Opinion: Anthony Albanese, John Howard share many similarities

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Sunday 21 May 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The most surprising things to observe about the Labor government are qualities voters have every right to expect.

Basics like administrative competence, a default towards truth and transparency, and procedural orthodoxy. That there is a sense of purpose is a welcome bonus after the divisive politicking of the Morrison government.

Sadly, these expectations have not been the norm.

Since the staid predictability of John Howard, it wasn't just Parliament that turned tumultuous and tricky, but governing itself.

Which is not to say there wasn't controversy in Howard's day: think Tampa, Children overboard, the Iraq War. But Howard never faced a leadership challenge.

The 15 years following, though, were volcanic, characterised by near constant scheming, undermining, and leaking.

There were six changes of prime minister with just two achieved by voters; the others being cut down by plotters.

Most surprising of all then, as this Labor government turns one, is the chrysalis-like emergence of a new Howard, albeit, from the centre-left.

The metamorphosis of Anthony Albanese from left-wing firebrand to centrist institutionalist represents a kind of bookend to the intervening madness. It marks the return of a calm and measured steward settling in to lead both party and government. Power, legitimate and uncontested.

The resonances between the dozen-year Coalition government, and Albanese's Labor (so far), are mounting.

Where Howard in 1996 offered a reassuring bromide of a time before Paul Keating's dizzying "big picture" reforms, political correctness and Asian engagement, Albanese promised order and the mundane delivery of line-and-length government.

And where Wayne Goss once colourfully observed voters were sitting on their verandahs with baseball bats waiting for the Keating government, the same could also be said of their eagerness to dispatch Morrison.

In other words, Howard and Albanese both rose on the sharp unpopularity of the governments they displaced.

Each, therefore, started out with usefully low public expectations.

It is no mere coincidence Howard had been in Parliament for the best part of a quarter of a century before he became PM in 1996 - drafted by a party tired of experimenting. Tired of losing. Howard snapped a five-election, 13-year run for Labor - its longest ever.

Entering Parliament at that very same election, Albanese became a reluctant student, watching in frustration - and in secret admiration - as Howard deftly interpreted the national mood, crafting win after win.

There are further commonalities between this ostensibly opposite pair.

Each had been forged in the fires of defeat, surviving troughs so deep colleagues viewed them as finished.

During Howard's first unhappy stint as leader of the opposition from 1985 to 1989, he suffered the humiliating "Joh for PM" campaign.

"Why on Earth does this man bother" splashed the Bulletin magazine in 1988, dubbing him "Mr 18 Per Cent". He was the butt of jokes, branded weak and uncharismatic. Months later, he was gone.

Howard was yesterday's man - unfashionable, uninteresting and unelectable. His party went back to the flashier Peacock, then to the intellectual marketism of Dr John Hewson, and to the plummy Alexander Downer. In 1995, it drafted Howard again.

Albanese's 25 years had witnessed more failure than success also. Even as a linchpin minister in the Rudd government, he watched helplessly as Labor succumbed to hubris, division and implosion.

Among the ashes, this true believer who liked "fighting Tories", was his party membership's choice for the leadership in 2013. But Bill Shorten pipped him in the caucus, where it counted.

Disillusioned and exhausted, Albanese contemplated quitting. Just like Howard in 1989, his career looked to have peaked. He was counselled to go.

These setbacks shaped both men, hardening their resolve to craft a different kind of leadership: steady, yet purposeful and robust. Leadership calibrated to marry the twin imperatives of party values and community. A leadership built for the long haul.

Understandably, Albanese cites the Hawke government as his guide with its emphasis on traditional cabinet government, ministers with autonomy, respect for the public service and a modus operandi of building public and party consensus to legitimise reforms.

But there are elements of Howard he incorporates also. Albanese's media choices reveal a steady stream of under-the-radar appearances on morning FM stations all across the country.

Transcripts of these lightweight interviews show they can sidestep policy altogether. But they connect Albanese to listeners who ordinarily take no interest in politics. This is smart. People might come away thinking: "Gee, that Albo seems pretty normal."

Howard used a similar tactic to broadcast over the heads of the press gallery - mostly via commercial talkback radio.

Both have displayed a deeper and truer understanding of voter sentiment than any PM in between their respective governments.

This approach probably explains Albanese's curious attendance at the wedding of the odious Kyle Sandilands, even if it is no easier to stomach. And it accounts for his impatience with elements of "wokism" and cancel culture.

Progressives say Albanese's Labor is too timid and ask, 'What is the point'? Albanese will cop that. His aim is to make a multitude of incremental changes, cumulatively adding up to transformative policy reform. If it doesn't frighten the horses, all the better.

Of course, there are obvious and crucial differences between Howard and Albanese, but Liberals will draw little comfort from them.

Howard lost a stack of ministers in his first year and almost fumbled the 1998 election. Albanese has not even had to weather a serious leak.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  22 May 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications