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In an exclusive interview with his biographer, Anthony Albanese details how years of strategic planning inform his long game: winning not just this election but the next one as well. By Karen Middleton.

The four-quarter plan: Inside Albanese’s strategy to win

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese on the campaign trail in Sydney on Wednesday.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese on the campaign trail in Sydney on Wednesday.
Credit: Facebook

Anthony Albanese looks different. It’s not the suit or the glasses or the weight loss, all of which have already been observed. It’s the way he is carrying himself: suddenly, in week five of this long federal campaign, Albanese is walking like a winner.

With just over a week to go, there is a new confidence in the Labor leader’s approach to his task. “I think we’ve built momentum in the campaign and that’s helped,” he says. “I have confidence that the strategies that I’ve worked through with members of my team were the right ones.”

That strategy has seen him begin to taper his campaign in this second-last week. Its pace is less frenetic than on the Coalition side and he is being audacious, visiting Coalition seats few had put within Labor’s reach.

This week, he has been to North Sydney for a second time. On Thursday, he visited Flynn in Queensland, which the Nationals hold by 8.7 per cent. Each stop makes a statement: We are on the march.

In contrast, Scott Morrison is still sticking mostly to seats he is defending, along with the half-handful of Labor marginals that remain in the hopeful gains column.

Back in Sydney for a couple of days, Albanese reflects on the campaign so far. “I think that people don’t want their politicians to be perfect,” he insists. “They want them to be fair dinkum, though. And during this campaign I’m fair dinkum.”

After disastrous early stumbles and clumsy press conferences, Albanese gives the impression he has decided to take charge. He looks like someone who thinks they may well be about to become prime minister. When this is put to him, he declines to engage. “We’re competitive,” is all he will say.

This close to the end, there will be no complacency or hubris, lest either undermine the victory itself. And signs can be wrong: Labor believed them last time and got smashed.

“Under my leadership, Labor is in a position whereby we are competitive at this election,” Albanese states carefully. “But we’re certainly not getting ahead of ourselves.”

The shock of 2019 still permeates the whole Labor Party, a particular kind of trauma that comes from experiencing crushing defeat when you were expecting the opposite.

With millions of Australians already voting, Anthony Albanese and every member of his team are fighting an internal battle. There is both a palpable fear of repeating 2019’s devastating miscalculation and a firming sense, hard to ignore, that this time they are genuinely headed for success.

“I’m comfortable that, you know,” he says after a pause, “we’re going to leave nothing on the field.”

 

After winning the leadership in 2019, Albanese began overseeing the designs of both a plan for government and a plan to get there.

In crafting their campaign, he and his key strategists worked up scenarios around five possible election dates: October or December 2021, March 2022, May 14, 2022, and finally May 21.

The campaign strategy was in four phases, starting with the review of the 2019 result conducted by former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and former federal minister Craig Emerson.

Phase two was a series of big-picture statements – the vision thing – on issues including jobs and skills, climate change and aged care. Then came refinement of policy positions, involving the labour movement via the party’s national conference, which sets its platform.

Then, the campaign proper, “the fourth quarter”, as Albanese calls it.

“We kick with the wind in the fourth quarter,” is how he puts it.

Albanese studied his opponent carefully. He plays a long game and his instincts often seem counterintuitive.

Many Labor supporters have doubted his approach. But despite the way he presents, he is deeply, instinctively strategic and he has insisted, against some pressure, that they stick to his plans.

Labor stuck with it, even when Albanese decided to support the government early in the pandemic instead of opposing it.

He observes now that opposition leaders who did push back got attention for the wrong reasons and the only ones still leading their parties are the new South Australian premier, Peter Malinauskas, and himself.

“This time last year, some people were writing us off – the prospect of us winning,” he says. “I’ve been determined to have a successful political strategy rather than day-to-day tactics ... And that, I think, has been reflected in the way that we’ve conducted the campaign, which has been thought through, which is measured, which represents safe change. We’re not promising to up-end the tables. People have been through a really difficult couple of years. What they want to know is that we have a plan to do better, to change the country for the better.”

Albanese took one key lesson from 2019: “That you need to have a strong narrative and a story to tell.”

