The Boss PM versus Teen Spirit treasurer: The generational divide at the heart of government

On March 2nd, 1996, John Howard defeated Paul Keating, Anthony Albanese turned 33 and was elected to parliament and Jim Chalmers turned 18.

Fast-forward 27 years, Albanese and Chalmers, 15 years apart in age, occupy the nation’s top two political jobs. Albanese is celebrating his 60th birthday while Chalmers is now 45.

Anthony Albanese as a Young Labor delegate in Hobart in 1986.Credit:David James Bartho

The PM is one of the last of the Baby Boomers, a well-known music fan and occasional DJ, with his taste running from current acts such as Gang of Youths and Lime Cordiale to classics including Radio Birdman, Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen.

He came of age in 1981: tertiary education was still free, inflation was soaring at 9.4 per cent and everyone was talking about Azaria Chamberlain after a coroner found she was killed by a dingo.

In contrast, Gen X Chalmers is Australia’s first hip-hop treasurer: he lists Jay Z, Nas, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls as his favourite acts, with a sideline of main-stage grunge acts such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Jim Chalmers at 18. Jay Z, Nas, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls are on his playlist.Credit:Facebook

The year Chalmers turned 18, 1996, the economy had emerged from the recession of the early 1990s, with unemployment rates declining to 7.9 per cent. He would be almost 30 before he’d see a Labor federal government as an adult.

The 15-year age gap is the same as that between Labor legends Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and MPs close to Albanese and Chalmers say the divide rarely comes up. Albanese is a young-at-heart live music fan, while Chalmers is an old soul policy wonk, holding senior roles since his early 30s, such as chief-of-staff to former treasurer Wayne Swan.

They share similar origin stories. Both were raised by single mothers, Albanese famously in Sydney’s inner west, Chalmers in Queensland’s Logan after his parents divorced when he was 14.

Albanese is from Labor’s Left faction and Chalmers is from the Right, but both men were sponsored into politics by Labor father figures in Tom Uren and Wayne Swan, respectively.

Under the leadership of Bill Shorten, the pair were not close, and Chalmers briefly considered standing against Albanese and making a leadership tilt after the 2019 election loss.

He withdrew and Albanese promoted him to shadow treasurer, but according to Labor MPs, it took some time for the relationship to warm up.

A prime minister and a treasurer don’t have to be close, but their relationship defines a government. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

A prime minister and a treasurer do not have to be close for a government to succeed, as John Howard and Peter Costello proved; if they are mates, as Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were, it can sap the competitive tension that can create better policy results. Treasurers have to be able to stand up to prime ministers.

What is certain is that the relationship between prime minister and treasurer is crucial to the fortunes of any government.

The generation gap between these two colleagues isn’t just vinyl and CDs. In years to come, it could have an impact on policy.

Wednesday’s brief muddle over whether to impose capital gains tax on the family home – Chalmers left the door open, then Albanese slammed it shut – was a reminder that publicly, there can’t be a cigarette paper’s distance between PM and treasurer.

The theory goes that Chalmers, as the man who could one day be prime minister, didn’t want to close the door permanently on a policy that he might one day wish to revisit – whereas Albanese, in his final job in politics, was happy to rule out a policy that would have endangered his political agenda over the next two terms.

They may share a birthday, but it remains to be seen if they both can have their cake and eat it too.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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