EXCLUSIVE

Anthony Albanese, our next PM? 'I owe it to the people of Grayndler'

HOME TURF: Mingling with the punters at Rozelle Markets on election day 2019. Picture: Rod Smith

HOME TURF: Mingling with the punters at Rozelle Markets on election day 2019. Picture: Rod Smith

There will be some firsts for Australia if Anthony Albanese, Member for Grayndler, becomes the next Prime Minister. He would be the first PM representing the once gritty industrial suburbs of Sydney's inner west, and to have grown up in public housing, the only child of a single mother. He would also be the first PM of Italian heritage, marking the first time the nation's ethnic diversity is reflected in its highest elected office.

"As much as we're a multicultural country, the people who put themselves forward as prime minister have historically had names like Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Morrison," Albanese says.

"One of the leaders of the Italian community said to me - privately because he's a member of the Liberal Party - that 'just this once, I am voting Labor, because I am not going to miss out on the opportunity to have someone with Italian blood as an Australian PM'."

It's a month or so into lockdown and Inner West Review is talking to the man who would be PM via Zoom. He is in Canberra, just back from a 10-day work trip to Tasmania and Queensland where he's castigated the Prime Minister Scott Morrison at every opportunity for the botched vaccine rollout and quarantine failures.

THEN AND NOW: Albanese outside Hawke's Brewing Company in Marrickville, in front of a Scott Marsh mural of former Labor PM Bob Hawke.

THEN AND NOW: Albanese outside Hawke's Brewing Company in Marrickville, in front of a Scott Marsh mural of former Labor PM Bob Hawke.

He has been keeping away from Sydney and his Marrickville home to avoid being in lockdown instead of Parliament (when he finally gets back to Sydney early in September it's for the first time in 11 weeks) and he's missing home and his son Nathan, 20 years old and his greatest pride and, for the record, a university business student showing no interest in a political career. Albanese misses Toto, too, his canine companion on regular walks along the Cooks River.

"One day at home, which I would love, would mean two weeks of isolation in Canberra, so it's a very difficult period," he says.

I am still friends with, and not everyone could say this I think, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard

"I absolutely love being home. People are really warm, and friendly and overwhelmingly have good will. They know it is a tough job being Leader of the Opposition, and they are really positive when they see me out and about.

"And they aren't shy - there are people who want to tell you something that they think you are doing wrong or something you could be doing better, and that's great, that feedback. It's a very politically aware community."

When Albanese was first elected in 1996, aircraft noise over the inner west was the dominant political issue in Grayndler following the building of Sydney Airport's third runway. The No Aircraft Noise party fielded a candidate who, with less than 14 per cent of the vote, failed to fulfill predictions that the single-issue party would take Grayndler.

BORN AND BRED: Albanese on election day 2019 in Leichhardt, with a family friend holding a picture that went viral as 'Hot Albo'. Picture: Rod Smith

BORN AND BRED: Albanese on election day 2019 in Leichhardt, with a family friend holding a picture that went viral as 'Hot Albo'. Picture: Rod Smith

Campaigning on a platform that included a new airport in Sydney's west, he won the seat comfortably, even with a sizeable swing against Labor. He left his job as a senior political adviser for then NSW premier Bob Carr behind for Canberra - and a steady rise through Labor's parliamentary ranks all the way to Deputy Prime Minister under Kevin Rudd and, in 2019, Leader of the Opposition.

"I am still friends with, and not everyone could say this I think, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard," he says. "I regard them as important to talk issues through occasionally ... I look up to people who have done the job I am seeking to do, like Kevin and Julia and Paul [Keating]."

At a time when skies over Sydney have been eerily quiet and the first sods for the Badgerys Creek Airport turned, aircraft noise is hardly the same hot-button issue. Rather, he cites secure work as the No. 1 concern that gets raised with him when he's out and about in Grayndler. With the rise of the gig economy, "a lot of people are in casual employment, and that makes it really difficult for them to be able to get a mortgage, to get into the housing market," he says.

People are also passionate about climate change "and wanting action". Gender equity comes up strongly too - including in relation to the treatment of women in Parliament House that has come to light this year.

It's a sure bet the 58-year-old will be returned at the next election, given he's Opposition Leader and Grayndler is one of the safest Labor seats in the country. But there's an extra something about his standing in the electorate: 'Albo' - his nickname since school days - is as inner west as street art and the Newtown Jets. An icon, if you like, no matter your political persuasion.