That is where the real plan comes in, the one for government.

“The first thing is setting up structures,” he says of his ideas for the economy.

He lists five things: a powering Australia plan to provide cheaper energy with greater emphasis on renewables; making more things in Australia through advanced manufacturing; childcare reform to both ease the cost burden – he ultimately wants universal childcare, like Medicare – and to lift productivity by helping more women into the workforce; boosting skills; and infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is a great example of … what’s wrong with this government,” he says. “How could you spend as much money as they have and not create major nation-building projects?”

But he refuses to nominate a first priority for budget repair and won’t talk either savings or tax.

Albanese wants change that is unifying. “Change which emphasises our common interests and brings people with the political leadership of the country, on the journey, and which the people have ownership of. At the moment, we have a government that when it sits around and speaks about legislation, speaks about ‘How do we wedge Labor?’ ”

On foreign policy, he is more cautious. He declines to commit, if elected, to an early meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. “My first step is to meet with our allies,” he emphasises.

Should he win that will happen fast. There is a Quad meeting involving the leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia in Tokyo on May 24, just three days after the election.

“The China relationship will remain complex and will remain difficult, regardless of who wins this election, because China has changed,” he says. “China has changed and Australia should not compromise on any of our values in that relationship.”

But he endorses “the rhetorical position of the United States” on China as “something that would be mirrored by a government I led”.

On the troubled relations with Solomon Islands, he prefers to talk about the whole Pacific. If elected, he plans to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in June and begin seeking to deepen ties.

“They are sovereign nations,” he says. “They identify climate change as their No. 1 priority and a government in Australia that recognises that as a priority is important to them.”

 

Contemplating meeting world leaders as head of government is not something Anthony Albanese saw as his destiny growing up. Unlike most of his immediate predecessors, he had no burning desire to be prime minister.

His brief experience as deputy prime minister to the resurrected Kevin Rudd in 2013 made it seem possible. Encouraged by colleagues he won’t name, he ran against Bill Shorten after Labor lost government in 2013, when new rules meant the wider party members had a vote for the first time.

“I had to be sure myself that I wanted to do it,” he says. “Because you can’t half do it. You’ve got to be all in.”

Winning the popular vote but not the leadership, due to the weighted vote of caucus colleagues, made it seem more possible.

After almost winning in 2016, Shorten remained through to 2019 when Albanese says he believed, like they all did, that Labor would win. He says he stayed in the Infrastructure portfolio because he had “unfinished business” there. But then they lost.

“On the night when we weren’t successful, I made the decision to run for leader.”

Albanese has a lot he wants to do. He says he was genuinely amazed when he read a newspaper profile of Scott Morrison early this year in which the prime minister scoffed at the notion of a legacy and said leaders who start thinking about legacies stop thinking about now.

Albanese sees legacy not as building monuments but making improvements that outlast those who introduce them. “Legacy is changing the country for the better,” he says. “Legacy is what the last Labor government did with the national broadband network, with the NDIS, with paid parental leave. The apology to the Stolen Generations. You look at the legacies I have already put down. A national anti-corruption commission. Constitutional recognition for First Nations people with a Voice to Parliament is a legacy that changes the country for the better. That’s what I want to do. I’m passionate about it … I don’t know why anyone would do this job if you weren’t serious about changing the country for the better – not in a partisan way, in a real way.”

Unsurprisingly, he is scathing about the Coalition’s past nine years.

“What is their agenda for a fourth-term government? I don’t know what it is. Their only agenda is they’re not the Labor Party. And that, to me, is unworthy of a democratic process.”

 

In Wednesday night’s third televised debate, Albanese and Morrison were each invited to identify a characteristic they admired in the other.

Morrison nominated that Albanese had “never forgot where he’s come from”.

He noted Albanese’s tenacity in reaching the top of his political party, having come from the challenging circumstances of a low-income household, raised by a single mum who was crippled with severe arthritis. Emotion flickered briefly on the Labor leader’s face as Morrison mentioned Maryanne Albanese, his late mother, whose grave he still visits regularly in Sydney. But the prime minister spiked his praise with an insistence that, despite his resilience and ability, Albanese wasn’t up to leading the country.

