Eleven Steps Ahead - Australian Fabians
21 May, 2023

Eleven Steps Ahead - Meredith Burgmann on her friend Albo as Prime Minister


I have known Albo since the eighties. 

Like many of us, I still find the words ‘Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’ very weird. Knowing the man, it probably sounds quite strange to him too. I’m not sure I ever saw him as a future prime minister, and I don’t think he saw himself in that way either. Unlike those pushy princes with perfect teeth and shiny hair who announce their intentions when they arrive at the University Debating Club, Albo was always pretty reticent about his future. He may have been reticent about it but he has always been good at looking into the future and seeing things that others don’t. This has made him the interesting strategist that he is. His early career and 26 years in parliament taught him a lot. There will be very few rookie errors from Albo as prime minister.

Call me Albo, please

I met Anthony Albanese as a young student in the Criterion Hotel — the old Criterion which used to be on the corner of Sussex and Liverpool. It was where the general Left congregated from about 1970 until its demolition in 1986. Albo turned up there as a friend of my then research assistant, Jo Scard.

He introduced himself to me as ‘Albo’ — and insisted on me calling him that. Even then he had such joie de vivre and self-confidence that I actually remember meeting him. I doubt if I would remember meeting any other 19 year old in the Criterion on a Friday night after many beers.There was just something about him even then.

Everyone knows the story of Albo being brought up by his single mum in the little housing commission home in Bridge Road Camperdown. He would often point it out to me. 

Maryanne suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and was often in hospital. Her illness gave Albo enormous self-confidence because from time to time he was left alone in the house to look after himself. Even when she was home, he would have to give her care like cutting up her meals. Maryanne adored him and Albo was the apple of her eye.

On his 50th birthday, Albo made a speech that really stuck in my mind. He said that he supported women having lives in leadership, because ‘women shouldn’t have to be like my mother and live their lives through their sons’.

One of the things that arose out of this view of the world was his very early belief that women should be members of parliament. He was crucially important in organising women into seats from the early ‘90s onwards (well before quotas). He was instrumental in encouraging Janelle Saffin, Tanya Plibersek, Maggie Deahm, Linda Burney, Carmel Tebbutt, Penny Sharpe, Jo Haylen and many others to take on the role.

With me it almost amounted to bullying. I was an academic and very happy being an academic. I was president of my union, the Academics Union (now NTEU) and active in the left of the union movement — not so much the ALP.

Albo came around to see me one day, knocked on my door and said he wanted to take me out to lunch, which should have aroused my suspicions then and there. At lunch he put to me that I should go into the upper house and I said ‘don’t be silly — I’m an academic’. All academics ever want to do is be academics. So I sent him away. 

However over that weekend I marked 200 first year essays. And by the time he came back on the Tuesday to ask if I had reconsidered, I had in fact reconsidered — and that’s how my political life started. So if I ever have to nominate a mentor, I always say Albo, even though he is 16 years younger than me.

He understood the issue of getting women into Parliament so much earlier than other men. When feminist icon (and first NSW woman in Federal Parliament) Jeannette McHugh’s seat of Philip was abolished in a redistribution, Albo somehow organised for her to represent the seat of Grayndler, by convincing everyone that it was the neighbouring seat. It actually wasn’t ‘neighbouring’ but everyone was totally won over by Albo’s enthusiastic advocacy.

Albo and I had terrible arguments (photo attached). Strangely they were never about women’s issues. He saw me as too centred on inner city concerns, such as anti-war and anti-uranium activism, and kept hammering me about the need for the Left to broaden itself out to the western suburbs and take on issues such as housing and poverty. However we were always united in our shared belief that the unions were the basis of Labor’s existence.

One of the things that everyone always remembers is how good he was at relating to the rank-and-file. Albo loved getting out and meeting the branch members. Down to earth and sociable, he was a great hit at Country Conference and mostly managed to make friends and have a beer with everybody in the entire town.

As I have been quoted as saying, ‘you always knew the party had started when Albo arrived’. I realise as Party Leader he now has to project a more staid and statesmanlike persona but I miss the old ebullient Albo.