His own fortunes closely mirror those of the place he has always called home - first at Camperdown, then Newtown, then Marrickville. His life spans the inner west's industrial, working-class 'then' and prosperous, middle-class 'now' - a council housing boy with Labor and the Rabbitohs in his blood who, in 2021, sold a Marrickville investment property that had doubled in value, and dropped his party's opposition to legislated tax cuts for the rich.

STUDENT DAYS: A young Albanese (left) with fellow activists.

STUDENT DAYS: A young Albanese (left) with fellow activists.

He grew up in one of a row of council duplexes on Pyrmont Bridge Road in Camperdown, on the same block as the Joanna O'Dea Court high-rise council flats that are now housing-department-owned and in recent headlines for murder and a plague of giant rats.

Albanese's memories of his childhood are fond: "There were spontaneous gatherings every weekend to kick the footy, and cricket matches; the occasional window suffered as a result in the middle of where all the flats are there.

"At the back of the block in Lambert St, there's a hill, and a very sharp turn, and all the local kids learned to ride a skateboard, or whatever the fashion was at the time, and do a sharp turn into Layton St, where the shop was - it was known as Dudley's, and it was the grocery shop, the SP bookie and the centre of the community."

We have lost the last three elections. I want to fight the next election looking forward, not back.

He recalls the constant aroma of baking biscuits from the Weston's factory, one of the many industries that surrounded the public housing block: the Royal Alexandra Children's Hospital was across the road; there was a Grace Bros storage place on one of the corners, McNultys metal foundry on another.

There was a genuine sense of community; everyone knew each other, and "it was very Catholic at the time, because Catholics tended to work for the council, and there was very much a rugby league focus". A league player himself, Albo went to the local St Joseph's Primary School, and then to St Mary's Cathedral School in the city. Some of his mum's best friends still live at Pyrmont Bridge Road.

FOND MEMORIES: The Opposition Leader outside the council-owned duplex he grew up in in Camperdown.

FOND MEMORIES: The Opposition Leader outside the council-owned duplex he grew up in in Camperdown.

In a microcosm of what has happened across the inner west, industry in Albo's old neighbourhood has made way for housing, many a warehouse and factory converted into expensive apartments - but not at the expense of the sense of community with which Albanese grew up, and which is a big part of what inspires him about the inner west today.

He describes his electorate as vibrant, interesting and dynamic, pointing to the number of artists and other creatives that live and work here, the First Nations and multicultural communities and groups, and the proliferation of restaurants, bars and craft breweries that definitely weren't around in his boyhood.

"You can see the area is changing substantially, but it is still a diverse community, which is really important - and one of the really positive things is the diversity of the multiculturalism as well: there are newer residents from Pacifica and from Africa, joining the traditional communities of the Italians in Leichhardt, the Greeks in Marrickville, the Portuguese in Petersham, the Chinese in Ashfield ... it's a really diverse population, where there is a great deal of harmony I think."

He worries that the rising cost of housing presents a challenge to maintaining the area's multiculturalism, although he has abandoned Labor's long-held housing policy of winding back negative gearing as a path to improved affordability. He puts the policy switch, and Labor's other about-face on tax cuts for the rich, down to wanting to win the next election.

"We have lost the last three elections. I want to fight the next election looking forward, not back, and talking about secure work, tackling climate change, cheaper child care, creating better training opportunities, properly funding and developing Medicare, addressing the gender pay gap, having a national anti-corruption commission ... these are the things that I am interested in, and you can't do that if you trying to refight the 2019 election campaign where we weren't successful."

LOCAL SPIRIT: At the Addison Road Community Centre with inner westies including Craig Foster and Bryan Brown.

LOCAL SPIRIT: At the Addison Road Community Centre with inner westies including Craig Foster and Bryan Brown.

When he's in the electorate, where he lives with Nathan and Toto, the days (lockdown notwithstanding) are busy: sometimes he'll be in his electoral office on Marrickville Road, next door to the Anglican church and a pathology lab; there'll be events to attend - something at Balmain Rowers, say, or with the Italian community in Leichhardt, at Bill Crews's Exodus Foundation in Ashfield, or at the Addison Road Community Centre.

As Leader of the Opposition, there will be press conferences as well, his venues of choice for fronting the media being Henson or Jarvie parks.

If it's a weekend and the Jets are playing at Henson Park, he'll be there - "there's nothing better. I have probably been to hundreds of footy games at Henson Park over the years". And he hangs out in the inner west, taking advantage of its "fantastic" restaurants, bars, clubs and live-music venues.

Albo famously loves his music - getting to host Rage when he was deputy PM "was very much on the bucket list" - and he is concerned about how hard the pandemic has been on the live music scene. Mates like Mark Wilson from Jet, and Kram from Spiderbait have been in touch. "They all text me about the frustration that is out there from the lack of [government] support for the arts sector; it's so tough."

