From lone wolf to leader: the making of Anthony Albanese | Katharine Murphy

In this Quarterly Essay extract, Katharine Murphy excavates the layers of the Australian prime minister’s formative years

Australia’s 31st prime minister can’t remember a time when life hasn’t required him to think three steps ahead. His mother, Maryanne, was often unwell, and from the time he was born in 1963, it was just the two of them in a council house in Sydney’s inner west. He wouldn’t meet his father, Carlo, until he was an adult.

When Maryanne was incapacitated, young Anthony was in loco parentis. He did the finances, paid the rent and the household bills. When he was 12, he got himself a paper round. After school, Albanese sold copies of The Sun and The Daily Mirror on Bligh Street, amid peak-hour traffic. He chose that location because the kids got $16 a week instead of $12. Maryanne had rheumatoid arthritis. Management of her chronic pain was sporadic and ineffectual until a mate from university, Mark Jones, came around for dinner one night and saw Anthony having to cut up his mother’s food so she could eat. Albanese recounts this experience a lot, because humans curate our biographies. The stories we share from our past are often didactic, and this particular anecdote explains how he came to understand the value of accruing a network.

Mark was from Hunters Hill and his mother worked as a receptionist for David Champion, a rheumatologist. “As a result of that connection, I got her an appointment,” Albanese says. Dr Frank Robertson thenrestructured her hands and feet – long operations. Two different times at Sydney hospital in Macquarie Street. She was in there and did months of rehab. It meant she could walk without acute pain, she could use her hands much more and was in a better state than she was 15 years earlier.” Maryanne used to tell Anthony it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and that transformative experience lingers in her son’s consciousness.

Before that, things had been rough. “One time she was in a small hospital in Glebe,” he recalls. “It was an old building. Mum was upstairs and due to be discharged. On the way out, as they put the bed down the stairs, she slid off the bed, basically down the stairs in this hospital.” Albanese was 14 or 15 when he witnessed his mother being treated as an inconvenience. “They picked her up, put her in the ambulance because they needed the bed. I was like, are you kidding me? I was the only one at home and I had to look after her.”

Anthony Albanese as a Young Labour delegate in 1986.
Anthony Albanese as a Young Labour delegate in to the party’s 1986 national conference. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

When Maryanne was prescribed the corticosteroid prednisone as part of earlier treatment for the arthritis, things went awry, and young Anthony again had to try to sort it out. “I remember having an argument with the doctor as a school student,” Albanese says. “Are you waiting for her to die? She was on the wrong dose, things were going wrong, and they weren’t doing anything to fix it. She lost control over her nervous system, she lost her speech, she was shaking the whole time, she was incredibly emotional and frustrated by it all, and they weren’t doing anything to change things.” The indignity of these experiences made him angry. Adolescent Anthony was a bull in a china shop, trying to crash through hard barriers by force of personality and will. He was devoted to his mother. Their bond was unshakeable. Maryanne was the centre of his world, and the gap between her generosity of spirit and the indifference of the systems they interacted with felt intolerable.

But he was also a kid forced to be an adult. If you’ve had this experience, you’ll know how visceral it is to oscillate between deep insecurity and intrusive practical responsibility. Periodically, that pressure stoked resentment. He acted out. He was sometimes naughty at school and got into fights after the bell rang. “Now, they’d call the parents. But back then, it was no big deal.” Albanese was rebellious. He took risks. “There were all sorts of things we did to get by,” he says, without further elaboration. He was perceived by others as a “pretty tough kid.” He laughs. “There would be people [from back then] who would be quite surprised now that I’m sitting in the prime minister’s office,” Albanese says. “To say the least.”

* * *

Albanese is a life learner. People and place are his anchors. A lot of people who have struggled in childhood need distance from those experiences. They need to be something else. They pull up roots and begin again elsewhere, but Albanese has remained in the neighbourhood where he grew to adulthood. He has gentrified as Albo country has gentrified. A childhood in a council house is another country once you inhabit the most powerful office in Australia. Albanese has overt power, creature comforts. He walks on plush carpet and sits on bespoke furniture. Someone brings him coffee when his energy flags. There’s a cook at the residences to take care of meals. Toto can hitch a ride on the air-force plane and chase a ball down the rolling lawn at Kirribilli that slopes to Sydney Harbour. We’re not in Camperdown anymore. He’s not the kid who had to wonder when Mum would come home from hospital and what condition she would be in by the time she returned; whether he’d have to help her into the shower or watch her bump down stairs on her backside because she couldn’t stand up on crippled feet.

Quarterly Essay cover

But at some level, you are always that kid. Camperdown set Albanese’s character. Many of the prime minister’s core survival skills formed there. Politicians are conditioned by the job to be selfish and dictatorial, so as a cohort, they aren’t particularly self-aware. You can’t tell them anything. They already know all the things. But he tries to be self-aware about the impact of childhood conditioning. Albanese says he’s totally self-reliant. “I don’t like to be needed. That’s a direct product of [my] history.” His mother needed him, and he needed her. His country needs him, and he is a person who needs purpose. It’s odd, given that, to want to pull off the yoke, but Albanese’s observation is honest. Obligation is duty, and duty is weight, and weight impedes flight.

Even though he has staff to organise his life, Albanese seeks to control his own environment. “I’ll do things in the office that can create problems. I do stuff in my diary, I organise meetings. I do stuff, you know, that’s me” – meaning he initiates things without necessarily consulting others. He also gathers people around him who know what he needs. A number of people working for him now have been with him or adjacent to him since the 1980s. He doesn’t have to be verbal about what he needs, because Albo people already know; they are experts in the ebbs and flows of his personality. They can read the moods, like weather forecasters.

Today, the boss is cloudy with a chance of an evening thunderstorm. Experienced staff intuit what can be shaped and what has to play out. Political offices often have factions and intrigues. Albanese’s office is no exception. People can move in and out of favour for unfathomable reasons. Staffing can be a feudal and toxic business. But Albo people also tend to exhibit a form of platonic devotion that eclipses any transient homicidal impulses. Politics is war. War breeds intimacy and camaraderie. It’s what sustains souls in adverse environments.

As well as tending his own minutiae, Albanese also needs to keep moving. He finds it difficult to defer tasks that can be transacted quickly. He points at his in and out trays on his desk in the prime ministerial office. They are sparse. “There is nothing in my signing pile,” he says. “I never do anything tomorrow that I can do today.” Working through tasks requires a measure of anticipation. “If I do this, then what happens? I’ve thought that through. For some people, if there’s a problem or an issue, they don’t think through to the next step.”

“I had to plan,” he says. “If I didn’t plan, my mum wouldn’t have food, we wouldn’t pay rent.” Even now, Albanese remains attentive to his material needs, preparing for all contingencies. “I’ve never run out of anything at home,” he says. I’m incredulous. Never? Come on. With a lifestyle as busy as yours? “Never,” Albanese insists. “Milk. Frozen food. Coffee. Toilet paper. Food for Toto. Here’s another example. I’ve never paid a cent in interest on a credit card. I pay bills before they are due even though that’s not an economically rational thing to do.”

Anthony Albanese with his dog Toto during the election campaign earlier this year.
Anthony Albanese with his dog Toto during the election campaign earlier this year. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Albanese’s friend and key factional ally Mark Butler, now Australia’s health minister, says the prime minister’s habitual self-reliance is “a hard-wired thing, almost subconscious.” Butler believes it’s a survival skill. It’s muscle memory. And it’s the bedrock of his strategic capability. “A lot of us have fluid backgrounds – different family circumstances that shift and change over the course of our adolescence,” Butler says. “I don’t have a single childhood experience; it was a series of changing experiences. Anthony’s was a much more …” he pauses briefly. “He had a very defined experience as a child and adolescent, and I think it shaped him. It’s not as natural for him to bring people around him as it is for others.”

