The Midwit Shallowness of Anthony Albanese

Last year, a few days before the federal election which would make Anthony Albanese Australia’s Prime Minister, there was a brief moment that most people have almost certainly forgotten by now, if they even noticed it at the time. Albo was attending a business lunch in Perth, and after delivering some remarks, he was asked by journalist Lanai Scarr: win or lose, could he describe what he wants his legacy to be in three or fewer words? Albo paused a moment, and then, with that characteristic emotional frog in his throat, said: “acting on climate”.

At first glance this is pretty anodyne stuff for the leader of a centre-Left party in a Western democratic country. It is an essential requirement for someone in Albo’s position to speak the words on climate change at every opportunity.

But I remember finding it deeply strange. So much so that it’s been knocking around in my head for the year since he said it.

Here’s why. Anthony Albanese had, at the time, been in Parliament for twenty-six years. He had been a cabinet minister in the previous Labor government, he was first made a shadow parliamentary secretary in 1998, and a shadow minister in 2001. As a shadow minister he held the Environment and Heritage title from 2004 to 2006 but, importantly, this was an era when the Environment portfolio was mostly about conservation, biodiversity and water resources. Albanese did oversee the release of Labor’s first Climate Change Blueprint in 2006, but climate change wouldn’t get its own specific portfolio until the Rudd opposition and it went, famously, to Peter Garrett.

Albo, for his part, moved into Infrastructure and Transport under Kevin Rudd and after Labor won government in 2007 he spent his entire time there, notwithstanding a couple of months in the dying days of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era as Broadband Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

So in twenty-six years, twenty-four of which included formal ministerial and shadow ministerial roles, Albanese’s influence on climate change policy was, at best, a footnote. There was some minor policy work in opposition when climate change wasn’t the dominant issue it would come to be, but when in government, and when leading the opposition, there’s not much to point to in terms of a climate legacy. Which makes you wonder what those twenty-six years were about.

But it’s not just Albo’s past career that makes it strange. “Acting on climate” as a legacy statement was also strange in the context of the 2022 election campaign. While, as you’d expect from a centre-Left party, Labor made a lot of noise about their climate policies, it was not a centrepiece of their campaign. They weren’t doing an Obama and talking about slowing the ocean’s rise and healing the planet. It wasn’t the Great Moral Challenge of Kevin ’07.

They went to the election with largely the same climate policies as the Coalition, only they were a little less embarrassed about it. Their long-term emissions target was the same—Net Zero by 2050—but they had a more ambitious target in the shorter term. In government they’ve since done the big symbolic act of legislating their targets but otherwise they’ve tinkered around the edges on the existing complex regime of climate policies.

Even now, climate is not listed as one of Labor’s headline “plans”. It’s not in Albanese’s biography on pm.gov.au, on anthonyalbanese.com.au there are some passing references to climate but it’s not on the front page, it’s not on his “what drives me” statement and it’s listed sixth in his “our work” section. In profiles of him from over the years, there’s barely a mention of climate at all. A Guardian profile from the day after the election is illustrative: the only reference to climate is in passing and it’s about how he has moved towards the centre on it.

So, days before he was about to win an election and ascend to the highest political office in the land, Anthony Albanese looked back at his career, considered the policy platform he was about to take into government, and said his legacy would be something which had played no real role in his entire political life.

Anthony Albanese’s origin story is simple and well known. Few of his speeches go by when he doesn’t talk about growing up in council housing, raised by a single mum on a pension. No doubt this was important and formative but notice how the biography never continues past that point. One line, two objects: single mother, council housing. That’s because, when you scan your eye over Albo’s career, there’s not much else there. Perhaps he leans so heavily on the one-line origin story because it’s the only story he has.

When undertaking his transformation from Labor Left factional warlord to centrist sensible Leader of the Opposition and then Prime Minister, it went by mostly unremarked that Albo has the least non-political professional experience of any Prime Minister. His website biography mentions working “multiple jobs” while at university but his official Parliament House biography lists only one job that isn’t staffer, party official or MP: bank officer for one year in 1980-81.

