Labor has engaged in a disciplined strategy to rebuild the public presentation of Anthony Albanese — and last night it starred in its own TV show.
The opposition leader was the subject of a light-touch profile on 60 Minutes on the Nine network, after a similar program on Scott Morrison four weeks ago.
Labor has been sprucing up Albanese — and the reinvention seems to be working. Just minutes before the segment was aired The Australian online reported Newspoll’s finding that he and Morrison were level as preferred prime minister and Labor retained a 55-45 split of two-party-preferred votes.
This success comes with questions for Labor.
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One of the best things going for Albanese this election is that he’s not Scott Morrison. But his transformation invites doubts as to whether he’s Anthony Albanese, either.
If the old Albanese wasn’t good enough for the job of prime minister, why would the new version be suddenly suitable?
The election will put a possibly unprecedented focus on the character, competence and deportment of the leaders of the major parties. This in part is a consequence of the absence of a detailed policy competition — it threatens to be a policy-free electron.
Labor does have priorities rather than boofy, detailed policies. Such as pledges to reduce an average household’s power bill by $275 a year by 2025 and boosting free TAFE courses by 465,000 and university places by 20,000.
But as significant as they are, these are unlikely to be the principal areas of electoral competition. Propelling Albanese towards what he hopes will be victory is Morrison’s baggage of widely nominated shortcomings.
So why alter his presentation when he has all that going for him?
Albanese — bookie and pollster favourite to win the election expected in May — will be unrecognisable to some long-time fans, and an unknown quantity to others abruptly introduced to him, particularly voters in the middle ground to whom he will seem to have come from nowhere.
Many of the changes have been cosmetic — like the male model poses of his Women’s Weekly photo shoot — but there has been more involved than merely shedding 18 kilograms or buying some suits that make him look tidy, or a new hairdo that does the same.
Superficial or not, the overhaul has been the product of some deep thinking.
The promotion of Albanese’s credentials has been a theme of the redo, in part as a counter to Morrison’s attack that his “inexperienced” rival — who actually was a deputy prime minister in his ministerial career — has never had to manage the national accounts.
Albanese in reply has argued he is the direct legatee of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating when it comes to economic policy, and of the idolised Labor prime ministers Ben Chifley and John Curtin when it comes to manufacturing.
Promoting his economic CV has at times pushed the boundaries of belief, as shown in this passage from a February profile in The Australian Financial Review: “His first job out of school was with the Commonwealth Bank. His high school commerce teacher insisted Albanese and his classmates purchase The Australian Financial Review every day, with their own money,” it reads in a remarkable cross-promotion of the candidate and the newspaper.
The implicit suggestion is that from his teenage years Albanese has checked the All Ords before breakfast, a practice many close colleagues are not aware of.
It is strange that a former minister who had important responsibilities such as transport, the digital economy, regional development and communications would have to reintroduce himself to the electorate.
This process has gone beyond the usual burnishing of the official record and finding a decent tailor.
One reason for part of the overhaul might be that Albanese did not look or sound like a prime minister. He was not seen to have the carriage of a leader who could speak for Australia on the White House lawns while standing next to the president.
Today he doesn’t look or sound exactly like the Albanese who was elevated, unopposed, as Labor leader — and thus alternative prime minister — in May 2019. Three years ago some observers might have contended Albanese would never become PM. In part they could be right, as the Albanese of May 2022 won’t appear to be the one of May 2019.
This article was first published by Crikey.