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As he takes over as Labor’s new leader, Anthony Albanese outlines how he plans to reshape his party and win back Australia’s trust. By Karen Middleton.

Starting again: the Albanese interview

New federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese at Parliament House on Thursday.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Anthony Albanese is both getting the message and sending one of his own.

With boxes cluttering the foyer of his half-packed-up office, the new opposition leader recounted his trip this week to the now Liberal-held Queensland seat of Longman. There, residents of that electorate and the nearby seats of Dickson and Petrie told him why they didn’t vote Labor on May 18.

“They certainly didn’t see themselves as being wealthy and they felt as though we were characterising them as that,” Albanese told The Saturday Paper in an interview on the eve of his formal endorsement by the Labor caucus.

One person who had bought shares in Telstra and Commonwealth Bank, back when governments were urging Australians to become what they called “mum and dad investors”, explained receiving $1200 each year in franking credits and spending it on Christmas presents and getting through the costly festive season.

The new Labor leader also met a small businessman who made outdoor furniture and employed 25 people whose wages went back into the local community. He had assets but little cash or formal education.

“He felt like some of our rhetorical positions were not giving him respect,” Albanese said.

The feedback from Labor supporters on the ground in southern Queensland further confirmed the effectiveness of what Albanese called a “dishonest” Coalition fear campaign.

But the man now tasked with pulling Labor back together after a devastating defeat also believes some Queenslanders had unfinished business with his party.

Albanese does not dismiss there is still residual anger in the Sunshine State towards those in the Labor Party who overthrew Kevin Rudd, Australia’s first Queensland prime minister since the 1940s and only the fourth from that state.

“There’s no doubt as well, if you look at what happened after Kevin Rudd was deposed, we lost a number of seats in Queensland after that occurred, including of course the seat of Longman,” Albanese said.

Former leader Bill Shorten was one of the architects of that move in 2010 and Albanese one of its strongest opponents, warning at the time of its likely future impact.

Albanese also remains one of Rudd’s strongest defenders, while many other senior figures had – and have – little love for the former member for Griffith, despite the public rapprochements of recent times.

The 2019 election defeat and the post-loss analysis are laying bare divisions within the parliamentary Labor Party that were papered over in the six years of Shorten’s leadership. Now they have become both visible and potentially Albanese’s problem.

It’s unclear yet how things will go under the leadership of the self-confessed rough-edged bloke from inner-western Sydney whose single mother, Maryanne, devoted her life to creating opportunities for him.

For the hardness of his politics at times, Albanese reveals a much softer, more emotional side when he talks about his mother – a characteristic he and Shorten share.

Seventeen years after her death, the new Labor leader still visits his mother’s grave in the Catholic section of Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery once a month.

“My mum had a pretty hard life for 65 years and when she passed away she was basically spent,” Albanese told The Saturday Paper. “She had a very tough life. And it’s out of paying respect for her but I also get a lot of comfort. We were a two-person family and I think small families – particularly the smallest it can be, really, of two people – are really special.”

In the political arena, Albanese is showing a steelier side, exercising his new authority and, through public comments and early, provocative actions in his new role, buying a direct fight with some colleagues at the same time.

His approach is a hybrid of Rudd’s complete sidelining of the factions in selecting the frontbench line-up and the more traditional version Shorten employed.

Albanese is laying out his demands and then letting the factions figure out how to do what he wants.

It is risky to spend political capital so early, before even officially starting in the job, let alone having shifted into the big office suite or hired more staff. But Albanese has clearly decided it’s a fight that needs to be had, and now.

Careful not to level criticism at Shorten directly, he is suggesting Labor’s previous leadership did not heed growing concerns about the party’s policies and its position on shareholder franking credits in particular. Asked if he ever raised concerns about it himself, he also avoided a direct answer.

“There were concerns about it and the feedback from many of the backbench as well,” he said. “One of the lessons is to listen to the feedback from all of the members of the caucus who have a role.”

Later he told journalists that as a member of Labor’s executive, he accepted his share of responsibility for “the position we find ourselves in today”.

He denies that people were locked out of the leadership feedback loop but suggests no remedial action was taken when feedback came.

“Quite clearly, in speaking to a number of the caucus colleagues who weren’t successful, they say that they were getting that feedback on the ground,” he said. “And we need to be cognisant of listening to feedback and of ensuring that when we develop policies, we do so in a way which brings people with us. You’ve got to bring people with you on change and, quite clearly, we didn’t bring enough people with us.”

