ALBO’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PART ONE: How the Prime Minister cursed the voice ... and stuffed the Republic too

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
7 Min Read
In today’s episode, the latest on NSW alleged killer cop Beau Lamarre-Condon, why Albanese has been cursed since his failed Voice referendum and the daily battle to make school pickup.

Warning: coarse language

Anthony Albanese stunned Labor colleagues by ignoring explicit advice warning against declaring the Voice referendum a first-term priority on election night and has been “cursed” by the call since.

Even as the Prime Minister tries to consign the Voice disaster to history, it is the “Albanese Albatross”, as one Labor MP put it, the utterly unnecessary grandstanding victory speech showstopper, that will haunt him until the next election.

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Key Labor advisers feared on the night Australians were not yet ready for the Voice, and certainly wouldn’t be if, as expected, Peter Dutton became Liberal Leader.

The Nightly can reveal Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney was even worried during the 2022 election campaign about the likelihood of a voice referendum being rejected by voters if Labor couldn’t secure bipartisan support. She was doubtful the Voice could succeed in the first term with a skeptical Dutton as Opposition leader.

Albanese made the bold call on election night, despite being urged by wiser heads not to, a decision that set off a series of catastrophic events killing the years-in-the-making Voice forever and rupturing his relationship with Indigenous Australia.

After running a small-target campaign, senior Labor people were surprised. “When he comes out on election night,” The Nightly was told, “it was such a minimalist campaign”, he felt he needed to do “something visionary” and “something of the Left”.

“He comes out and he’s got fucking nothing to say, and so he says: “We are going for Constitutional change in the first term of government’!”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney during the campaign for the Yes vote.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney during the campaign for the Yes vote. Credit: Andrew Ritchie

The “gross miscalculation”, as one colleague puts it, also badly damaged his reputation with mainstream Australians. And in the months since distracted and derailed the government, ultimately undermining Albanese’s judgment, authority and standing.

Worse, it threatens to cut short his time in The Lodge.

The Nightly has spoken to the senior leadership, Cabinet ministers, ministers, MPs, strategists and advisers for this special series on the first two years of the Albanese Government.

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

ALBO’S FIRST TWO YEARS:

Labor colleagues blame hubris, and the classic election night folly of victorious Opposition leaders. “He won and believes it was because of him,” an insider told The Nightly.

“So because ‘I am so popular, people love me’, overnight the Australian culture has changed and everyone is a Lefty.

“He’s been cursed with that, and that’s why the first half of his term has been so problematic for him.”

Albanese was proudly listening to Indigenous leaders instead of hardened political advisers.

Those he did listen to, such as his old Hard Left mate and chief of staff Tim Gartrell, were big Voice backers, egging him on to be bold, and none of the realists were game enough to properly intervene, either with him directly or via the Indigenous advisers who had cast a spell on him. Albanese would contend that “frank discussions” were held with Indigenous leaders about the real prospect of the referendum failing, but they were steadfast.

“The whole point of the Voice was to listen to Indigenous people,” he would tell people “we did that … we had a crack.”

Albanese won’t reflect on the damage to his government and would never have pulled out or deferred the vote without a request that never came from Indigenous leaders.

“I’ll stand up for my values,” he tells colleagues “and I’m prepared to make difficult decisions.”

Anthony Albanese delivers his victory speech alongside partner Jodie Haydon on election night.
Anthony Albanese delivers his victory speech alongside partner Jodie Haydon on election night. Credit: James D. Morgan

From election night on, and Albanese disputes this, the Voice engulfed him. The notoriously stubborn, laughably poor on detail, PM failed to acknowledge and adjust as his government was plunged deeper into the crisis of his making.

Lulled into a false sense of unity when Dutton appointed Julian Leeser, a conservative architect of the Voice design, as the Coalition lead, Albanese failed to baulk when bipartisanship was lost.

The Voice was dead at that point, according to Labor strategists. Instead of pausing, “we doubled down”.

“We should have said, ‘the moment we can get the Liberals to agree we are on’. We would still be having that argument now but we would probably be in a better position.’’

Instead, the already doomed campaign fell apart, spectacularly.

“Referendums are fundamentally hard things to do, none of it played out in a particularly surprising way to me,” one senior minister told The Nightly.