Otherwise his CV reads: staffer to Labor Minister Tom Uren, New South Wales Labor Party official, staffer to New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and then in 1996, the day before his thirty-third birthday, he was elected to the seat of Grayndler, and that’s been his job ever since. Only Paul Keating has a resume as thin, but he also left school at fifteen and did interesting things like managing a rock band before entering Parliament at twenty-five. Albo has been wheeling and dealing in the unreal world of politics his entire adult life.

One of the first times Albo appeared in the public he did not actually appear at all—he was literally a faceless man in the famous television documentary Rats in the Ranks about the infighting around the 1994 Leichhardt City Council elections. As the animosity between the Labor council members reaches its peak, a call is put into New South Wales Labor head office and Albanese is sent in as the fixer. It is noted in the documentary that Albo refuses to appear on camera, so his intervention happens entirely off-screen, but it’s clear his influence is significant. Two years later his face was revealed on corflutes in Marrickville and across Sydney’s inner west as he marched into the House of Representatives.

The other biographical refrain Albo returns to is his “three great faiths”: the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. What these three have in common is that they’re all institutions which are part of or pointing to a bigger thing. It’s not rugby league he loves, it’s the Rabbitohs. It’s not Australia, it’s the Labor Party. It’s not God, it’s the Church. Institution first. The actual thing second.

When Albo tearfully fronted the press after Kevin Rudd tried to enact revenge on Julia Gillard and retake the prime ministership he expressed how upset he was about what this was doing to the Labor Party and how it was distracting him from his true mission: fighting Tories. Fighting Tories. “That’s what I do.” That was another refrain for a while, but the media have been very accommodating in letting Albo retire that one as he moved into becoming prime minister material. Fighting nearly half the country doesn’t fit so well with being a unifying national leader. In any case, while he was upset about the state of his party back then, what all the Rudd–Gillard tumult was doing to the actual country his party was ostensibly meant to be governing did not warrant a mention.

Fast forward to March 2023 and Albo’s got the frog in his throat again at the historic importance of yet another political project he’s undertaking. This time it’s the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. He was only announcing the wording of the proposed constitutional change and kicking off the legislative process for a referendum to take place. But he got himself a rousing guard of honour from ministerial staff when he exited the press conference.

During that press conference, Albo said “this is a modest request” and then moments later: “I’m here to change the country.” It’s not clear how those two ideas can coexist. Something is definitionally not modest if it’s going to change the country and profoundly change the way the problems facing indigenous Australians are addressed.

But the entire Voice referendum debate has been defined by its opaque incoherence. The basics are pretty clear: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have faced historical injustices, and continue to experience far worse health and wellbeing outcomes than other Australians. Reconciliation for the past and a way forward towards closing the gap are worthy goals. Even constitutional recognition is not an inherently stupid idea. There is an understandable level of support in the wider Australian community for dealing with these issues, but quite how that translates to a novel representative body with no precedent in the Westminster system enshrined in the Constitution with a say over executive government and the parliament is unclear.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart kicked this idea off, and that came from a series of dialogues with indigenous representatives. Supporters of the Voice like to use that history to claim this was a community-led organic idea. But look a little deeper and the Uluru Statement was an institutionally-driven process initiated by politicians and including many of the same people who have been mainstays in the indigenous not-for-profit and academic world and who would have been directly consulted many times over the years by governments on the policies that affect them. That they landed on a bureaucratic proposal focused on words and representation that gives them more power and not something practical for particularly vulnerable remote communities is telling.

However you want to characterise the process, the key point is that no one really knows about it in any depth, no one really knows what the Voice is and how it will work, and no one really knows what the implications are for our system of government. There has not even been a robust defence of the conceptual soundness of the premise that “having a say” is the key that unlocks the solutions to the problems. It’s “the vibe” all the way down. Most defences of the thornier objections to the Voice amount to semantic word games or rest entirely on the assumed perpetual goodwill and innate sensibility of whoever ends up being on the Voice. A laudable aspiration, but there is such a thing as human nature so, you know, good luck with that.