Meredith Burgmann, a senior state Labor MP, believes Albanese’s strategic nous stems from “bringing himself up.” He learnt at a young age to play three-dimensional chess. “It took me a while, because I’m not into the internecine stuff, but I did come to realise in time how very good at strategy he is,” she says. “After a while it got to the point where I wouldn’t make a significant political move without talking to him first.”

She also believes the influence of Tom Uren – a giant of left politics, a former deputy leader of the ALP and a father figure to Albanese – added valuable inflection points. Albanese worked as an adviser to Uren on the road to federal politics. Uren was a remarkable Australian – a professional boxer in his youth, a prisoner of war who worked on the notorious Burma Railway before being transferred to Japan, where he witnessed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Burgmann says Uren taught Albanese about “forgiveness and long-term thinking”. Another old friend, Paul Murphy, who has known Albanese since 1983, says Uren impressed on his protege the need in politics and in life to find people of goodwill wherever they are. To find a way to work with them to achieve change. “That’s something he’s really taken to heart and lived,” Murphy says. “It’s only natural that when you are younger you are much more bull at a gate, but he really has learnt patience. That capacity to find people and deal with people in different ways to achieve things.”

* * *

If Albanese’s childhood was a rolling seminar in class consciousness, Labor politics offered a productive outlet for his prodigious energy. He joined Young Labor while he was still in high school, and he helped revive the Labor club when he went to Sydney University. He was the first in his family to enter tertiary education. Years of frustration were channelled into political organising, and young Albanese (or “old Albo” as some of the colleagues prefer, meaning the beta version) wasn’t inclined to take prisoners. Catherine Cusack studied economics at Sydney University at the same time as Albanese. She was the president of the Young Liberals when Albanese, a noisy young inner-city activist, was blazing a trail through student politics.

Anthony Albanese in 1986.
Bull at a gate: Anthony Albanese in 1986. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

Cusack is a great admirer of the prime minister now. But at that time, in the mid-1980s, she didn’t know him personally. She was apprehensive about the young left-wing “firebrand.” In those days he was hard left. She recalls Albanese “missiles” fired in correspondence – ideological screeds laced with ad hominem arrived typewritten, with hand corrections. The Young Liberals, including the president, were capitalist pigs, or words to that effect; the tone was “very leftwing, very dogmatic, very aggressive”. Cusack says Albanese attempted to challenge her to a public debate. Bob Hawke was in power and had launched the priority one jobs program for unemployed youth – a significant controversy on campus at that time. “The first letter I got, I didn’t know how to answer and I certainly didn’t want to be debating him,” Cusack laughs. “It’s hilarious to look back on it. I tried not to tell anyone about it because I was terrified someone would say to me, ‘Go get him, Catherine.’ I certainly didn’t want to be in that situation.” Cusack didn’t reply to the first letter. A few weeks later Albanese dispatched a second letter, declaring she was a coward for not responding and offering her another chance to debate. “I didn’t reply to the second letter and thank goodness he stopped writing,” she laughs.

Uren says in his memoir Straight Left that when he brought Albanese on to his ministerial staff, some comrades in the left faction expressed horror. “Oh, you are putting a young Trot on your staff.” (For the record, Uren disagreed with the characterisation, and predicted Albanese would lead the left, then the Labor party.) Burgmann says young Anthony had “no second gear”. She says if he wanted to beat someone in an argument, “he could really go into it. He and I had terrible arguments. We’d end up both of us crying. It was because he felt strongly about things.”

Anthony Albanese as ALP assistant state secretary in 1992.
Anthony Albanese as ALP assistant state secretary in 1992. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

It wasn’t all anger. Some of it was unconfined joy. “He was great fun,” Burgmann says. “You always felt the party started when Albo arrived. When he wanted to, he could be very charismatic even. He knew how to get people to do stuff because they wanted to be doing stuff with him.” Murphy reinforces the portrait of a young extrovert. “We were both serious young insects, but we had a lot of fun,” he says. “We bonded over a shared love of music, different bands, football – although I don’t share his passion for the Rabbitohs.” Murphy says he and Albanese spent a decent portion of their youth “shit-talking each other over a game of pool”.

