. Albanese knew he had to own the broken promise but if Labor could pull it off, the long-term winner would be the bloke who will eventually replace Albanese: Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

Katy Gallagher, Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers
Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers talking up their first budget. Credit: AAP

The couple are often compared to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, but as one Labor figure says, dismissing the extent of the current friction between the pair, the Hawke-Keating rivalry didn’t reach its final act until “Season 5”. “We are still in season 1.”

Nevertheless in this case what’s good for the goose - holding on to Dunkley - is definitely good for the gosling who came up with the way to do it.

“If we hadn’t done tax cuts, we lose Dunkley, now I think we are probably going to sneak across the line,” one government MP says.

Getting through Dunkley, if he does, with a bit of a tax cut fiddle is one thing, but then what?

“I don’t think anybody knows how Albo responds to a decline in popularity and the wheels coming off,” another MP says.

“Does he put his fingers in his ears and try to hold the show together, does he try to come up with some policies and lurch to the left to keep the base? Or does he “break the habit of a lifetime” and go after some election winning policies in the centre?

“He’s a confidence player with massive self-belief. He has never really had to switch styles … he has never been in a position where he has needed to. It’s just always been ‘I’m fucking amazing …’.”

“Anthony is a good person,” one of his most trusted parliamentary allies says, almost wistfully. “Clearly I’m not objective but that is genuinely how I feel. He’s been in the public domain a long time and I think that will carry him through.”

“I feel like he is, well he personally is, in good shape I know that.

“I actually think his brand is in really good shape.”

OUTWIT, OUTPLAY, OUTLAST

Albanese is certainly the ultimate Survivor. In character terms, think the conniving contestant, the weakling even, who casts a spell over all the musclebound False Alphas, ultimately convincing them to collapse in a bundle at his feet. Even though he can’t hunt, wield an axe or build a hut, he somehow tricks them all into voting for him.

Labor strategists still shake their heads in amazement that Albanese could rise to The Lodge from the once lonely and lowly Left.

“Albo is such an emotional guy and he is so committed … he is a believer. He chases social justice and he doesn’t mind fighting lost causes throughout his career because he was in the Left and he will tell you he used to lose every day … he would just fly the flag and fight.”

Then one day he fought and remarkably, won. Now the Left, and its darling, control the Labor Party.

It was a gradual shift, but ultimately it came with the decline of Labor’s Roman Empire, the NSW Right. Their last hooray, a final act of brutality came in striking down Kevin Rudd, barely halfway through his term as Prime Minister. Rudd’s revenge was to destroy their chosen leader, Julia Gillard, and in doing so humiliate and desecrate her right wing backers, forcing them to agree to give up their institutional power and control over the party. The talented heirs to the political genius of Graham Richardson, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, gave way, and were replaced by trainwrecks Sam Dastyari and Kaila Murnain. Labor has never been the same since. And really, once Bill Shorten’s considerable factional prowess was wounded by the 2019 defeat, it’s been Anthony Albanese’s show since.

Albanese’s ability to compromise on principle and build coalitions to pave his path to The Lodge is “an act of profound political creation, a serious achievement”, says one Labor observer.

“He is very easy to underestimate … but he’s got real judgment, real authority.”

The upshot of Albanese’s spiritual and practical takeover of Labor is obvious to everyone within the government, even if they don’t know what to do about it.

Traditionally, the Right had the numbers, through union delegates, where the Left had the grass root branches. Now, despite a split even in their own faction: “The Left have the numbers across the country.”

So Albanese basically controls everything.

And even his hardened enemies are resigned to it.

No real active animosity or even quiet rebellion, what’s the point, Albanese, with thanks to Rudd mostly, has the party in a proverbial squirrel grip.

The result - too much unity in Caucus, and a weak cabinet, an example of its timidity: not one dissenting voice in Cabinet when discussing the Stage 3 tax cuts broken promise. “Correct,” Albanese would say proudly, “because it was the right call.”

While the critics in caucus might keep their counsel, for now, they do exist. And they do have a view.

“He has never had a lot of interest in policy, he’s never had much capability in policy, the details bore him … he’s an internal player,” one says.

“Can Albo come up with some bigger narrative that makes people feel like he’s taking the nation somewhere they care about?” The MP doesn’t know. “It will be interesting.”

ANTHONY ALBANESE’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PART THREE: OUT WEDNESDAY

Have a tip or more information? Email Christopher.dore@thenightly.com.au

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