The Morrison campaign strategy is heavily focused on seeding and growing doubt in Albanese’s capabilities and in contrasting himself positively with the Labor leader in every way. Albanese’s biggest campaign weakness – his public presentation – has provided ammunition. Both sides have leant heavily on arguments about character.

Albanese generally mixes easily across the parliament and has forged unexpected relationships. As leader of the house in the Gillard government’s hung parliament, he could fall back on longstanding crossbench friendships, including with the maverick Queensland independent MP Bob Katter, forged when Albanese entered parliament in 1996.

Equally, he has his enemies, especially on his own side. The recent sudden death of Senator Kimberley Kitching exposed some of those animosities. He plays factional politics hard and there are political casualties as well as allies.

While victory, if it comes, will help create unity, more effort than that will be required.

In the campaign, Albanese has eschewed W. C. Fields’ famous warning about never working with children or animals. Both have been around in abundance, especially babies and dogs. This is no accident. Albanese loves dogs – his devotion to his own small white pooch, Toto, is well documented – and friendly dogs make for great campaign photos, emphasising the candidate’s caring side.

Babies are a standard feature of political campaigns. This time, though, the  pictures of Albanese cuddling and cooing serve to counter an undercurrent in the Morrison campaign’s messaging. In imagery and language, the Liberal team has emphasised Morrison’s marital status, inviting a comparison with that of the now-divorced Albanese. It is not acknowledged, it’s an undertone. It’s also not an accident.

In a Liberal television advertisement about Morrison, the camera lingers on his wedding ring. His public references to his wife, Jenny, and his family life increased after Albanese and his wife of 20 years, Carmel Tebbutt, split in 2019. It’s a pitch to those whose votes may be influenced by such things.

During the campaign, Albanese has been introducing his partner, Jodie Haydon, to the public glare. The couple have been in a relationship for three years and he is aware that, should he win, the focus will only increase. Generally, though, he believes politicians’ families should be spared the spotlight whenever possible.

When it was his turn to identify an admirable quality in Morrison during Wednesday’s debate, the Labor leader stuck to the positive. He praised the government’s funding for mental health and acknowledged that being prime minister was hard.

“Scott’s obviously committed to his nation, and I admire that,” Albanese said.

But there was no sign of admiration 24 hours earlier, when The Saturday Paper noted it was being observed increasingly that the two men don’t like each other and asked Albanese why he so vehemently wanted to remove the government and its leader.

He says Morrison has “contempt for democratic processes in the parliament”.

“I think this is a government that is unworthy of the Australian people. I genuinely think that.”

He cites lost opportunities on climate action, a growing inequality, and the “failure to have any significant economic, social or environmental reform” in defence of his view. And he adds one more issue: accountability. “The rorting of funds and waste of funds and treating taxpayers’ money like it’s Liberal and National party money has got consistently worse since 2013.”

When it’s pointed out that Labor governments, including those of which he was a part, have also engaged in pork-barrelling, he insists it was not like this.

“Nor did John Howard’s government do that,” he says.

“This is mass scale, industrial rorting of taxpayer funds … The arrogance of this government has got worse as it has gone on.”

 

For the past three years, Albanese has been contemplating government seriously – conferring in recent times with Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Before his death in 2019, Bob Hawke had become a kind of mentor. “I talked with him about governing and the way that his government functioned, about how to get the best out of government processes,” Albanese says. “And I see Bob Hawke’s style of cabinet as being a model.”

Anthony Albanese’s ideas for government cover two terms, not just one. He believes the Rudd and Gillard governments’ reforms were undermined by their own instability.

He says he is “determined to establish structures and a program for government that ensures that Labor does govern long-term. I firmly believe that Labor should be the natural party of government. I believe that Labor represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of Australians at our best, and that we should be able to deliver that. And I’m determined to do that. Which is why I’ve spoken about two dates: this election and the next one.”

Albanese says he feels “a great weight of responsibility to remove this government”.

For all his attempts to keep the hopes and dreams in check, it’s not the language of someone who thinks he’s going to lose. 

Karen Middleton is the author of Albanese: Telling it Straight.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "The four-quarter plan: Inside Albanese’s strategy to win".

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

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