ALBANESE’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PART 3: The true inner circle from Tim Gartrell to Katharine Murphy & Penny Wong

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
10 Min Read
It’s claimed the PM has a number of influential advisers ... and that they are also his factional allies.
It’s claimed the PM has a number of influential advisers ... and that they are also his factional allies. Credit: AP/AP

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

“They are so deep in the bubble,” one Government insider says of the Albanese inner circle, The Albanistas, who take their name from the Nicaraguan left-wing resistance fighters, the Sandinistas.

The PM’s most influential advisers are all long-term mates, drinking buddies, factional allies, family friends. All Hard Left, Hard Left, Hard Left.

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“It’s amazing, we used to call it ‘the Albo worldwide conspiracy’, it’s been going for 40 years now … they’re all still together, they’re everywhere.”

His closest adviser is chief of staff Tim Gartrell, an Albanese staffer, on and off, since 1996. Once the pair listened to Midnight Oil and Billy Bragg and engaged in ludicrous factional brawls at Sydney Uni over US bases, uranium, apartheid, Palestine and Nicaraguan Ports. Nowadays they listen to Midnight Oil and Billy Bragg and run the country.

A former factional opponent says the old ideologically driven divisions in the party, where the “Albanistas” were born, simply don’t exist in the way they once did. Oh, Oh, the Power and the Passion. The Temper of the Time today is the Power and the Pragmatism.

“In the 80s when we were fighting amongst ourselves, there was real meaning in the Left and the Right, which doesn’t exist now — it’s just sort of where you park yourself with allies.”

And Albanese is surrounded by them.

“Tim’s claim to fame is that he’s Albo’s best friend, which you can’t have as your chief of staff.”

Political adviser Tim Gartrell is part of Anthony Albanese's inner circle.
Political adviser Tim Gartrell is part of Anthony Albanese's inner circle. Credit: Supplied/Twitter

Gartrell made his reputation running the Kevin 07 campaign and the same-sex marriage Yes vote, a hint at why Albanese was captivated by the Voice referendum.

Unlike the legendary hard-edged chiefs of staff such as Peta Credlin, Gartrell is ”much more relaxed”. “He leads via respect rather than fear. People like him … he doesn’t seek the limelight but he would be the most important piece of the Albo puzzle.’’

That’s the positive take.

Here’s the other view within Labor, outside of the Albanese circle of love: “You need people to challenge each other. That’s not what is happening in Albo’s office.

“As he gets more paranoid, he gets more insulated, the circles of advice become closer and smaller and tighter and more emotionally supportive rather than suggestive and expansive in terms of what he should be doing to get himself out of a corner.

“It becomes a pretty tight and downward spiral.”

ALBO’S FIRST TWO YEARS:

Gartrell, “as a human being”, is a ”lovely person, genuinely nice”.

“I’ve seen him angry, but he doesn’t raise his voice, mutter under his breath, he doesn’t go off at people, I’ve never seen him abusive.

“You wonder whether Albo needs some honest, frank advice.“

THE ANIMALS

Enter David Epstein. The original political Animal.

In his heyday during the Hawke-Keating era, Epstein ran Labor’s notorious dark arts muckraking unit, known as Animals, a publicly funded compiler of dirt files and shit sheets masquerading as a helpful “media liaison service”. He later ran Kim Beazley’s team, and Kevin Rudd’s office before it imploded. He’s the ultimate professional political operator who has seen it all in Canberra, and plenty since in the corporate sector. Epstein changes the tone.

Whispers of a falling-out with loyal long-time lieutenant Gartrell prompt derision from the PM. Albanese would tell mates the idea that his chief of staff was on the outer was “bullshit” spread by “people who know fuck all about anything”.

Replacing Liz Fitch, the 30-something, affable but aloof media adviser of seven years, with one of the most divisive and bareknuckled brawlers in the press gallery is also a mood.

Katharine Murphy is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Guardian political editor Katharine Murphy
Katharine Murphy, former Guardian political editor. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

When she landed at The Guardian, having graced the corridors of several media outlets over a long career, including such diverse papers as The Australian and The Age, she picked a side and stuck to it.

