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Albo in the 80s

Caption: Argument at IEU Xmas party 1991 with MEAA looking on, (Chris Warren, Mark Ryan, Paul Murphy) and Wendy Caird (ACOA and later ACTU Vice President) as referee".

I met Anthony Albanese when he was a young student in the Criterion Hotel - the old Criterion which used to be on the corner of Sussex and Liverpool. It was where the general left congregated from about 1970 until its demolition in 1986. Albo turned up there as a friend of my then research assistant Jo Scard.

He introduced himself to me as Albo - and insisted on me calling him that. Even then he had such joie de vivre and self-confidence that I actually remember meeting him. I doubt if I would remember meeting any other 19 year old in the Criterion on a Friday night after many gins. There was just something about him even then.

Everyone knows the story of Albo being brought up by his single mum in the little housing commission home in Bridge Road Camperdown. He would often point it out to me.

Maryanne suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and was often in hospital. Her illness gave Albo enormous self-confidence because from time to time he was left alone in the house to look after himself. Even when she was home, he would have to give her care like cutting up her meals. Maryanne adored him. Albo was the apple of her eye.

On his 50th birthday, he made a speech that really stuck in my mind. He said that he supported women having lives in leadership, because “women shouldn't have to be like my mother and live their lives through their sons”.

One of the things that arose out of this view of the world was his very early belief that women should be members of parliament. He was crucially important in organising women into seats from the early 90s onwards (well before quotas). He was instrumental in encouraging Janelle Saffin, Tanya Plibersek, Maggie Deahm, Linda Burney, Carmel Tebbutt, Penny Sharpe, Jo Haylen and many others to take on the role of representative.

With me he was unrelenting. I was an academic and very happy being an academic. I was president of my union, the Academics Union (now NTEU) and active in the left of the labour movement – not so much the ALP.

Albo came around to see me one day, knocked on my door and said he wanted to take me out to lunch which should have raised my suspicions then and there. At lunch he put to me that I should go into the upper house and I said ‘don't be silly - I'm an academic’. All academics ever want to do is be academics. So I sent him away.

However over that weekend I marked 500 first year essays. And by the time he came back on the Tuesday to ask if I had reconsidered, I had in fact reconsidered - and that's how my political life started. So if I ever have to nominate a mentor, I always say Albo, even though he is 16 years younger than me.

He understood the issue of women into Parliament so much earlier than other men. When feminist icon (and first NSW woman in Federal Parliament) Jeannette McHugh's seat of Philip was abolished in a redistribution, Albo somehow organized for her to represent the seat of Grayndler, by convincing everyone that it was the neighbouring seat. It actually wasn't ‘neighbouring’ but everyone was totally won over by Albo’s enthusiastic advocacy.

Albo and I would disagree a lot (photo attached). Strangely they were never about women’s issues. He saw me as too centred on inner city concerns and kept hammering me about the need for the Left to broaden itself out to the western suburbs. However we were always united in our shared belief that the unions were the basis of Labor’s existence.

One of the things that everyone always remembers is how good he was at relating to the rank-and-file. Albo loved getting out and meeting the branch members. Down to earth and sociable, he was a great hit at Country Conference and mostly managed to make friends and have a beer with everybody in the entire town.

As I have been quoted as saying ‘you always knew the party and started when Albo arrived’. I realise as Party Leader he now has to project a more staid and statesmanlike persona but I miss the old ebullient Albo.

Although he never had any self-doubt, I never heard him say that he was going to be prime minister. In fact, I never even heard him say that he was going to be in Parliament. What he once said to me was that he thought he was really well suited to doing the job that he had at the time, which was being leader of the Left in NSW and fighting the good fight in Head Office.

He has been quoted as saying that he doubted whether he wanted to be party leader, saying ‘I don't have the destiny thing’ and I know that’s true. He did about running for leader after Labor lost in 2013.

I talked to him at his election night party when we lost the election. I was trying to convince him to run and he just said to me, ‘I think I'm just too tired’ and he did look terrible. He was exhausted because he had not only been Minister for Infrastructure, but he'd been Leader of the House in a very tight situation where it would have taken every ounce of his strategic nous to get stuff through the hung parliament.

He is tactically very smart. I once said to him that I was getting better and I could now think three steps ahead and he just laughed at me and said ‘yeah, but I'm eleven steps ahead’ and I reckon that's probably true. He’s the master of the long game. In any fight within the party he always knew how to keep the back channels open. He knew the importance of not breaking down communication.

He did love outwitting his opponents who were trying to support more conservative positions. He was just so good at that sort of thing.

If I was pushed to talk about what policy he was most involved with during this period it was always poverty. He talked a lot about social disadvantage. He was particularly interested in housing - the need for good public and social housing policies. This did not just arise out of his own circumstances, but from working for Tom Uren, the great Whitlam Minister for Urban and Regional Development.

I knew he'd been a student activist around the importance of political economy courses, which totally ties in with his whole emphasis on poverty and the role of workers in a society.

We did have big arguments and I remember one argument when we both ended up in tears. Which brings me to another thing to say about Albo which is that he is a passionate person that will tear up. I remember his victory party when he first got elected to Parliament in 1996. It was terrible because the Labor Party had lost the election. Albo held it together pretty well during his speech but when he started to thank his mother he choked back tears. Mind you we were all in tears that night anyway.

Albo is a fighter. He's very loyal and he doesn't mind getting into scraps especially over the things he believes in. He recognizes that sometimes he has to make enemies and boy he can make good ones. Once he said to me, ‘you know me, I don't have a second gear’ and when it comes to his beliefs, that is absolutely right. Sometimes it's to his detriment.

But at least you know where you stand.

I'm showing my age, but the one thing I don't cope with about him is his beloved music. The Pixies and the Celibate Rifles are not my idea of fun.

Dr Meredith Burgmann is a former President of the NSW Legislative Council


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