Anthony Albanese is Labor’s parliamentary go-to man, a bloke with willingness and enthusiasm for fronting up — whether at the dispatch box, to protesters or even in backing a losing leadership candidate. But his under-appreciated infrastructure funding legacy will last longer than his ability to fire up at opponents.

Despite the powerbroker label, Albanese has an abominable record in Labor leadership ballots, having backed the wrong candidate repeatedly since 2003. The most recent, in March, when he backed Kevin Rudd and offered his resignation to Julia Gillard, was taken in full knowledge he’d be backing a losing cause. But his emotional explanation for his support for the former prime minister was in sharp contrast to the firebombing that Gillard supporters were engaged in. Albanese emerged, remarkably, with his reputation enhanced.

As Albanese noted at the time of the leadership spill, he fronts up. He fronted up last year when a crowd of anti-carbon tax protesters besieged his office. Albanese went out, endured their abuse for 20 minutes and welcomed them to “the multicultural heart of Australia,” words likely to infuriate the old reactionaries in attendance.

He also spends much of his time in Parliament dishing out abuse at Tony Abbott, courtesy of the opposition’s tactic of abandoning question time for suspensions of standing orders. It is Albanese, more than any other minister, who rises in response, and who appears to most enjoy the opportunity to dish it out.

And he’s long been able to dish it out. Take this 1998 grievance debate speech — his grievance was “John Howard” — from the then first-term MP:

“John Howard has always been proud to call himself a conservative. The problem I think is that he has confused this with preservative. He probably wishes good old Ming had dosed the country with formaldehyde when he had the chance. Because it all started going wrong in the late 1960s. Here is a man who lived at home until he was 32. You can imagine what he was like. Here were young Australians demonstrating against the Vietnam War, listening to the Doors, driving their tie-died Kombi vans, and what was John Howard doing? He was at home with mum, wearing his shorts and long white socks, listening to Pat Boone albums and waiting for the Saturday night church dance.”

With that, Albanese declared himself one to watch in Parliament. Later that year he was promoted to a parliamentary secretaryship by Kim Beazley. By 2004 he was a shadow minister and became Gillard’s deputy as manager of opposition business in Parliament, and succeeded her when she became deputy in 2006. He’s been Labor’s point man in Parliament ever since.

Unlike his near-contemporary at Sydney University Joe Hockey, with whom Albanese shares an abiding passion for the South Sydney footy team (the two were, briefly, leader of the house and manager of opposition business in 2008; then speaker Harry Jenkins kicked both of them out of the chamber one morning for yelling at each other across the dispatch boxes), Albanese is almost stereotypical in his party background. His Labor CV covers student politics, adviser and protégé of Left veteran Tom Uren, young Sussex Street powerbroker, Bob Carr adviser and then preselection for a safe seat. He even marriage within his faction, to Carmel Tebbutt, future NSW deputy premier.

But Albanese’s lasting significance might be the major — in fact, historic — change in the role of the Commonwealth in relation to infrastructure funding that has occurred under this government, with the Commonwealth now involved in strategic planning and direct funding of major infrastructure and assessments of major national projects via Infrastructure Australia.

The Commonwealth is now involved in planning or funding major rail projects in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide while brawling with the O’Farrell government over a huge $2 billion investment in Sydney’s overloaded rail infrastructure. After the last election, the government even began funding residential amenity infrastructure in larger regional centres.

The Commonwealth’s role in funding urban transport has traditionally been limited to regional and rural projects, despite cities normally containing the highest-yielding infrastructure projects.

Both the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating governments sought to play a role in urban planning and investment through “Better Cities”-style programs — Uren was Whitlam’s minister for urban and regional development.

Under Albanese, the Commonwealth has now become deeply involved in urban infrastructure in a way that is unlikely to be reversed with a Coalition government. It ends an historical misalignment in which the best-resourced level of government was missing in action when it came to our most important economic centres.

Albanese has thus gone much further than his mentor was ever able to. The remaining question is whether he can match Uren’s other achievement, becoming deputy leader of his party, in terms to come.

*To comment and for more visit The Power Index

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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