SYDNEY – Australians awoke on Sunday to a new prime minister in Anthony Albanese, the center-left Labor Party leader whose ascension to the nation’s top job from being raised in social housing by a single mother on a disability pension was said to reflect the country's changed fabric.
The 59-year-old career politician, who has described himself as the only candidate with a “non-Anglo Celtic name” to run for prime minister in the 121 years the office has existed, referred to his humble upbringing in the inner-Sydney suburb of Camperdown while thanking electors for making him the country’s 31st leader.
“It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mom who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister,” Albanese told jubilant supporters after tipping Scott Morrison out of office to end nine years of conservative rule.
“Every parent wants more for the next generation than they had. My mother dreamt of a better life for me. And I hope that my journey in life inspires Australians to reach for the stars,” he said.
It's unclear whether Albanese’s party could form a majority government or will have to rely on an increased number of independents and minor party lawmakers who won seats in Saturday’s election, in results analysts described as extremely complicated, and which also mirrored the face of modern Australia.
With counting set to continue for many days as postal votes are tallied, one prospect that emerged was that Albanese may need to be sworn in as acting prime minister to attend Tuesday’s Quad summit in Tokyo with U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Biden congratulated Albanese on his election victory in a phone call Sunday, the White House said, and reaffirmed Washington's “steadfast commitment to the U.S-Australia alliance and his intent to work closely with the new government to make it stronger still.”
Australian National University constitutional law expert professor Donald Rothwell said that Australia’s governor general, the representative of the country's ultimate head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, would “only be prepared to swear in Albanese as ‘Acting PM’ until such time as the results are much clearer.”
Albanese, speaking to reporters on Sunday morning, merely said he would be among “five people who’ll be sworn in tomorrow (Monday)” before attending the Quad meeting, then returning to Australia on Wednesday when “we’ll get down to business.” The four colleagues he mentioned included lawmakers set to step into key financial portfolios and his deputy leader.
The election delivered a clear rebuke to Australia’s traditional two-party system, both to Labor and the heavily defeated conservative coalition led by the Liberal party’s outgoing Prime Minister Morrison. The major parties bled votes to fringe parties and independents, including in many seats considered Labor or coalition strongholds.
Needing 76 seats in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, to govern in its own right, Labor on Sunday evening was being called the winner in 72, with 71% of votes counted, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The Liberal-National coalition was ahead in just 52 — drastically down from its bare-majority 76 in the 2019 poll. Analysts described the result as a fierce rejection of Morrison and his team’s handling of many issues in its three-year term including climate, COVID-19, women’s rights, political integrity and natural disasters such as bushfires and floods.
A total of 15 seats had been declared for independents or minor party candidates. Of these, three were from the environment-centric Green party and 12 were non-aligned politicians, with up to nine of those so-called teal independents. Labor may need the support of some of those winners, depending on who secures the seven seats still undecided.
In a new wave in Australian politics, the teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue color and want stronger government action on reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
Most of their successful candidates are women, their rise seen partly as a repudiation of Morrison for his handling of gender issues including sexual harassment scandals that have rocked Parliament during his latest three-year term.
While Labor will form either a majority or minority government, both major parties lost ground, with support for the coalition dropping by more than 6% from the 2019 election, and Labor’s vote falling by around 1.2% as of Sunday morning.
Albanese vowed to bring Australians together, increase investment in social services and “end the climate wars.”
Speaking to reporters while walking his dog in his electorate on Sunday morning, he evoked a more cooperative approach to parliamentary business — possibly unavoidable if Labor cannot form a majority government — and described his victory as “a really big moment.”
“It’s something that’s a big moment in my life, but what I want it to be is a big moment for the country,” he said. “I do want to change the country. I want to change the way that politics operates in this country.”
Greens leader Adam Bandt concurred, saying his party wanted to work with the next government to “tackle the climate crisis” and an “inequality crisis” he said was threatening Australia.
“The Liberal vote went backwards, the Labor vote went backwards,” he told reporters. “More people turned to the Greens than ever before … because we said that politics needs to be done differently.”
Albanese, who revealed in a 2016 interview he had tracked down his biological father in Italy in 2009, four years before his death, said his surname and that of new government Senate leader Penny Wong, who is of Chinese ancestry, reflected modern, multi-cultural Australia.
“I think it’s good … someone with a non-Anglo Celtic surname is the leader in the House of Representatives and that someone with a surname like Wong is the leader of the government in the Senate,” he said.
Labor has promised more financial assistance and a robust social safety net as Australia grapples with the highest inflation since 2001 and soaring housing prices.
The party also plans to increase minimum wages, and on the foreign policy front it proposed to establish a Pacific defense school to train neighboring armies in response to China’s potential military presence on the Solomon Islands on Australia’s doorstep.
It wants to tackle climate change with a more ambitious 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
Morrison, who became prime minister after an internal party coup in 2018, said he would stand down as Liberal leader.