As he rose to high political office, Anthony Albanese made a discovery that set him on a life-changing search.
This was not how Anthony Albanese was used to being introduced. Kevin Rudd was back in charge, almost three years to the day since being removed as prime minister in mid-2010, and now Albanese was there alongside him in Parliament’s Blue Room, wearing a new title. “Let me make some remarks before I turn to the deputy prime minister,” Rudd said, gesturing to his newly minted number two. As things turned out, Albanese was deputy prime minister for just 83 days, the shortest term since the position was designated officially in 1968. But as he stood beside the triumphal Rudd, Albanese was not focused on how long he might stay but how he’d got there.
Standing there at the podium, he was thinking about a journey that had begun a lot further back. Rudd spoke to the gathered journalists first, briefly and off the cuff. Albanese also didn’t have a formal statement prepared but when it was his turn, he found he had something to say. “It says a great thing about our nation that the son of a [single] parent who grew up in a council house in Sydney could be deputy prime minister of Australia,” he said, his emotions close to the surface.
“I didn’t know I was going to say it,” he recalls now. “It was the ultimate gut instinct.” Beyond those friends and colleagues who knew his real, whole story, few listening might have understood exactly what this moment represented for the boy from Sydney’s industrial inner west, whose late mum had lived in that same council house her entire life. Some who did know still wished he wouldn’t show his heart quite so readily.
“I’ll give my all for Labor,” Albanese continued that day in 2010. His mother had given much the same for him. He wished that she could have been there for this momentous day. After all they’d been through — her sacrifice, their struggle and a personal search he never thought he’d embark on — here he was on this podium, a heartbeat from the highest political office in the land.
Anthony Albanese never knew his father while he was growing up. For his success in politics and in life, he credits his mother. Bad health since childhood had made life a battle for Maryanne Therese Albanese, nee Ellery, and her schooling had suffered. She was determined her son would have the best life she could make for him and she also encouraged his interest in politics. Her devotion to the Labor Party, and her parents’ before her, meant he had little hope of escaping it. “She made a decision that her life would be lived through me — through a child,” Albanese says. “Lots of parents do that but the truth is, it’s particularly women who do that, much more so than blokes. It’s very selfless.” When his mother died in 2002, Albanese told those gathered at her funeral service that she was the finest person he had ever known. “A two-person family is different,” he said, standing before the congregation at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Camperdown, next door to his primary school, up the road from home and where most of his family’s religious rituals had been performed since before he was born.
In contrast to the close relationship with his mum, Albanese knew nothing much of his father — just a romantic, tragic story. He knew his father’s name was Carlo Albanese, that he was Italian and that Maryanne Ellery had met him on her greatest adventure, a trip to Britain and Europe when she was 25. He recalls that from when he was young, he’d heard that Maryanne and Carlo had married after a short courtship during her eight months abroad, but that his father had died in a terrible car accident, leaving her pregnant and widowed. The story was accepted without question among those who knew it, both within the family and around the neighbourhood; there was no reason to doubt it.
But one night when her son was 14, Maryanne sat him down at the kitchen table and said, “We need to talk.” Then she told him the truth, a startling rewrite of his life’s story. Maryanne Ellery had, indeed, met Carlo Albanese on her trip to Europe — a four-week ocean voyage she and her older brother had taken from Sydney to Southampton in March 1962 on the Fairsky, a cruise ship of the Sitmar Line. Carlo was a steward on board and he and Maryanne had begun a romance. Not long after, the good Catholic girl discovered she was pregnant.
According to this new version of his origins tumbling out onto the kitchen table, Maryanne had told Carlo of her situation. The response was not what she might have hoped — he could not marry her; he was engaged to wed a girl from his town in southern Italy and that was what he was duty-bound to do. So, contrary to the story upon which he’d built his life to date, young Anthony learnt that his parents had never actually married at all. There had been no fatal accident.
Still a single woman, Maryanne had arrived back in Sydney in October 1962, nearly four months pregnant. She moved back in with her parents and acquired and wore wedding and engagement rings — to this day her son doesn’t know where they came from — and took her lover’s surname as her own, not bothering with the deed poll. When her son arrived on March 2, 1963, he became Albanese too — pronounced then in a plain, Australian way without any Italian flourish: Alban-eez.
After his birth, Maryanne had gone about her life in an elaborate, well-intentioned ruse. Seeking to avoid the innuendo she feared might come from being an unmarried mother in a tight-knit working-class Catholic community in 1960s Sydney, she presented herself to the world as a young widow, to protect her son from scorn and maintain their family’s public reputation.
Sitting there in the kitchen with her teenage son that night, Maryanne was concerned about how he would react to the extraordinary secret she had just revealed. “She, I think, was petrified somehow that I’d … ” He pauses, searching for the right word. “Not reject her … but that it would change our relationship.” He told her it wouldn’t and that he was neither embarrassed nor upset by her revelation. But it was clear that it had been a difficult conversation for his mum. She asked if he felt he was suffering by being in a single-parent family. And she wondered aloud if he would like to try to find the father who, suddenly, strangely, might have come back to life.