It’s clear, in the moments where he’s been pushed on it, that Albo doesn’t really understand it either. For example, on March 27 he told us that the Voice is not about “foreign affairs policy”, it’ll just be about matters that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But less than a month before his Voice press conference his very own government appointed an “Ambassador for First Nations” because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have perspectives on foreign policy that need to be heard. Which is to say, foreign policy absolutely affects Aboriginal people so why wouldn’t the Voice advise on it? It’s possible he doesn’t know what his own government has done but, more likely, he has well-founded confidence that no one in the media or on the opposition benches is ever going to notice the flagrant inconsistency. Possibly it’s both.

That a politician has shape-shifted over a career as long as Albo’s is not unusual. And these days it is par for the course for leaders to express whatever the issue of the day is in changing-the-world terms. What ties together all of the threads we’ve covered is that every step of the way, Albo is apparently entirely sincere about everything. There is no sense from anyone who knows him or has worked with him that he’s anything other than a genuinely good guy who means well.

I don’t think he’s a liar or corrupt. I don’t think he’s especially wishy-washy and unprincipled. I really do think he’s sincere. He was sincere about “acting on climate”, he was sincere about “fighting Tories”, he’s sincere about the Voice. I just don’t think he has ever thought any of these or other issues through in any meaningful way. There’s no overarching narrative, no great project. Just the fashionable cause of the moment, the cause the upper-middle-class inner-city punters want him to care about. There’s no depth, just shibboleths.

But there’s still this thing that nags at you when you look across Albo’s career and when you hear him speak. You sense the shallowness, the presentism, the empty conviction meshed with sincerity. It nags at you when you see the famous election campaign footage of him forgetting the Reserve Bank cash rate; it’s not that he didn’t know the particular number, it’s the way he looks like a deer in headlights, short circuiting behind the eyes; the way you can almost see the talking points running through his head like a Star Wars opening crawl as he’s hoping and ultimately failing to locate the number.

You sense it when he’s asked an unexpected or difficult question in a press conference and across his face flashes not the blustering of a Morrison or the aggressiveness of a Rudd but a sort of bewilderment that someone might think about an issue differently from him.

Sky News’s Paul Murray calls him “Each-Way Albo” because he always keeps his options open and has a bob each way on every issue. But I don’t think that’s quite right. It implies a purposeful slipperiness that’s not really there.

No, what brings Albo’s Albo-ness into focus is one simple observation. It’s the Albo thesis that, as I tossed all these disparate Albo stories and biographical details together in a stew, really brought the dish together.

It’s what allows Albo to be ever changing but always sincere. Never troubled by the contradictions. Pushing ever forward with the progressive concern of the moment. I hope it’s the key to unlock Albo for you too. It’s this: Albo is a midwit.

The pejorative descriptor midwit emerged online in the past few years to refer to someone who is of above average intelligence but not far above average. They’re often well credentialled, often successful; but they’re always a step or two behind the truly exceptional. They’re in the middle. As Urban Dictionary puts it:

Midwits are truly cursed to be neither blissfully dumb nor reap the benefit of being of superior intelligence or a genius. They can grasp general concepts, but are less capable of digging deeper, understanding nuance, or adapting quickly to complex problems, leading to an entire middle class of perpetually unhappy, often vaguely angry people.

The American writer Auron Macintyre describes how midwits are good at latching on to the headline versions of ideas, but don’t tend to be able to think these ideas through with any rigour. They are, however, faintly aware that they’re not as smart as half the population, so they take any and every opportunity to display their savviness and smartness. Because their intelligence alone isn’t ever going to catapult them into the highest levels of power and success, status is the currency of the midwit.

This makes them extremely adept at absorbing the ever-updating forms of language and talking points of progressive ideology. They are the types of people who can seamlessly integrate an idea like the Voice to Parliament into their worldview as The Vital Act of Racial Reconciliation of Our Time without understanding it or having ever really heard of it until five minutes ago, but are less able or willing to consider the serious hard decisions that need to be made to actually address chronic under-employment, under-education and violence in Aboriginal communities.

