The remarkable fact about Anthony Albanese is that until about six years ago he never thought he would be prime minister. This may not seem surprising, but it marks him as different to his predecessors. Possibly, it makes him more normal.
He is not Tony Abbott, whose mother told family friends he would serve either as prime minister or be made pope. Nor is he Bill Shorten, who as a teenager announced to classmates that he would lead the country. Scott Morrison always made his rise to office look accidental, although confessed that God had visited him with signs and pushed him to run.
The fact Albanese does not feel preordained to office is important. It has made his campaigning tentative and uncertain, but it has also made him more diligent and thoughtful. There is no doubt that the platform on which he is running will produce a country more just and more caring than the one Morrison is promising. There is no doubt he would make a better prime minister.
“The thing about Anthony that I’ve always admired is that he’s never forgot where he’s come from,” Morrison said in the final leaders’ debate this week. “And he grew up in housing commission … and he’s shown the ability to rise to be the leader of one of the oldest parties in this country.”
And then: “But you know, to do this job you need to know your stuff. You need to be across the detail. You need to not make things up on the run. And you can’t be loose on the economy … And as much as I respect what he’s been able to achieve, I just don’t believe that he’s been able to demonstrate that he’s able to get across the detail to do this job.”
Tied up in this statement is a question Morrison wishes he could ask out loud: Can you trust a poor person to run the country? He is not praising Albanese for never forgetting where he came from; he is reminding him that he shouldn’t. He is saying: you have risen a long way, and that’s enough.
Morrison is a student of class. He has borrowed its signifiers to exploit those less well off than himself. He knows how to pretend he isn’t rich. He also knows that where Albanese comes from is someplace else, someplace where poverty means sickness and privation.
The unequal Australia Morrison keeps promising is a place where people like Anthony Albanese are less likely to become prime minister. They would be less likely to live in stable housing, less likely to have access to decent healthcare and education.
Albanese knows these experiences in a way Morrison cannot. When he says the country will always be fairer under Labor, he knows in detail what that means because he knows in detail its alternative.
In the final weeks of this campaign, it is becoming clear who Albanese is: a man who deserves to be prime minister because he never took for granted that he should be.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "It’s time".
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