SYDNEY — When Anthony Albanese attends the Quad summit in Tokyo on Tuesday, the newly sworn-in Australian prime minister will meet an American president that in many ways is his mirror image.
But there is a notable way in which the two leaders differ. Biden, 79, began formulating a plan to become president when he was a teenager, and he first ran for the White House when he was 44. At that age, Albanese, 59, has said he had no inkling of becoming Labor Party leader, let alone prime minister.
“He didn’t envisage himself as a leader until as late as 2013,” said political historian Paul Strangio. “Now here he is, prime minister of the country after just one term as opposition leader. That is quite striking.”
Biden called Albanese by phone to congratulate him on his victory and to thank him for attending the Quad summit, which brings together the leaders of the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Albanese was spending the day after the election receiving foreign briefings. He will be sworn in Monday before heading to Tokyo with his foreign minister, Penny Wong.
Despite polls presaging his victory, Albanese may be Australia’s most unexpected prime minister. Until this weekend, his political career had been a slow burn. A defeat could have cast him as someone too cautious or kind to reach the top. Instead, Albanese’s narrow victory has him looking like a canny strategist who could reshape his country in a way that his more personally ambitious predecessors did not.
His humble roots, meanwhile, could help Albanese connect with his American counterpart and put the countries on more parallel paths when it comes to combating climate change.
“I think there is the potential for Biden and Albanese to strike up an important personal relationship,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank.
“They are both individuals from modest 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 mum 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,” he told a boisterous crowd.
He often says he was raised with three faiths: the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a professional rugby team based in a traditionally working-class neighborhood not far from where Albanese grew up.
As a child, Albanese was told his parents had met when his mother was traveling overseas, and that his father had died shortly afterward. It was only when 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. “It was very traumatic for her, I think, to tell me that in fact that wasn’t the case, that my father might still be alive, that she’d met him overseas, fallen pregnant with me, had told him and he had said, basically, that he was betrothed to someone from the town in Italy where he was from.”
“I think that whole guilt associated with having a child out of wedlock in 1963 as a young Catholic woman was a big deal,” he said. “Hence, the extent to which she had gone to in terms of adopting my father’s name. She wore an engagement and a wedding ring. She — the whole family just believed this story.”
Albanese cites the story as a wellspring of his empathy for others. As a Catholic-school boy, he attended local Labor Party meetings with his mother and grandparents. He joined the party as a teen, was active in college and then went to work for a scion of the state party’s progressive wing. He was elected to Parliament on his 33rd birthday. (Biden entered Congress when he was 29.)
Unlike Biden, who made little secret of his desire to run for president, Albanese expressed no interest in leading his party or country for almost two decades, according to biographer and journalist Karen Middleton. He steadily rose up the ranks, helping to hold a minority Labor government together. When Labor lost the election in 2013, a senior party figure urged him to have a crack at the leadership, but Albanese lost. He got another chance in 2019, after Labor suffered a shock upset.
“The party was so demoralized that no one else was willing to put their hand up,” said Strangio.
Last year, Albanese likened his own chances to those of Biden, who had just been inaugurated.
“There were people in this room who predicted that Donald Trump would win reelection,” he said in a news conference. “But a bloke who was a former deputy leader and an experienced politician, who had held a wide range of portfolios and who was someone who was underestimated by some, he is now president of the United States.”
Like Biden, he was criticized for appearing happy to let the election be a referendum on his opponent. And he was questioned for running a small-target campaign in which he pared back some of his party’s more ambitious policies, including cuts to carbon emissions.
Albanese’s modest climate strategy hurt him with some voters on Election Day and helped propel Greens and independents into Parliament. But it also enabled Labor to keep some key coal-country seats on its way to what, as of Sunday, seemed like a small majority.
“It was a gamble,” said Strangio. “But the gamble paid off.”
It remains to be seen how ambitious Albanese will be on climate, especially if he doesn’t need the help of Greens and climate-focused independents. He played the issue both ways during the campaign, calling for investment in renewable energy but also backing new coal mines.
Even if he remains cautious, his climate policy will be more ambitious than that of outgoing conservative Scott Morrison, whose slow walk to committing to net zero by 2050 frustrated the Biden administration.
“Biden will appreciate an Australian government that has more ambition on climate,” said Fullilove. He said the president would also welcome a reset of relations between Australia and France — countries that fell out under Morrison over his handling of a deal with Britain and the United States for nuclear-powered submarines.
Fullilove said it will be important to see if there is 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 matters,” he said.
Australia finds itself on the front line of the new geopolitics. The Biden administration sees it as a key ally in pushing back on growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. China launched a trade conflict with Australia two years ago. And it recently struck a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that some analysts fear could lead to a Chinese military base roughly 1,000 miles from Australian shores. (China and the Solomon Islands deny that is a possibility.)
“An Australian historian said famously that we suffer from the tyranny of distance,” Fullilove said. “But now, in fact, we face the predicament of proximity. The world is rushing toward us.”
The world is now rushing toward Albanese, who will meet the American president on his second day in office.
“It’s quite the initiation,” Fullilove said.