Luck’s on your side when your first anniversary is in the honeymoon suite

The lucky country has a lucky leader – a statement which I mean to be taken literally, rather than to mimic Donald Horne’s legendary sledge against “second-rate” Australian politicians. For charmed is the prime minister who gets to peer across the dispatch box at an opposition leader as deeply unpopular as Peter Dutton, and blessed is the opposition leader who gets to fight a federal election against a prime minister as deeply unpopular as Scott Morrison. When Anthony Albanese rose to the leadership of the ALP, his main rival, Tanya Plibersek, was confronting a family trauma – which she has spoken of heartrendingly since – that precluded her from entering the race for the leadership. He rose to power a year ago this weekend with the lowest Labor primary vote since the 1930s.

Still on a honeymoon? PM Albanese earlier this month.

Alex Ellinghausen

During the 2022 campaign, the teals often made the case against a tired and untrustworthy Coalition government more effectively than he did. After a series of stumbles, he ended the campaign as he started it, without having clearly demonstrated that he was oven-ready for The Lodge.

However, since the vote was primarily a rejection of Morrison rather than an endorsement of Albanese, it did not matter. Here he was, the beneficiary of the main propellant of modern-day politics: negative partisanship, in which voters are motivated more by animosity towards the other side rather affection for their own. Fortunately, for an underwhelming Albanese, the 2022 contest was about loathing not love. There was no groundswell for the Labor leader.

On the international front, Albanese must thank his lucky stars that Joe Biden is the US president rather than Donald Trump. Always it helps to have an ideological fellow traveller in the White House – although Biden is a pragmatic centrist who has moved further to the left, whereas Albanese is a pragmatic leftist who has moved closer to the centre. Not being able to celebrate his first year in charge by hosting the Quad summit in his home city is a deflating personal blow. But better to have a friend in Washington who cancels on you than a bully who trashes you on Twitter.

On the home front, unpopular Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe is a useful foil. The governor can be blamed for hiking interest rates rather than the treasurer. It helps, too, that the Murdoch empire does not wield anywhere near the power of old or instil the same political fear. Besides, has long had a soft spot for “Albo” and reckons it helped save him his inner west seat of Grayndler from a Greens challenge at the 2016 election. The ’s “Save Our Albo” front page hangs in his electoral office in Marrickville.

llustration: John Shakespeare.

Yet just as we made the mistake of underestimating him in the run-up to last year’s election, it would be error to under-praise him now. “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity,” according to the motivational meme. This he demonstrated on election night by delivering a command performance which included his promise to push for the Voice. Within the first paragraph of his victory speech, a small election was vested with larger meaning. That he has reached his first anniversary as prime minister without ever really having to check out of the honeymoon suite is an impressive achievement.

Obviously, he still benefits from not being Scott Morrison. After the truth-twisting of the “ScoMo” years, “Honest Albo” has built on his longstanding reputation for unshowy matter-of-factness. After Morrison’s singular approach to governance, with its secretive ministerial power grab and Trumpian “I alone can fix it” overtones, he understands the importance of team work and transparency.

Albanese has grasped that government is a group portrait. Improbable though the comparison might seem, he reminds me of what used to be said of America’s first president George Washington: that he accrued power because of his willingness to give it up. With talented ministers like Penny Wong in the fore, this feels more like an Albanese administration than an Albanese prime ministership, a subtle but important difference.

To more fully understand his success, it is necessary to reach back further. For Albanese has returned Canberra to the period of relative calm and quietude before Australian politics completely jumped the shark. Now, after seven changes of prime minister in just 15 years, it is safe to go back into the party room.

Albanese met workers at a factory in the Sydney suburb of Minto last week.

Jessica Hromas

Here, paradoxically, Albanese has benefited from the sense of polycrisis that grips global affairs. The frivolousness of Canberra’s coup phase was partly a product of prosperity. When the “wonder from Down Under” economy was humming, there was something almost luxuriant about leadership spills. Now, with more problems pressing in, the mood is more serious. After a 15-year period in which the country suffered from the primacy of politics, Albanese has re-established the primacy of governance.

Rather than setting out to win every media cycle, he plays the longer game. In what the columnist Thomas Friedman has labelled the “age of acceleration”, he has slowed Canberra politics down.

Sure, Albo meets the baseline requirements of the social media game by posting pictures of his beloved dog Toto and selfies with world leaders. But his prime ministership feels more like a return to the days when national affairs were conducted offline. Not for him the permanent campaign, with all the in-your-face omnipresence it demands. To redeploy a phrase I have used before, he is a prime minister you can have on in the background.

There’s been a humbleness about Albanese that also explains his appeal. It is expressed in his deference towards the traditions of his office, and his respect for parliamentary procedure and norms. Much is made of his re-tailored suits and his fashionable eyewear, but his prime ministerial persona is in some ways a throwback to the days when politicians wore waistcoats and fedoras: the age of Ben Chifley and John Curtin. Voguish though it is to talk of a “new politics”, because of the rise of the female independents and Greens, he gains from being old-fashioned. His prime ministership could almost be rendered in sepia.

Tellingly, one of the few times he has run into trouble is when he embraced modern-day celebrity culture by attending Kyle Sandilands’s wedding. The humble PM appeared hubristic. His decision to participate in this “million-dollar” celebration not only looked ill-judged but decadent.

The most obvious explanation for his political success is that he has completely dominated the centre ground, terrain largely vacated by Peter Dutton’s Liberals. For someone so steeped in the Labor Left, he has proven surprisingly fluent in the centrist tongue, triangulating with almost Pythagorean glee. Australia should have “no one held back and no one left behind” has become a stock phrase. You can be “strong on borders without being weak on humanity” is the sort of Third Way aphorism of which Tony Blair or Bill Clinton would be proud.

Though he became the first PM to march in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, he is careful not to appear too “woke” – calling cancel culture “a sad development” and defending Barry Humphries, who was accused of transphobia. In their recent interview, Piers Morgan even asked Albanese whether he was truly “a secret Tory in disguise”.

It is hard to achieve this kind of political equipoise indefinitely, and there are already signs of wobbles. The decision to give the go ahead to the Isaac River coal-mine in Queensland has enraged environmentalists. The cost of AUKUS, and the decision to align so closely with an ever-more unreliable America, has drawn fire.

Anthony Albanese with US President Joe Biden at the AUKUS submarine announcement in San Diego.


You can sense that the grand narrative in the Canberra press gallery – of a prime minister punching above his weight – is shifting, if only because of our tendency in the media to tire of the same storyline. Maybe the cancellation of the Biden visit will be seen as a sign from the news gods that his lucky streak is over. Certainly, it’s a torrential downpour on his anniversary parade.

But even if the Albanese administration suffers the useful mid-term blues, I suspect he will still be able to draw from a reservoir of goodwill. His authenticity and likeability remain prime assets. Just as importantly, he is hard to hate. Besides, Australians have always warmed to prime ministers who are relaxed and comfortable with themselves.

Nick Bryant is a senior policy fellow at Sydney University and the author of . Peter Hartcher is on leave.

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