But the hard-edge teenager wouldn’t hear of it. “I do remember at the time saying, ‘I’m not interested’,” he says. “And I do know that that’s what she wanted to hear. What she needed was for me to say, ‘You’re all I needed’. ”
For decades, he left his family history right where it lay. But gradually, after Maryanne’s death, he started contemplating finding out more about Carlo and his own lineage. In the final years of his mother’s life, when Albanese had married his longtime partner, Carmel Tebbutt, and they’d had a son of their own, his perception of family changed. Then one day in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery, he was confronted by a question he couldn’t answer. Visiting his mum’s grave, his young son Nathan asked him a direct question. Where was his father? He fobbed off the question. The moment faded. But the question didn’t. Albanese decided he needed to know something about the man whose Italian name they had both inherited.
The business of life in the present had a way of pushing aside the past. By the time Albanese was thinking seriously about a search, he had been almost a decade in Parliament as the Member for Grayndler, the whole time in Opposition. His party won office in 2007 and Albanese was preoccupied by the challenges of ministerial life. But early that year, while still in Opposition, he had asked his NSW Labor colleague and confidant Senator John Faulkner for help. Faulkner quietly lodged a request with the National Archives for records of Maryanne’s voyage and the steward she met onboard. “Records held by the National Archives provide little information about this person, apart from the fact that he visited Australia as a crew member of the Fairsky,” wrote Anne McLean, the archives director of access and information services.
McLean had asked around, trying to help further, and suggested some other avenues of inquiry in Australia and overseas, including archives in Britain and Italy. The research eventually turned up a 1962 crew list for the Fairsky that included Carlo’s name and position as “assistant steward”, aged 30 — five years older than Maryanne. But beyond confirming he’d had a home port of Naples, there was little in the way of traceable information to go on.
Albanese mined the memories of his relatives in Australia, hoping for something to connect all the pieces. While his mother had been a great keeper of sentimental things, there was no correspondence from Carlo or anything that might point to where he was. But there was a black-andwhite photograph of a smiling group of young people, dressed up and seated around a table in a ship’s dining room. His mother was there in the photo and standing opposite her was a steward in a gleaming white jacket. It had to be Carlo.
Some more internet research established that Sitmar Cruises had been sold to P&O in the 1980s. The owner of P&O was Carnival Cruise Lines and when Albanese noticed the boss of Carnival, Ann Sherry, was in Canberra one day, he sought her out. “I sat down and he said, ‘I need you to do me a favour,'” Sherry recalls. “And then he told me the story.” She understood why it was so important to him. “You need to know who your family are.”
Sherry says she left the meeting feeling like she’d been burdened by a secret. “I came out of there feeling a bit shell-shocked and thinking, ‘My God, where do I start?'” Back in Sydney, after giving it some thought, she contacted a maritime historian who was working on the history of P&O in Australia, Rob Henderson. “I honestly thought we would not find anything,” she says. “It was such a long shot.”
But Henderson has made an art of chasing down impossible details. By chance, while on a lecturing commitment on board a cruise, he met a man by the name of Christopher Jolly, an executive in shipbuilding with Carnival Corporation who later mentioned he was heading to Genoa, in Italy. And Henderson suddenly thought, Oh! “So I said to him, ‘While you’re in Genoa, can you see if there’s anything in the old Genoa wharves relating to the old Sitmar company?'” Jolly figured it would have all been destroyed, but he promised to have a look.
Some time later, an email arrived with a message saying, “Are you sitting down?” Henderson recalls, laughing. Most of the boxes of Sitmar records had been destroyed, but inside a shed at the end of the wharf had been just a few boxes stacked against a wall. “He said, ‘I’ve found this box of cards of stewards and there is a Carlo Albanese and he lives somewhere in the south of Italy.’ ”
The address dated from his time with the cruise line back in the 1960s. Apparently determined to see the adventure through, Jolly spoke to a shipbuilder he knew in Italy and asked how he might go about finding a current address or phone number for this Carlo Albanese. The local man took up the case. He managed to check a database of maritime pensioners. On November 5, 2009, Henderson received another message. “He found Carlo Albanese’s name in the social security records,” Henderson says. “He checked the birth date against the date on the card and he thought, ‘It’s got to be the same man’. ”
Henderson rang Sherry. She couldn’t believe it. “Oh my God!” she said. It was late on a Thursday afternoon. She had Albanese’s mobile number and called him straight away. “It’s Ann,” she said. “I’ve found him.”
Sherry told him what she knew and that his father lived in Barletta, a town in southern Italy. In the moment that followed her words, there was a kind of stunned silence. “And I could hear him just … ” She tries to describe it. “He gulped. He gulped … I could almost feel him falling off his chair when I spoke to him. It was so profound.”