Although he never had any self-doubt, I never heard him say that he was going to be prime minister. In fact, I never even heard him say that he was going to be in Parliament. What he once said to me was that he thought he was really well suited to doing the job that he had at the time, which was being leader of the Left in NSW and fighting the good fight in Head Office. 

He has been quoted as saying that he doubted whether he wanted to be party leader, saying ‘I don’t have the destiny thing’, and I know that’s true. He did agonise about running against Bill Shorten in 2013.

I talked to him at his election night party in 2013, when we lost the election. I was trying to convince him to run and he said to me, ‘I think I’m just too tired’, and he did look terrible. He was exhausted because he had not only been Minister for Infrastructure, but he’d been Leader of the House in a very tight situation where it would have taken every ounce of his strategic nous to get stuff through the hung parliament.

Cautious but not timid

So what made him decide him to stand? I don’t know really but I suspect it was a whole lot of people like me telling him to do so. I’m still not sure that being PM was his target. After the desperately depressing election of 2019, I’m sure he sat down and worked out exactly what went wrong and what needed to be done to get a different result. Then he set out to do it. 

The ALP’s Weatherill/Emerson report on the 2019 loss pinpoints the public’s lack of enthusiasm for Bill Shorten, but other problems such as ‘too many policies’ and ‘not enough persuasion’ would have struck a chord with Albo’s own views about having to bring the public along with you when taking big policy steps. 

There has been much discussion about the way in which he streamlined policy commitments and ‘removed barnacles’. However, I would like to make the important point that Albo is cautious but not timid — and there’s a huge difference. He has been cautious in how he has approached defence and foreign policy matters but has certainly not been timid in his enthusiastic and very early support for the First Nations voice to Parliament. He has not been timid about his belief in climate change or the need to raise workers’ wages either.

However, he does believe that you need to still be standing at the end of the day in order to get any of these policies enacted — and that’s what he intends to do. He intends to still be there in three years... six years... maybe even nine years.

There has been some commentary during the last six months about decency and respect in government and Anthony actually does believe that Parliament should be a decent place. It might not always have seemed this way, but he has often managed to have relationships ‘across the aisle’, and when someone’s in real personal difficulty, Albo was always able to forget party or factional differences and do what was needed to help them out. I know he has done so on numerous occasions.

He also has a strong sense of ‘what’s right’ and I for one was not in the slightest bit surprised to see him turn up at the unveiling of Tony Abbot’s prime ministerial portrait. He believes in Parliament and believes in democratic elections. He will treat former Prime Ministers with respect — possibly even Scott Morrison eventually.

Lone Wolf or Leader of the Pack?

When a new Prime Minister appears you always have to ask, who do they owe? 

When the new PM is there as the result of a palace coup, then the answer is pretty obvious, but Albo was the only nomination for Party leader in 2019. There was no bare knuckle wrestle against an angry foe. It has been Albo’s solid support from rank-and-file members of the Labor party (mainly, but not exclusively, Left) that has been his support base, and to some extent they are really the only people that he owes.

There is no right wing machine that he will have to cater for. There are no corporations or lobby groupswaiting for their pay off. As the NSW Left Assistant Secretary, he did not take part in some of the more shady dealings that took place in Sussex Street. He was ideologically opposed to corporate largesse and too clever to get himself involved.

Katherine Murphy’s contribution to the new ‘Albo as PM’ genre, Quarterly Essay 88 ‘Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics’, is an interesting piece, but strangely titled. I agree more with Crikey writer Chris Warren, who also knew the young Albo well: ‘Anthony was not a ‘Lone Wolf’, rather he was creating his own pack of wolves’. 

In the mid to late 1980s Albo was part of a brutal intra-Left struggle in the NSW Party. It was the carry-over from a 1970s split which had never healed. Albo built around himself in NSW a group of likeminded progressives (the ‘Hard Left’) who believed in union movement involvement, whereas the oppositional “Soft Left” led by Martin Ferguson were more focussed on the branches, and consequentially the winning of seats. 

The first strike in this campaign was when a very young Albo won the position of Left Assistant Secretary (basically leader of the Left) from the Ferguson candidate who was considered a shoo-in. As the Left leader, he managed to outwit the Right on numerous occasions and began attracting his own support base and also managed to inspire some prominent crossovers. He would always cheerfully describe these types as ‘on the transfer list’.

