Anthony Albanese, Australia’s new Prime Minister

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SYDNEY — When Anthony Albanese attends Tuesday’s Quad Summit in Tokyo, the newly sworn Australian prime minister will be in many ways a mirror image of an American president.

Like Joe Biden, Albanese is a Catholic with a working-class affinity, a veteran of his center-left party, and a grassroots if uncharismatic combatant who overcame stumbling blocks to overthrow a divisive opponent.

But there is a notable difference between the two leaders. Biden, 79, began formulating a plan to become president as a teenager, and he ran for the White House for the first time at 44. At that age, Albanese, 59, said he had no idea about becoming leader of the Labor Party. let alone prime minister.

“Up until 2013, he didn’t see himself as a leader,” said political historian Paul Strangio. “Now here he is, the country’s prime minister after just one term as opposition leader. That’s pretty noticeable.”

Biden called Albanese by phone to congratulate him on his victory and thank him for attending the Quad Summit, which brings together leaders from the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Albanese spent the day after the election receiving foreign briefings. He will be sworn in on Monday before traveling to Tokyo with his foreign minister, Penny Wong.

Despite polls predicting his victory, Albanese could be Australia’s most surprising prime minister. Up until this weekend, his political career was a slow burn. A loss could have turned him into someone too cautious or kind to reach the top. Instead, Albanese’s narrow victory looks like a shrewd strategist who could transform his country in ways his more personally ambitious predecessors did not.

His humble roots, meanwhile, could help Albanese connect with his American counterpart and push countries down more parallel paths in tackling climate change.

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“I think there’s potential for Biden and Albanese to build an important personal relationship,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank.

“They are both individuals from humble backgrounds who have lived extraordinary lives,” he said. “And for Biden, the personal is political.”

Albanese touched on his working-class origins in his victory speech.

“It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mother who was a disabled pensioner and grew up in council housing in Camperdown can stand before you tonight as Australia’s Prime Minister,” he told a boisterous crowd.

He often says he grew up with three faiths: the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a professional rugby team from a traditional working-class neighborhood not far from Albanese.

As a child, Albanese was told that his parents met when his mother was traveling overseas and that his father died shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that his mother told him the truth.

“We sat down just after dinner one night,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I think it was very traumatic for her to tell me that actually wasn’t the case, that my father might still be alive, that she had met him abroad, had become pregnant with me, had told him about it and he basically said he was engaged to someone from the town in Italy he was from.”

“I think all the guilt involved in having an illegitimate child as a young Catholic woman in 1963 was a big deal,” he said. “Hence the extent to which she had gone to take my father’s name. She wore an engagement ring and a wedding ring. She – the whole family just believed that story.”

Albanese cites history as the source of his empathy for others. As a Catholic schoolboy, he attended local Labor Party meetings with his mother and grandparents. He joined the party as a teenager, was active in college, and then worked for a scion of the progressive wing of the state party. On his 33rd birthday he was elected to Parliament. (Biden entered Congress at 29.)

Unlike Biden, who has made little secret of his desire to run for president, Albanese has expressed no interest in leading his party or country for nearly two decades, according to biographer and journalist Karen Middleton. He rose steadily through the ranks and helped hold together a minority Labor government. When Labor lost the 2013 election, a senior party official urged him to break the leadership, but Albanese lost. He was given another chance in 2019 after Labor suffered shock.

“The party was so demoralized that no one else was willing to raise their hands,” Strangio said.

Last year, Albanese compared his own chances to those of the just-initiated Biden.

“There were people in this room who predicted that Donald Trump would win re-election,” he said in a news conference. “But a guy who was a former vice chairman and a veteran politician who held a wide range of portfolios and was underestimated by some is now President of the United States.”

Like Biden, he was criticized for appearing happy to turn the election into a referendum on his opponent. And he was questioned for leading a small-target campaign in which he scaled back some of his party’s more ambitious policies, including reducing carbon emissions.

Albanese’s modest climate strategy hurt some voters on Election Day and helped bring Greens and Independents into Parliament. But it also allowed Labor to retain some key seats in the coal countries on its way to what appeared to be a narrow majority.

“It was a gamble,” Strangio said. “But the risk was worth it.”

It remains to be seen how ambitious Albanese will be on climate, especially if he doesn’t need the help of the Greens and pro-climate independents. He played the issue both ways during the campaign, calling for investments in renewable energy but also supporting new coal mines.

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While he remains cautious, his climate policies will be more ambitious than those of outgoing Conservative Scott Morrison, whose slow pace toward net-zero commitments by 2050 frustrated the Biden administration.

“Biden will appreciate an Australian government that has more ambition on climate,” Fullilove said. He said the president would also welcome a realignment of ties between Australia and France – countries at odds under Morrison over his handling of a deal with Britain and the United States on nuclear submarines.

Fullilove said it’s important to see if there’s a “meeting of the minds” when Biden and Albanese speak one-on-one at the Quad Summit.

“Because Biden is an old-school politician, I think the first meeting is important,” he said.

Australia is at the forefront of the new geopolitics. The Biden government sees this as an important ally in pushing back growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. China started a trade dispute with Australia two years ago. And it recently struck a security deal with the Solomon Islands that some analysts fear could result in a Chinese military base some 1,000 miles from Australia’s coast. (China and Solomon Islands dispute this possibility.)

“An Australian historian famously said that we suffer from the tyranny of distance,” Fullilove said. “But now we actually face the dilemma of proximity. The world is rushing towards us.”

The world now rushes to Albanese, who will meet the American President on his second day in office.

“It’s quite an initiation,” Fullilove said.

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