Anthony Albanese’s government must learn from Labor’s last breakup with electoral power

by Peter Lewis

For all the tabloids’ orchestrated pompom waving throughout the election campaign, to their credit Anthony Albanese’s marriage breakup was one place they refused to go.

Albanese’s standing as a divorced man in a relatively new relationship is a first for an Australian prime minister, but could also serve as a metaphor for his incoming government and, indeed, the entire 47th parliament.

Labor enters this new relationship with the Australian people with a team dominated by those who lived through the party’s last breakdown of power. Most of the senior frontbench were there as ministers, backbenchers or staffers, witnessing first-hand the in-fighting, the break-ups and the fallout when the relationship between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard imploded.

It wasn’t just Labor. The Greens have lessons to learn from their previous relationship with the balance of power; not the least the reality that their policy purity helped extend the climate wars a decade longer than necessary.

Meanwhile, the independents and the Coalition resemble a newly separated couple; the teals joyfully liberated from the drudgery of a loveless marriage; while the vestiges of the broken Coalition appear surprised, wounded and prone to lash out, egged on by their bellicose After Dark mates.

As the former PM would say, I am #blessed not to have a personal experience of a painful divorce but talking around my network of men and women who do, I think there’s some useful advice to offer all involved in the 47th parliament.

A common theme for those who are in a second relationship is that you learn humility and not to take your partner for granted. After sleep-walking through first marriages, you come to recognise the value of investing time and effort into the primary relationship.

The Rudd government that took control of Australia in 2007 was often performative, a manic cycle of government by announcement that treated power as a bauble, rather than something that needed to be earned over and over again.

This time around, you get the sense that Albanese has a theory of government that is more methodical and collaborative, taking his colleagues with him as he implements a superficially more modest, but nonetheless significant, agenda.


As this week’s Guardian Essential report illustrates, the public is on side with the program, regardless of how they voted. Implementing this existing mandate should – and must – be the new government’s number one priority.

An old friend told me that in a second relationship you realise what’s worth having an argument about and when you need to just accept your differences. You learn to not just live with friction but celebrate it, recognising that glossing over issues just allows them to fester.

This should be a lodestar for the Albanese government as it attempts to manage power with a Greens-controlled Senate and the new influx of independents, which – as a separate question shows – has been embraced by most Australians.

For the teals, Albanese has the chance to work respectfully and collaboratively by being everything the Morrison government wasn’t – not because he has to but because their success will lock in the new electoral map.

Give Helen Haines ownership of the federal Icac; set up a joint committee to address gender issues; work together to enshrine the Indigenous voice; implement Labor’s mandate on climate without shutting off the prospect of longer-term ambition.

The Greens will provide a different challenge, asserting their own mandate to push Labor harder, knowing they have the means to weaponise these differences to Labor’s long-term detriment.

These inevitable points of difference with the Greens should be embraced because they will ensure Labor does not drift too far to the left, exposing its central flank to the sort of relentless attack that Tony Abbott rode into power.

hich brings me to the next piece of advice: Don’t forget what bought you together in the first place. While much has been written about Australia’s shift to the left; the seats Labor will need to hold and win to maintain long-term government are not in the affluent precincts of our metropolises.

Labor did remarkably well to hold a regional beachhead, most notably the Hunter and Central Coast which has become a red valley. Likewise, Geelong, the Illawarra and the expanding fringes of Perth and Melbourne, although regional Queensland remains an electoral wasteland for the party.

Labor in government cannot concede these regions to a political realignment that sees the Coalition become the champion of the outsider, especially as a seemingly inevitable global economic downturn hits these areas hardest.

Being the champion for those without wealth and power has always been the mission of ALP, through both its institutional ties with organised labour and its embrace of new migrant communities. It is for these places that have always been the Labor heartlands.

Finally, a friend deep into his second relationship cautioned to never forget that when a marriage breaks down the effect is always felt more widely than you think. Not just the children, but the extended families and broader social connections are all fractured with consequences that can take years to be fully felt.

The failure of the last Labor government to manage its power cost Australia dearly. It allowed Abbott to pull apart most, if not all, of the Rudd-Gillard agenda, especially on climate.

It also extended the Howard era of economic liberalism, national security panics, the politics of division by design and embedded the centrality of the voice of Murdoch for a decade longer than was needed.

Now is the moment for this generation to embrace its second chance and build the long-term centre-left government that Australia so desperately needs.

One of the most poignant moments in his acceptance speech on election night was Albanese’s recognition of Carmel Tebbutt, his previous partner and his son’s mother.

If Australia can go close to resolving its differences with the same tone of respect and reconciliation we may finally head towards a new era of civility and a better long-term relationship with both our government and with each other.

Join Peter Lewis, Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy and Australia Institute chief economist Richard Denniss for a special Poll Position election postmortem at 6pm on Tuesday.

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