Jeannette McHugh and Anthony Albanese at an ALP Meeting at Petersham Public School in 1994.
Jeannette McHugh, who was the member for Grayndler, and Anthony Albanese at an ALP meeting at Petersham public school in 1994. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Albanese has the measure of ruthlessness that politics requires. But he is also loyal in a transactional business, so he has allies and proper friends, including in places you’d never expect. He cultivates people, and invests in long relationships. He’s tough, and wily, and calculating. But he can also be kind, often at just the right moment.

He feels things. Voters would have clocked this dimension of the prime minister by now. The lip quivers. He brims. Sometimes the feelings overflow. That’s not affectation or a performance. It’s a core attribute. He wants to keep himself open to the world. Empathy in politics, if you can maintain it, works as a sixth sense. It helps him anticipate. A lot of leaders are natural pessimists, because assuming the worst saves time and energy, but Albanese assumes you are for him until he learns you are against him. Then it’s war. There are intimates, allies, and then there are enemies. Often, he’ll seek to neutralise rivals, and politics furnishes a number of options for achieving that. If enemies can’t be disarmed, he escalates to exclusion.

While he accrues connections with relentless focus, the flipside is his need for personal space. He prioritises thinking time so he can ponder various actions and reactions. If he can’t retreat from noise, he’ll screen it out even if this inconveniences others. When he was young, and had saved up enough money to travel, he went overseas by himself for six months. Albanese was social, met up with people along the way, but he didn’t want to move in a pack. These instincts carry over into contemporary life. He retreats, but when alone he’ll connect with his network on his terms. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone downstairs from the press gallery to interview politicians from across the political spectrum and they’ve just got off the phone with Albanese.

When he won the seat of Grayndler and began the federal politician’s fly-in, fly-out lifestyle, the decades of having two lives – one in Sydney’s inner west and another in Canberra – his equilibrium wasn’t disturbed at all, although he acknowledges his former wife, Carmel, wasn’t happy with a divided existence towards the end of their marriage. Arriving in Canberra in 1996, Albanese began in a group house, then bought a flat near the parliament by himself because he needed a private space to retreat to. “Even the journey I’m on now,” he says, meaning the journey to becoming prime minister of Australia, “some people, I think, would find it really lonely. They’d have great difficulty with that. I’m OK. Last night I sat at the Lodge by myself, watched the footy, had a beer. I’m fine with that.”

Anthony Albanese plays with his dog Toto at the Lodge, in Canberra.
Anthony Albanese plays with his dog Toto at the Lodge, in Canberra. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Butler has known Albanese since he was the state secretary of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union in South Australia. He says the prime minister isn’t one or two things, he’s a whole range of things, and some of his qualities are contradictory. Fighter. Life of the party. Lone wolf. Networker. Consensus-builder. “This is counterintuitive for a lot of people, because he’s a fighter and he’s had to fight to get to where he is,” Butler says. “He’s not one or the other. He’s genuinely both.

“I think he’s agile and he can adapt to circumstances. When he needs to fight, he fights; he’s as good as anyone I’ve seen. He’s relentless, he’s got good instincts, he’s tactically clever, courageous, good on the stump, has a network to draw on like no one else – certainly no one in our party.

“But I think there’s two phases to Anthony’s life: one is getting to the point of power and influence and getting things done, and the second is how he uses it.”

• This is an edited extract from the Quarterly Essay Lone Wolf – Albanese and the new politics, by Katharine Murphy (Black Inc, $24.99).

• This article was amended on 16 December 2022 to reflect a change, in updated versions of the full essay, to the name of the surgeon who operated on Anthony Albanese’s mother.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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