Again, to be clear, midwits are not stupid, they’re often successful and productive members of society. Macintyre says, in a more balanced economy with different social incentives, midwits would be the small business owners, running restaurants or shops or building companies. But in our society, with an oversupply of university-educated upper-middle-class strivers who end up in education, the media, NGOs and the public sector, they end up swarming middle management positions in big institutions and having an outsized influence on the polity.

Midwits love big institutions. Bureaucratic institutions are the perfect vehicles to legitimise their half-thought-through ideas. Bureaucratic institutions are extremely responsive to fashionable social and political trends, and the leaders of bureaucracies jump at any chance to send the right social signals without having to do anything practical that affects the bottom line. This is flattering to midwits whose savviness is affirmed when big corporations agree with them, and helps boost their influence and power within institutions. Because when the symbol is what matters, not the thing itself, the midwit can reign supreme.

The elevation of the symbolic over the practical is possibly the defining feature of twenty-first-century politics, especially in Australia. The feeling of perpetual economic growth and prosperity, underpinned by China’s appetite for our natural resources, along with relative peace and security in our region, has created this sense of unreality around so much of our government and politics. Did you hear we have a budget surplus? Best not to look too hard at why.

The Covid pandemic, the closest thing to a real crisis many of us have experienced, was the exception that proved the rule. Our political leaders and institutions, having grown fat off the land, were fundamentally incapable of rising to the moment. Faced with something real and not symbolic, they opened the toolkit to find rusty hammers and wooden clubs in the form of lockdowns and school closures and supposedly world-class health systems that couldn’t handle even a modest increase in demand. And then they beat us with the blunt objects while using kindergarten-teacher rhetoric about safety and being all in it together. They kept hoping they could find One Weird Trick to fix everything but turned up empty while their constituents developed a drinking problem alone at home.

Remember when Scott Morrison was excoriated for being in Hawaii during the 2019-20 bushfires? Of course you do, it was the beginning of the end for him. What’s striking about that incident is how empty of content it was. When you dig into the timeline and decision-making in relation to the actual bushfires, there was very little Scott Morrison could do differently. The federal government really does not hold a hose.

But the symbol of him relaxing on the beach while we choked on smoke—that’s a tough one to overcome. That’s how politics works. There are no referees making you play fair.

And so into the breach steps Albo. The Institutional Man. Affable and sincere. A pro at Saying the Words. The uber-midwit with an innate sense of when the symbolic matters over the practical. He ruthlessly exploited Morrison’s Hawaii blunder and rode those ember-fuelled waves all the way to The Lodge. The man with one story knew that in the politics of the symbolic, the politics of the midwit, that story would be enough to cover up the unreality of most of his life as an institutional creature of politics.

When you think about any of this for ten seconds your brain starts to revolt. Acting on climate? That doesn’t mean anything! Fighting Tories? Tories are in the UK. The Voice? It’s incoherent and frankly kind of nuts.

But Albo believes. For him, it’s true. All of it. Because for the midwit, it’s all status, all about being on the winning side. It’s words, not action. It’s portraying yourself as a fighter for the underdog as you hold precisely the same political positions as, say, Optus. It’s loving the Labor Party and not the country. Loving the symbol and not the thing itself. And there’s an army of midwits entrenched in our institutions and corporations who are delighted that Albo is Prime Minister because as they tweet from their iPads they are assured they’re Making a Difference because that’s—figuratively speaking—the same thing Albo’s been doing his whole career.

In a time of plenty, this is all mostly fine. Annoying, but fine. Political unreality is a privilege of the prosperous. But if Australians start losing their homes due to mortgage stress, can’t turn on their heaters during winter because of power prices, can’t feed their families because of grocery prices—then symbols won’t be enough. The Voice won’t put food on the table. Acting on climate is what’s making electricity so expensive. Interest rates were lower under the “Tories”.

The coming crisis isn’t a storm on the horizon, it’s the alien ship from Independence Day, hovering over Capital Hill, ready to strike. No one really knows where the blast radius is going to end and if the Albanese government can handle the fallout.

Albo remains ascendant. But reality is about to enter the stage. And the frog in the throat won’t stop what’s coming.

Samuel Mullins is a Melbourne-based communications consultant and former staffer and ministerial adviser in the previous Coalition government.


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