The unease within elements of the government today about Albanese’s performance can be traced back to election night.

“It was a big mistake,” one Labor insider said.

Albanese and his closest allies in Cabinet insist the Voice was worth a go and the Government can recover by now focusing on cost of living and national security. “We said we would do it, we had conviction, we gave it our best shot and … people move on.”

Not all colleagues agree. “It is the quiet albatross around his neck,” another MP says. “Where everybody in middle Australia is thinking, ‘You’re just not focused on me’. And what’s the proof point? ‘You spent a year talking about the Voice’.”

Again, the call rested solely with Albanese, whose extreme version of the Voice — inserting it straight into the Constitution — was a marked departure from Bill Shorten’s position as Labor leader, which was favoured by much of the sensible, less sentimental elements of the party: legislate first.

Paul Keating says publicly what many current MPs say privately, enshrining the Voice in the Constitution was: “A mistake from the start.”

While Albanese backers dismiss the predictability of the Voice disaster as the wisdom of hindsight, The Nightly can reveal advisers did see the dangers and warned of them.

Keep the victory speech simple and inclusive, which he did, in most part, except, he started by promising to commit his government to the Uluru Statement from the Heart “in full”.

Albanese’s first commitment as prime minister-elect.

He continued on, detailing plans for the government’s immediate agenda, ending with a promise to deliver the “patient gracious call for a voice enshrined in the constitution.”

“I didn’t pick it up on the night what a mistake it was,” one Labor figure says. “But it immediately became a project of the Albanese government and the Albanese prime ministership. Very easy to see that now.”

As an increasingly testy Albanese scrambles to reset the agenda to stem the government’s slide in the polls, The Nightly can reveal behind the public display of unity, many in the party were split over the Voice. The few who did try to force a rethink were ignored.

“It was never going to fucking happen,” one Labor figure from a key swing state said. “And I told them that and everyone told me I was full of shit … people in Sydney are so smart … and in the end not even Sydney voted for it.”

Albanese at Garma Festival in East Arnhem land.
Albanese at Garma Festival in East Arnhem land. Credit: Tamati Smith

Those, including senior ministers, opposed to the strategy are now battling to rebuild the government’s standing with voters after the Voice sucked the goodwill Australians had for Labor, and drained the party of the energy and momentum it had from the solid election win.

The failed Voice campaign completely distracted the Albanese Government, as the fledgling Prime Minister focused relentlessly but hopelessly on the vote, failing to address the mounting crisis for families being crunched by soaring cost of living.

As grocery prices soared, supermarket trolleys weighed down by ballooning prices, fuel costs stuck belligerently above $2 and mortgage pain piled up on home buyers month after month, Albanese was distracted, shedding tears, hugging Australians in the red desert and advocating for radical constitutional change while claiming it was nothing much at all.

It has also hurt the Prime Minister badly, tarnishing his reputation not only with voters but internally within Labor, who now openly wonder whether he has blown his chance for a second term.

While Albanese and the government have tried to move on from the Voice, the fallout continues to dog all aspects of decision-making.

In an attempt to re-connect with disillusioned battlers, who felt disconnected from the Voice-obsessed PM, Labor risked permanently tarnishing Albanese’s “my word is my bond” reputation by bringing forward the Stage 3 tax cuts broken promise to avoid a disastrous defeat in this weekend’s defining Dunkley by-election.

The tax changes that will deliver a win in Dunkley, have been universally well received and have lifted an otherwise “exhausted” Albanese.

But Jim Chalmers, not the PM, has been credited with the turnaround. “He has had a big win politically, his judgment has been proven to be right.”

It has left a lingering scar on Albanese’s leadership.

“Albo has gotten away with doing something that was quite gross and cynical because everyone has gone, ‘Oh it’s a good cause’.

“Well, wait a minute, he ran it into the ground. He gave Voice backers everything knowing that that would make it more likely to lose.”

It also angered many Labor figures, whose real long term priority for constitutional change has always been an Australian Republic — the Holy Grail for Labor. Certainly more totemic than an Indigenous showstopper. They blame Albanese for killing off the republic with the foolhardy commitment to a rushed and ill-prepared Voice referendum.

“It’s fucked the Republic now.”

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

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