A close shave with death

Albanese was heading home from his electorate office in January this year when a 17-year-old P-plater in a Range Rover ploughed into his Toyota Camry. He was trapped in the car, comforted by a local nurse who happened to be nearby and made sure he didn't move until the ambulance arrived.

QUESTION TIME: In Parliament since 1996, Albanese became Leader of the Opposition in 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

QUESTION TIME: In Parliament since 1996, Albanese became Leader of the Opposition in 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"The paramedic's view was that, given the brunt of the collision - it was a head on but hit front-side - if it was a foot either way, then I probably wouldn't be speaking to you."

He spent the night at the Royal Prince Alfred and, after emerging from the hospital flanked by his son Nathan and girlfriend Jodie Haydon, told the assembled media that part of his recovery from neck, spine and internal injuries would involve controlling the pain.

When he arrived home, gifts had been left at his front door - some flowers, and a parcel of food. "It really gave me a lift, that anonymous act of kindness; it said a lot about the feeling that is there." For months afterwards, people would stop him at the supermarket, or walking down the street, to ask if he was ok.

The paramedic's view was that, if it was a foot either way, then I probably wouldn't be speaking to you

He lives with what is probably permanent damage to his spine - his C4 to be precise - but on the upside, thanks to a thorough going-over at RPA, he knows his overall health is good.

"I had to have a whole range of tests, and MRIs, and had cardiologists and hematologists - I didn't even know what they did - and an orthopedic surgeon examine me; if I had a serious thing wrong, they would have found it."

NEW GROUND: Albanese would be the first PM of Italian heritage. Picture: Rod Smith

NEW GROUND: Albanese would be the first PM of Italian heritage. Picture: Rod Smith

He can still play tennis, with the firm encouragement of the orthopedic surgeon who advised him to keep moving as much as possible. In case you didn't know - he suspects many of his constituents don't - he's a keen player, a member of the Marrickville Lawn Tennis Club which he represents in the Sydney Badge Tennis comp, in a relatively low grade "but it's competitive ... certainly people when I rock up representing Marrickville get a bit of a surprise I think."

And the accident changed things - "it makes you think of carpe diem, as the old Latin goes - 'seize the day', don't waste a moment."

A couple of weeks later, that translated into a more radical reshuffle of his opposition ministry than he had planned before his accident. "It was like, 'well, we're having a crack here, and we're going to do the right things rather than the easy things; it was about having the right people in the right position and being in the strongest position to go to an election."

'What would my mum think?'

Albanese has been generous in sharing his personal story with the Australian public. He grew up believing his father had died in a car accident before he was born. Then, as a teenager, his mum, Maryanne, sat him down after dinner one day to tell him that in fact his dad could still be alive.

INSPIRATION: With his mum Maryanne, who raised him in council housing and remains his reference point.

INSPIRATION: With his mum Maryanne, who raised him in council housing and remains his reference point.

She had met him on the cruise liner Fairsky on a voyage to England. Carlo Albanese was a steward with a betrothed back in Naples, to whom he remained loyal after Maryanne fell pregnant.

She returned to Sydney with a new last name and wearing engagement and wedding rings, and raised her son as a single parent in the house she would live in her entire life. Decades after he had learned the truth, and seven years after his mother's 2002 death, Anthony, then 46, met his father Carlo - and a brother and sister - in Italy.

But his mum, who he says was "spent" when she died at 65, remains his reference point. His anchor. He says he hopes that he brings a sense of optimism to politics, and when you ask him how he maintains that optimism over such a long time, Maryanne Ellery is a large part of the answer.

I have an obligation to the electorate to get there. I've had loyal support from Grayndler: it's a tough electorate who have shown faith in me

"I think it is who I am, and I do think quite often, what would my mum think, in terms of being grounded; she was someone who did it tough, who talked to people, listened to talkback radio and would never get ahead of herself - and I think of that, about engaging with people, being respectful and including people who don't agree with everything, and [asking] how do we bring those people forward.

"My reaction is always that you've got to talk to people, and engage with them. Social change doesn't happen by yelling at people who disagree with you; it happens by arguing your case and bringing a majority of Australians with you.

"But you need to be in government to really make a substantial difference to the country and that is why I am very passionate about getting into government and making a difference.

"I have an obligation to the electorate to get there. I've had loyal support from Grayndler: it's a tough electorate, it's a political electorate, who have shown faith in me over a period of time, who want a better country, a more inclusive country, and who want social change to occur, and I have got a responsibility to do that."

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