Sydney: Anthony Albanese, the man narrowly favoured to become Australia’s prime minister after May 21 elections, was rushed to hospital last year after a four-wheel-drive slammed into his car.
“I thought that was it,” he told a local radio station.
At the time, his Labor Party trailed behind the conservative government in opinion polls, struggling to cut through during the pandemic.
But the near-death experience changed his life, Albanese told media.
In its wake, the opposition leader, 59, recovered on all fronts: overcoming serious injury, shrugging off rumblings of a party leadership coup and shedding 18 kilos - an image revamp that raised some eyebrows.
His suits went from baggy to tailored, his bookish wire-framed glasses switched for “Mad Men”-style black full-rims.
Vitally, though, he was able to pull ahead of the country’s ruling conservative coalition in the polls and hold the lead for more than a year.
Albanese has run a “small target” campaign, trying to avoid a repeat of Labor’s surprise 2019 defeat by keeping a focus on the government’s actions during Covid-19 and the “Black Summer” bushfires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticised this approach and framed Albanese to voters as an unknown.
“What are his policies? What’s his plan for the economy? He’s been in the parliament a long time, but what do we know of him?” Morrison said.
Albanese, nicknamed “Albo” by his fans, was elected to parliament in 1996, and in his first speech thanked his mother, Maryanne Ellery, “who raised me under very difficult economic circumstances”.
The pair lived in public housing in Sydney during Albanese’s childhood and his single mother often struggled to make ends meet.
The aspiring politician joined the left-wing Labor Party in high school and later became deeply involved in student politics at the University of Sydney.
He was the first person in his family to go to university and has said his working-class roots shaped his worldview.
His only child, Nathan, was born in 2000, inspiring Albanese to meet his own father with only a photo to track him down.
The two were able to reconcile in his father’s Italian hometown, Barletta, before Carlo Albanese died in 2014.
“The last conversation we had was that he was glad that we had found each other,” the politician told ABC.
In the wilderness
In the 26 years since Albanese was first elected to parliament, Labor has only held government for five years - during the tumultuous terms of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Albanese first became a minister after Rudd’s 2007 election victory and rose through the Labor ranks, finally taking over the opposition leadership after the party’s crushing loss in 2019.
Veteran political journalist and historian Chris Wallace said Albanese pulling ahead of Morrison as the preferred prime minister just before this year’s election was important for Labor.
“If you look at the last 11 elections in Australia, when government changed hands, the opposition leader has been in a better position (than the prime minister) in net approval ratings,” she told AFP.
He has had to make up for “two years when he wasn’t able to travel the country and become better known by voters”, she said.
But Albanese has stumbled at times on the campaign trail, including forgetting the country’s unemployment and main lending rates.
He tried to reframe the gaffe as a point of difference from the prime minister, who has faced repeated criticism for not taking responsibility for his own errors.
“Everyone will make a mistake in their life. The question is whether you learn from it. This government keep repeating the same mistakes,” he said.