When he went into Parliament Albo continued to remould the Left so that eventually we ended up with a dominant National Left grouping which is often referred to, for convenience sake, as the ‘Albo Left’. Sometimes these new factions cosseted by Albo involved massive realignments. 

So, not a lone wolf but, as Chris Warren says, ‘the leader of the pack’.

Albo always had the capacity to make friends and cement allies in weird places. In my role as a duty MLC, I would often arrive in a country town to talk to some Right wing party members only to discover they were huge Albo fans from way back. He had partied with them one night or visited their mum in a nursing home. Everyone always remembered.

Since a short stint working for Bob Carr in the 1990s, Albo has had a genuinely easy relationship with many in the Right. He is very able to temporarily cast aside political differences in order to concentrate on what needs to be done at the time. I was not surprised to see that he had recently dined privately with Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott and BCA President Tim Reed. Possibly he was bending their ear about climate change or even IR reform. It would have been a convivial evening. He can be very entertaining and this tactic of picking off players individually will continue.

One of the reasons that Albo has been so underestimated both by his opponents and by the media is that he is genuinely daggy. He has a grating accent and until recently a pretty uncouth way of presenting himself. He was the original ocker dad turning up at headbanging concerts and enthusiastically necking a beer. He was genuine though.

The last six months have given us plenty to judge Albo as prime minister.

The government’s legislative record has been robust. He knows how to carry plans through and get stuff done, which, coming after years of Coalition nothingness will be very refreshing.

He is not a policy wonk. He won’t be sitting up at night going over tiny details in long submissions. The words ‘programmatic specificity’ will never pass his lips. He doesn’t need to be a policy wonk when he has a skilled public service (which he believes in) and his own talented ministers to provide the particulars.

He also has a prodigious memory. When he was in Young Labor he knew everyone’s telephone number off by heart and used to spout them out almost like a party trick, which is why I was so surprised at his ‘unemployment rate’ flub on the first day of campaigning. Oh well everyone has a brain fade occasionally.

He knows how to implement policy and how to get the best out of his front bench team.

He is tactically very smart. I once said to him that I was getting better and I could now think three steps ahead, and he just laughed at me and said ‘yeah, but I’m eleven steps ahead’. I reckon that’s probably true. He’s the master of the long game. In any fight within the party he always knew how to keep the back channels open. He knew the importance of not breaking down communication. 

He did love outwitting his opponents who were trying to support more conservative positions or were manoeuvring against us at a factional level. When I was in parliament he would sometimes contact me and say ‘Joe Blogs from the Telegraph is going to ring you in 5 minutes and you are going to say this’. I would do so, knowing I was part of some intricate plan to get a Left objective supported or a terrible policy scrapped. It always worked.

If I was pushed to talk about what policy he was most involved with during this period it was always poverty. He talked a lot about social disadvantage. He was particularly interested in housing — the need for good public and social housing policies. This did not just arise out of his own circumstances, but from working for Tom Uren, the great Whitlam Minister for Urban and Regional Development. Albo’s election policy promise of $10bn for social and affordable housing was no surprise to me.

I knew he’d been a student activist at Sydney Uni around the importance of political economy courses, which totally ties in with his whole emphasison poverty and the role of workers in a society.

We did have shocking arguments and I can remember at one stage both of us shouting at each other in tears. Which brings me to another thing that needs to be said about Albo, which is that he cries at the drop of a hat. I remember his victory party when he first got elected to Parliament in 1996. It was terrible because the Labor Party had lost the election. Albo held it together pretty well during his speech but when he started to thank his mother he burst into tears. Mind you we were all in tears that night anyway.

Albo is a fighter. He’s very loyal and he doesn’t mind getting into scraps. He recognises that sometimes he has to make enemies. Once he said to me, ‘you know me, I don’t have a second gear’ and that is absolutely right. Sometimes it’s to his detriment.But at least you know where you stand.

I’m showing my age, but the one thing I don’t cope with is his beloved music. The Pixies and the Celibate Rifles are not my idea of fun. He once told me who his great hero in life was — not Marx or even Whitlam. His great hero in life was Kurt Cobain. Really! 


Meredith Burgmann AM is a former president of the New South Wales Legislative Council.

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