The Unity Hall Hotel in Sydney was an obvious place for Anthony Albanese to launch his bid to become leader of Australia’s Labor party following a humiliating loss to the conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison three years ago.
The pub in Albanese’s seat of Grayndler was the birthplace of the New South Wales branch of Labor in 1891 and offered symbolic value for a party in desperate need of a reset after being beaten despite leading in the polls for much of the campaign.
Now, Labor is once again favoured according to the polls ahead of a general election on May 21 as Albanese bids to become the first Labor prime minister since 2013.
The vote comes after a tumultuous period for Australia, marked by the coronavirus pandemic, a divisive fight over climate change strategy and deteriorating relations with China. Morrison has also redefined the security framework in the region, after signing the Aukus defence deal with the US and UK in response to an increasingly assertive Beijing.
A Newspoll survey published this week put Labor ahead of the coalition government by 54 per cent to 46 per cent after the second leaders’ debate on Sunday. No candidate in modern Australia history has recovered from such a wide gap in the polls two weeks ahead of an election.
But the campaign was still at a “tipping point”, said one Labor politician. “I’m getting a bit anxious.”
The unease follows a difficult campaign for Albanese, an MP since 1996 who was known as a backroom operator until he became leader following stints as a government minister under former Labor premiers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
On the day after the election was called, Albanese did not know the interest and unemployment rates when asked by reporters as voters grapple with a cost of living crisis. He then contracted Covid-19 and, once back on the campaign trail, struggled to detail his policy for improving disability services.
Nicholas Reece, former strategy director for Gillard who is now a principal fellow at the Melbourne School of Government, said the gaffes had not translated into gains for Morrison. “It actually helps to make politicians more relatable,” he said.
Reece added that rising interest rates, inflation and energy prices had been more pertinent for voters and undermined Morrison’s claims that he was a better custodian of the economy. The Solomon Islands’ decision to sign a security pact with China during the campaign has also been embarrassing for the prime minister’s assertion that he is stronger on national security.
Albanese, 59, has tried to portray himself as a more down-to-earth candidate than the more polished and assertive Morrison. He has made much of his roots as a “houso”, a council house child raised in a single parent household by his mother. He said in the debate that he had “three great faiths” growing up: the Labor party, the Catholic church and the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team.
“People know [he] grew up on Struggle Street and he’s a pretty likeable guy,” said Reece.
Albanese rose through the ranks of student and local politics before entering parliament and was a powerbroker in the decade that Labor was out of power. He has been credited with unifying the fractious party in the run-up to the election, in stark contrast to Morrison who has been hit by stinging attacks from his own side.
Labor’s campaign has focused on a small range of core policies, including more funding for elderly care, a shared equity scheme for low-income homebuyers, the establishment of a federal anti-corruption body, improving wages, a crackdown on tax avoidance by multinational companies and stronger action on climate change.
Albanese has also tried to sharpen his image. He has had a makeover, lost weight and featured in a fashion magazine photo shoot that gave him the air of a protagonist in a film noir movie. Albanese’s election advertisements have been voiced by actor Russell Crowe, who part-owns the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
He has tried to broaden his party’s appeal, too, including with sections of the business community that were irked by the party’s previous approach.
Christopher Brown, executive chair of consultancy Taylor Street Advisory, has worked with both Morrison and Albanese and says neither candidate has business in their blood. But he believes the Labor leader has abandoned his radical roots and is well regarded within the business community after a stint as infrastructure minister.
“Gone are the days when a Labor government would have the chambers of commerce quaking in their boots,” he said, adding that Albanese “wants to win and all the rhetoric in the world doesn’t get you elected”.
Some business leaders have become exasperated at Morrison and his ministers “beating their chests” over national security and failing to balance the country’s trade needs with national security.
Australia’s decision to ban Chinese telecoms group Huawei, the Aukus pact and a call for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic have inflamed tensions with the country’s biggest trading partner. Australian businesses ranging from barley producers to winemakers have been hurt by a retaliatory trade war.
The moves have led some corporate bosses to switch their support to Albanese, according to the chief executive of a big exporting company.
James McCulloch, a former city worker who often drinks in the Unity Hall Hotel, puts it more simply, saying the Labor leader is stronger than Morrison on the housing crisis and climate change, and that policies ultimately matter more than personality. “He’s not a particularly strong leader but we need change,” he said.
Anthony Albanese on . . .
China: Albanese has tried to defuse attempts by Morrison to portray him as soft on China by pointing out that US marines were stationed in Darwin when Labor was in power but the northern city’s port was sold to a company connected to the Chinese Communist party when the prime minister was in government.
The economy: Albanese has not offered big proposals on structural tax reform but has promised to improve wage growth, with an ambition to raise the minimum wage in line with inflation of 5 per cent.
Climate change: Labor’s plan to cut carbon emissions by 43 per cent cut by 2030 compared to 2005 is well ahead of the government’s plans and Albanese wants to push renewable energy. But he has not turned his back on coal to avoid antagonising rural voters.