It’s a statement of the obvious. It is also a comment on those who designed and ran the 2019 campaign and on the challenge that Albanese now faces, including in his parliamentary caucus with a disappointed former leader in Shorten still in its senior ranks.

Similar situations have fostered instability on both sides of politics in the past.

“The truth is that people who are disappointed have a particular responsibility,” Albanese said. “I’m sure that Bill will do that. He worked very hard for the election of a Labor government each and every day. He’s absolutely committed to the Labor cause. He has said that he will support my leadership and be constructive and I’m confident that he’ll do just that.”

Addressing the Labor caucus on Thursday as it formally endorsed Albanese and elected the Victorian Right faction’s Richard Marles as his deputy, Shorten offered his support.

“I am ready to help you with uniting our party and carrying the case for Labor values to the Australian people, congratulations and well done,” Shorten said.

He said there were lessons to be learnt from the defeat. “But obviously we were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear.”

Shorten indirectly singled out the Murdoch media, saying they had campaigned against Labor “and they got what they wanted”.

Albanese insisted he and Shorten have a good relationship.

“We actually got to know each other pretty well,” he said. “We like each other so I think that is a positive in terms of moving forward. I intend to embrace everyone in the caucus and provide them with an opportunity to make a contribution and waste the talents of nobody.”

But he is being accused of doing exactly that with his insistence that former New South Wales premier Senator Kristina Keneally be included on his frontbench at the expense of former employment and digital economy spokesman Ed Husic.

Husic announced on Wednesday that he would step back so Keneally could take his spot.

The hard factional maths meant a NSW Right member had to make way for Keneally, something Albanese made clear he wanted.

“We do need to make sure that our parliament represents or reflects the community and that there are more women involved, particularly within politics and especially within decision-making roles,” Husic told ABC RN Drive on Wednesday night. He then added a caveat.

“… But having said that, I also think that we represent very diverse communities and I think we can do a way better job of having people with funny-sounding surnames like mine in the nation’s parliament and in decision-making roles.”

Albanese also sidelined a factionally non-aligned previous frontbencher, ACT MP Andrew Leigh. Shorten’s frontbench was bigger than the legislated 30 allowed in government and Albanese says he wants to shrink it back to size.

On Thursday, he won another battle, with South Australian senator Don Farrell relinquishing the deputy senate leader’s position for Keneally, despite having declared publicly that he would retain it.

“He will have a senior role and I will rely very much on Don Farrell’s advice on a day-to-day basis,” Albanese said. It would ensure Labor had “two men and two women in leadership positions”.

“I think that’s important as we go forward,” he said, thanking Leigh and also Husic for standing aside and vowing that Husic in particular would play an important role in opposition and in a future Labor government.

Once Albanese has allocated portfolios to those the factions selected, Labor’s policy rebuilding begins.

“When you lose an election as we did, what we don’t do is start off with the existing policies,” he said. “What we do is start off with our values.”

Albanese insists those values will frame the next three years.

The government has already identified the issue of asylum seekers as one on which Albanese is vulnerable.

Despite details of attempted asylum-seeker voyages to Australia usually being tightly held as “on-water matters”, news of the mid-campaign arrival of a boat whose passengers were sent back to Sri Lanka found its way onto the front page of The Australian newspaper on Thursday.

The reports attributed the pre-election voyage to the expectation of a sympathetic incoming Labor government, following the passage of the medivac bill in the previous parliament.

Albanese rejected that analysis.

He said the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka may have prompted people to flee.

Albanese telephoned Prime Minister Scott Morrison, seeking a discussion on the issue.

“I’ve taken that initiative,” he told journalists. “… I’ll have disagreements with Scott Morrison – I’ll have big ones – but I respect the office of prime minister. That’s the respectful thing to do.”

Earlier, he told The Saturday Paper Labor would set general principles and then decide how to best reflect them in policy. “What we need to do is to make sure that processes are put in place for an orderly migration system and that is one which should not be dependent upon the sort of circumstances which we have now, which is for many people who have been indefinitely detained who are suffering understandable mental health issues as a result,” he said.

He urged the government to take up other countries’ settlement offers, especially the one from New Zealand.

His own position on asylum seekers has shifted in recent years and he now says offshore processing must remain part of Labor’s policy.

That should serve as a reminder to those who suggest Albanese will automatically steer Labor towards a hardline socialist agenda that they are misunderstanding two important things about the new leader.