Albanese says the news hit him like a front-row forward. “I just sat down and collapsed with emotion,” he says. “I just broke down. This flood of emotion came over me and I rang Carmel.”
His wife, then the deputy premier of NSW, was as astonished as he was. “I thought it was an almost impossible task and was never terribly hopeful that Anthony would find his father,” Tebbutt says. “And so when he did get that information I just was a bit stunned and amazed and also a bit anxious, because I thought, ‘What are the next steps? What happens now?'”
Having made it this far in the search, Albanese wasn’t giving up. The need to pursue this to its end consumed him. He knew former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone from her many years in Parliament and before she left Australia to become ambassador to Italy in 2007 he had told her what he knew of his father. She agreed to do what she could to help. Once she was in Rome, Vanstone had enlisted — and sworn to secrecy — one of the embassy’s very experienced consular officers, who compiled a list of the Albaneses in southern Italy, around Naples. They had eliminated them one by one. When Albanese received Sherry’s call — and an address — he rang Vanstone again.
A third person in the embassy also knew about his situation and he rang her, too. In another of the many strange serendipitous twists in his story, one of Vanstone’s staff at the embassy, Lisa Golden, was Albanese’s cousin, once removed, from his mother’s side. An accomplished Italian-speaking Australian, Lisa had been living in Italy and had applied for a position as a locally engaged public diplomacy project officer. When he told her the news, she was as gobsmacked as everyone else. He gave her the address and before long she had found a telephone number online.
In a further extraordinary coincidence, as minister for transport and infrastructure, Albanese was due to fly to Italy at the end of that month — and not just Rome, but to Bari in southern Italy, 40 minutes’ drive from Barletta. As a public diplomacy officer, Lisa had been one of those working on plans for the visit. It was an opportunity he couldn’t let slide but he didn’t speak Italian and he couldn’t just turn up out of the blue on Carlo’s doorstep.
He needed to try to contact Carlo beforehand and asked Lisa to call him. “It was obviously going to be a difficult phone call to even begin to make,” Lisa says. She rang and rang. Eventually, someone answered but she couldn’t get them to stay on the line long enough to explain fully. When she asked for Carlo she was told he didn’t hear very well.
She sent a letter, then tried ringing again, finally reaching Carlo’s wife, who said calmly that a family friend of theirs would call her. When Lisa’s phone rang again it was late Friday afternoon, the day before Albanese’s ministerial visit. The woman said she was a lawyer from Barletta, and a friend of the Albanese family. She agreed to meet them. It was the breakthrough they had been hoping for.
The lawyer welcomed Albanese and Lisa to her office and over the next almost two hours they talked. She asked Albanese why he wanted to meet Carlo. “I think he’s my father,” he said simply. “I don’t want anything out of him. I’m not after money, I’m not after anything else. I just want to meet him.” When the conversation ended, the lawyer said she would talk to Carlo’s son and try to convince him to bring his father to her studio the next day to meet them. When they left the lawyer’s office and were safely out in the street, Albanese burst into tears.
The meeting was set for 11am. Carlo entered the room with his son and daughter; Anthony had two siblings. Carlo was slight, clean-shaven and well dressed. He seemed fit, if a little hard of hearing. There is some resemblance, Lisa thought. He walked in and, without speaking, opened his arms for an embrace. “I was in tears,” Albanese says. “I think everyone was a little bit in tears.”
They sat down and began to talk. Carlo still had some English and used a little of it, though he mostly spoke in Italian. “I said, ‘You knew my mother,'” Albanese says. “He acknowledged that straightaway. There was no ‘Maybe I’m not your father’. There was none of that.”
Carlo asked what Albanese calls “sensible questions” about Maryanne and what had happened to her. “He was a gentleman,” Albanese says. “He was a class act. I liked him. I could certainly see what my mother would have seen in him. He was charming. He was smart. He cared a lot about his family. He was very generous. He was interesting, hard-working.”
Gradually, small fragments of Carlo’s life entered the conversation, enough for a blurry picture to emerge. He had been married to his wife — mother of his son and daughter — since 1963, the year Anthony was born in Sydney. After he left the shipping line, Carlo had worked two jobs, as a school janitor and as the maitre d’ at a local restaurant.
Albanese had no doubt he had found his father at last. But there was one more thing he wanted to do. Before they said farewell, vowing to bring his own family back the following year, Anthony pulled out the black-and-white photograph taken on the ship 47 years earlier. There was his mother and her travelling companions smiling up at them and the suave Italian steward standing beside. He wanted to make absolutely sure. He showed the photo to the Albanese family and they recognised it. To Carlo, it was especially familiar. Because for all those years, he had kept a copy of it as well. E
dited extract from Albanese: Telling it Straight by Karen Middleton, $34.99 (Vintage Australia), out August 24 2016.
Telling it Straight will be launched at Parliament House in Canberra on 1 September 2016.
This story appeared in the Weekend Australian Magazine, 20-21 August 2016.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.