She reserves a sialoquent disgust for conservatives that borders on harassment in contrast to the gentle light patronising touch, a combination of encouragement and disappointment, she reserves for progressives. All the while lamenting the rise of political delinquents in the Coalition.

Direct, but also a warm and supportive parental figure to many younger journalists in the gallery, Murphy is a big, opinionated personality to drop into Albanese’s office. And a very big departure from the mates.

While some Labor people have dismissed her appointment as “crazy”, “he needs someone who is prepared to tell him when he is wrong”, “Murphy will agree with everything he says”, Albanese has told doubters she will be a “big plus” who says what she thinks, “already has”, “knows everyone” and is a “good writer and good thinker”. If critics want Albanese to get some straight-talking advice, chances are Murphy will be prepared to give it. But “Dutton is a monstrous arsehole” probably isn’t what Albanese needs to hear.

While Murphy is sympathetic to Albanese’s world view, she might just be symptomatic of it too. Nevertheless, she isn’t part of the insular old Young Labor core in his office: Gartrell, Mal Larsen, economics adviser Alex Sanchez and his industrial adviser, CFMEU working-class warrior Alex Bukarica.

“All these guys are literally just Albo’s mates … which is kind of endearing in a way, he’s a person with long-term relationships,” one MP says. Others see the mates culture a different way. Professional, experienced advisers get “swamped by party activists”.

“Albanese has welcomed his mates and factional allies into positions of power”, not just in his office but across government. “And they end up giving advice that’s shit and the politicians become captured by it and it happens quickly.

“I could point to people all over the Federal Government who are long-time factional colleagues of his who have got some pretty big jobs but frankly you wouldn’t send them around the corner to buy your hamburger, they are so stupid.”

THE INNER CIRCLE OF ONE: PENNY

For Albanese, there’s Gartrell and the mates.

And then there is Penny.

The Foreign Minister Penny Wong, another from the Left, is in her own category of influence on Albanese. His friends say the Prime Minister is “really close” to her.

“Penny is really a personal confidante,” and has been for a time. While rumours persist that Wong will soon retire, those close to the pair flatly dismiss it. “Penny will be there for as long as I am,” Albanese tells those who ask.

“She’s got the job that she’s fantastic at and the job that she wanted.”

Labor insiders say Wong is beyond “critical” to Albanese.

“He loves her,” says an Albo mate. “She is his rock, so he will be all at sea” if she were to retire, “he would be begging her not to go”.

Penny Wong in Israel - Tonight I met with Chair of the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, Dr Elkayam-Levy.  Australia condemns Hamas’ use of sexual violence as a weapon to maximise terror and fear.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Credit: Unknown/X formerly Twitter

Aside from her personal connection, “she provides the critical killer instinct in that operation”. And at that she is effective. “She has a very good political sense on her.”

Like Albanese’s other sidekick, deputy Richard Marles, what they provide in personal and political support is not necessarily matched by their performance in their portfolios.

To say Marles is not winning critical acclaim in Defence is an understatement. And many in Labor believe Wong, and Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, from the “Albanese Right”, have mishandled the Government’s position of Israel’s war on Hamas, and are threatening the relationship with an important security ally and are sowing social division at home, complicit in fomenting antisemitism.

JE SUIS ISRAEL

Labor has always been divided internally, but is now openly, unashamedly, split on Israel, and not just along the traditional Left and Right divide. Increasingly alienated, traditional Jewish supporters are confounded and pro-Palestinian sympathisers are also confused by the mixed messages, delivered stridently, and pointlessly, in private, and histrionically in public.

“Let’s be honest, Labor has two constituencies — a Jewish donation constituency, influential in the media, and an Arab voting community, which is increasingly flirting with the Greens,” a Labor luminary says.

According to one operative in the Labor Party “there are two packs of arseholes here”. Some in Labor believe the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is the extremist Israeli version of their mortal enemy, the Palestinian terrorist government.

“There’s Likud and there’s Hamas — two political parties, not two nations, it’s two extremist political parties slugging it out.

“They are so fucking manic on both sides of this debate.”

NSW right-wingers Burke and Industry Minister Ed Husic are “flirting with their Arabic communities”, who are organising for the first time, and “bombarding the Labor guys on that front”.