First, Albanese is ultimately a pragmatist whose driving motivation is advancing the cause of Labor, which he sees as being to improve people’s lives in whichever way that can be achieved.

Second, he sees the factions as organisational more than ideological. The left-wing brawler of his political youth has now come to view factions much more as a means by which to achieve the power to do things.

“Have a look at what I did in government whereby I worked with business and unions,” Albanese said. “There’s a tendency to characterise me by some label by some in the media. They can do that if they like. Have a look at the relationships that I have with the business community, with the trade union movement, with people out there in the community, including local government mayors, many of whom in regional Australia would never vote Labor but they recognise the work that I did [as minister] and that will put me in good stead.”

Albanese is a politician who plays a long game.

In an interview for my biography of him, published in 2016, his colleague and friend, former NSW state parliamentarian Meredith Burgmann, said she had always prided herself on being able to think two or three steps ahead. But Albanese could think “10 steps ahead”.

It is a skill he has employed on his way up the political ladder.

When he doesn’t have the numbers to demand the changes he believes are important, he uses that skill to build them, seeking to out-manoeuvre and sometimes blindside factional or other opponents and even replace them with people in whom he sees more merit. In this context, merit means both talent and support for him or his cause. It can be a brutal business.

This was how ACT senator Kate Lundy was forced out in 2015 in favour of former chief minister Katy Gallagher. Gallagher was in Albanese’s part of the Left, Lundy in the breakaway Left group that lined up with Bill Shorten in the 2013 leadership ballot and since.

A cutthroat political player, Albanese is also an accomplished parliamentary tactician and negotiator and is not averse to compromise if it will achieve an ultimate objective. Such objectives may not always be evident at the time.

Albanese is now advocating greater bipartisanship in politics.

In a lecture he gave last year, Albanese decried what he called “ruthless partisanship” as “a failed model of government”.

“I’ve been consistent in talking about conflict fatigue,” he told The Saturday Paper. “I get it wherever I go and I talk to people. They are sick of seeing people yell at each other.”

On tax cuts, though, his bipartisan sentiment currently extends only to those scheduled for next financial year affecting low- to middle-income earners.

He is not willing to offer support beyond that, arguing it is inappropriate to bind a future parliament. But he does not entirely rule it out.

“We need to be economically responsible,” he said. “So we’ll give consideration to those measures, we’ll have a proper debate about it internally and then we’ll make it clear what our position is.”

Despite the disastrous record of attempted bipartisanship on climate change – which claimed political leaders and impeded serious action on climate change for a decade – Albanese is arguing for another go.

“Business requires certainty and in order to have that certainty, even if there are differences in targets, the framework and the mechanisms is what they want agreement [on],” he said “… The government has an opportunity to reset and they should do so.”

Nevertheless, he continued to decline to state a clear position on the Adani company’s proposed Carmichael coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

“Governments don’t determine what private-sector investments are made,” Albanese said. “What governments determine is that any proposed investment for projects stack up environmentally and that needs to be done on the basis of the science … There won’t be a vote in the national parliament about the Adani coalmine and people need to stop pretending that there will be.”

Mindful of the strong anti-Labor vote in the central Queensland coal seats, Albanese has said this week that the convoy led by former Greens leader Bob Brown from Tasmania to Queensland was counterproductive to Labor’s cause.

He criticised some anti-Adani protesters who demand government override the mine, dubbing them inconsistent Twitter warriors who argue that politics should trump science when it suits them.

“So to be consistent about policies, rather than trying to run complex policy issues through 140 characters, requires you to have an examination of the law, and an examination which is consistent,” he said. “And that’s what’s important in terms of investment in projects in this country.”

He continues to oppose investing government money in the Adani project.

Beyond that, Albanese refused to be definitive on this or other policy issues, three years out from the next election and before his frontbench has even been formed.

“There is no necessity for us to answer today because the answer today won’t be remembered in 2022,” he said, with a rebuke to those in the media who want him to be prescriptive on every issue instantly.

For all of his protestations about 2022 being a long way off, Albanese is already thinking about how to position Labor for the contest.

“People don’t just want better things for themselves, they want a better life for their family, for their neighbourhood, for their community and for the nation,” he said at his first news conference alongside his new leadership team.

“So, it’s a much broader definition than one which is about individualism … I want to appeal to people who are successful as well as lift people up.”

That heavy lifting has begun. Again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Starting again: the Albanese interview". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.