CANBERRA, Australia -- The son of a single mother who raised him on a pension, Anthony Albanese had a humble start to life for a politician who could become Australia’s prime minister on Saturday.
His financially precarious upbringing in government-owned housing in Sydney fundamentally formed the politician who leads the center-left Australian Labor Party opposition. He is still widely known by his childhood nickname, Albo.
Albanese repeatedly referred during the six-week election campaign to the life lessons he learned from his disadvantaged childhood. Labor’s campaign has focused on policies including financial assistance for first home buyers grappling with soaring real estate prices and sluggish wage growth.
Labor is also promising cheaper childcare for working parents and better nursing home care for the elderly.
Albanese said his political rise since he joined the party as an impoverished teenager was built on his honesty.
“One of the reasons, I think, why that young lad ... became the leader of the Australian Labor Party ... is because my entire political career has been built on my word,” Albanese told the National Press Club this week.
As a young child, to spare Albanese the scandal of being “illegitimate” in a working-class Roman Catholic family in socially conservative 1960s Australia, he was told that his Italian father Carlo Albanese had died in a car accident shortly after marrying his ethnic-Irish Australian mother Maryanne Ellery in Europe.
His mother, who became an invalid pensioner because of chronic rheumatoid arthritis, told him the truth when he was 14 years old: His father was not dead and his parents had never married.
Carlo Albanese had been a steward on a cruise ship when the couple met in 1962 during the only overseas trip of her life. She returned to Sydney from her seven-month journey through Asia to Britain and continental Europe almost four months pregnant, according to Anthony Albanese’s 2016 biography, “Albanese: Telling it Straight.”
She was living with her parents in their local government-owned house in inner-suburban Camperdown when her only child was born on March 2, 1963.
Out of loyalty to his mother and a fear of hurting her feelings, Albanese waited until after her death in 2002 before searching for his father.
Father and son were happily united in 2009 in the father’s hometown of Barletta in southern Italy. The son was in Italy for business meetings as Australia‘s minister for transport and infrastructure.
Anthony Albanese was a minister throughout Labor’s most recent six years in power and reached his highest office — deputy prime minister — in his government’s final three months, which ended with the 2013 election.
“It says a great thing about our nation that the son of a (single) parent who grew up in a council house in Sydney could be deputy prime minister of Australia,” Albanese said. He had just defeated the son of a former deputy prime minister in a ballot of fellow lawmakers for the post.
But Albanese’s critics argue that it’s not his humble background but his left-wing politics that make him unsuitable to be prime minister.
The conservative government argues he would be the most left-wing Australian leader in almost 50 years since the crash-or-crash-through reformer Gough Whitlam, a flawed hero of the Labor Party.
In 1975, Whitlam became the only Australian prime minister to be ousted from office by a British monarch’s representative in what is described as a constitutional crisis.
Whitlam had introduced during his brief but tumultuous three years in power free university education, which enabled Albanese to graduate from Sydney University with an economics degree despite his meager financial resources.
Albanese’s supporters argue that while he was from Labor’s so-called Socialist Left faction, he was a pragmatist with a proven ability to deal with more conservative elements of the party.
Albanese had undergone what has been described as a makeover in the past year, opting for more fashionable suits and glasses. He has also shed 18 kilograms (40 pounds) in what many assume is an effort to make himself more attractive to voters.
Albanese says he believed he was about to die in a two-car collision in Sydney in January last year and that that was the catalyst for his healthier life choices. He had briefly resigned himself to a fate he once believed had been his father’s.
After the accident, Albanese spent a night in a hospital and suffered what he described as external and internal injuries that he has not detailed. The 17-year-old boy behind the wheel of the Range Rover SUV that collided with Albanese’s much smaller Toyota Camry sedan was charged with negligent driving.
Asked at the National Press Club in January to explain who he was, Albanese replied he was the son of a pensioner mother who had grown up with the security of a local government-provided house.
Albanese said he was 12 years old when he became involved in his first political campaign. His fellow public housing tenants successfully defeated a local council proposal to sell their homes — a move that would have increased their rent — in a campaign that involved refusing to pay the council in a so-called rent strike.
The unpaid rent debt was forgiven, which Albanese described as a “lesson for those people who weren’t part of the rent strike: Solidarity works.”
“As I grew up, I understood the impact that government had, can have, on making a difference to people’s lives,” Albanese said. “And in particular, to opportunity.”