They are being criticised from the far Left, both its radical and more moderate professional protest constituency.

For Australia’s Jewish community, the ramifications go beyond the existential conflict in the Middle East. Jews here at home are being subjected to a unique and insidious racism and vile religious bigotry.

Labor, led by Albanese and Wong, have failed to navigate the complexities of supporting an ally’s legitimate war against terrorists and the awful antisemitic fallout it has fostered at home. They’ve missed the mark in a way that was not evident in the post 9/11 world when national leaders forcefully and repeatedly decried, and took action against, the racism directed towards Australian Muslims.

Jewish leaders, “with thousands of years of justifiable persecution complex going on”, are, according to some in Labor, rightfully saying “… wait a fucking minute”.

But Labor people say it’s impossible to get right. “Neither side is reasonable. There is no reasonableness in this at all.”

“Every move is scrutinised, every comment is ripped apart … I don’t envy anybody in this business, it’s fucking awful.”

Another right-wing operative says Labor’s position is misunderstood. “I love Israel, but I’m anti-Netanyahu.

“The complexity people miss is a lot of those branch members are not anti-Israel they are anti-settlers … and they don’t agree with all these Palestinians dying, that doesn’t make you anti-Israel.”

A significant Labor MP, also from the Right, is dismayed by the Government’s positioning.

“It is just insane. I don’t think this position is good for anybody.

“You just look like you believe in nothing.

“If you are not going to stand against terrorism … if we want our leaders to stand for something, surely it’s being opposed to terrorism.”

Others accuse their leadership of an active betrayal of Israel, led by Wong. Her strident public lectures on how Israel should conduct its military operations against Hamas is evidence of her being “run by her department” of Foreign Affairs, which is “full of Arabists”.

“We are walking both sides of the street on it and you can’t do that,” says a Government insider.

Albanese disagrees. And that won’t change.

HARD LEFT OR JUST SOFT

What no one in Labor disputes, despite appearances on Israel as an example, is that Albanese has shed his Hard Left politics.

Inner city softie he may be, (“The amount of times he has teared up as a prime minister is remarkable”) but he’s no longer the “socialist warrior”.

“There is none of that Albo now,” says a battle-scarred former factional opponent.

“He has made that transition very much to be a centrist.

“And I think he will convince himself that is actually his view now — not that ‘I have to be seen to be doing it’.”

“I think it’s real … I think in his mind he is convinced. It’s not ‘I have to bite my tongue’ … I think he now thinks that way.”

You have to do a “deal with the devil” to be a leader so “you have got to accept that some stuff has got to be jettisoned”.

Another long-standing factional opponent is certain: “He is centre. Albo is a centrist and he is pragmatic.

“But he has a deep, deep social conscience and does believe in the social safety net and the importance of government to help people out of poverty and that the markets are unequal.”

“He comes from a real working-class Labor position.”

A mate from his uni days says: “He had to embrace capitalism, simple as that. He had to embrace the US, he’s done the AUKUS deal for Christ’s sake.”

“He was a guy who was burning American presidents in effigies in the 80s.”

DON’T CROSS HIM

What Albanese has not lost is his generally well-hidden, from the public at least, brutal streak. Just ask Tanya Plibersek.

As one Labor operative, who has known Albanese a long time, says without hesitation: “Albo, Machiavellian politician, Albo.”

“When you fall out with Albo, you stay fallen out.”

Plibersek, a fellow traveller from the NSW Left, has long been mates with Albanese. For a while, they were very close. But despite being a popular media performer, one of the Government’s most capable and sensible, hugely liked by Labor voters, Albanese had no hesitation in sidelining her the moment he landed in The Lodge.

Her crime? “Well,” in the leadership battles, “she backed Bill Shorten.”

“And Albo was like ‘well fuck you’.”

“You don’t cross Albo like that, if you want to play that game, be prepared for the consequences. He has put her in the freezer for life.”

Yeah, says a victim of Albanese’s cut-throat loyalty, “he’s a hater”.

ANTHONY ALBANESE’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PART FOUR: OUT THURSDAY

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