Australian Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather: ‘Our housing campaign leaves us stronger for the next fight’

Australian Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather: ‘Our housing campaign leaves us stronger for the next fight’

A new phase in the struggle between the Australian Greens and the federal Labor government for real solutions to Australia’s housing crisis has opened up around Labor’s new bill, which it says will help first-home buyers.

Last year, the Greens waged a months-long campaign against Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund (Haff) bill, one the Greens pointed out would do little to help the nation’s worsening housing crisis — and would likely make it worse.

Demonised by Labor and the media as “blockers”, the Greens carried out a door-knocking campaign in Labor seats to talk to people about the issue. Holding the balance of power in the Senate, the Greens finally agreed to pass the bill after securing $3 billion in extra funding for public and community housing.

Now, the Greens have responded to Labor’s new housing bill by demanding a rent-freeze, changes to “negative gearing” and other measures to tackle the crisis.

In late October, Stuart Munckton and Federico Fuentes had an extended discussion with Greens housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather on the housing campaign and its outcome. The political method used in that campaign was a continuation of the large-scale community work done by the Brisbane Greens that resulted in them winning three lower house seats in the 2022 federal elections (including Chandler-Mather winning the seat of Griffith). This quadrupled the Greens’ lower house representation.

In this extract from the interview, which has been edited for clarity, Chandler-Mather reflects on his experiences in parliament so far as an “outsider”, the strengths and weaknesses of the housing campaign, why the Greens ultimately passed Labor’s amended bill, and the challenges involved in pushing for anti-establishment politics from within parliament.

The discussion took place just after the defeat of the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament. Chandler-Mather reflects on this and their relationship to the Greens’ broader campaigning in the remainder of the interview, the audio of which is available here.

The discussion is part of a series Munckton has done with Brisbane Greens activists. An earlier two-part interview with Chandler-Mather and his Griffith campaign manager, Liam Flenady, as well as a two-part interview with three Queensland Greens campaigners, have appeared on the Floodcast podcast.

Fuentes is editor of LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Munckton is a former editor of Green Left.

SM: The discussions we have had so far with yourself and other Brisbane Greens’ activists have really been in order to try to draw out a political perspective that is quite unique in Australia. I think the approach you have in Brisbane is important because the left does not win very much. And I think, right now, when there is a lot of despair in progressive circles after, for example, the Voice referendum outcome, we want to look at different ways of campaigning that might help lead to some victories.

The summary that I got from these discussions is that it really seems based on turning away from the political class, including the media, and from politics as usual, and towards ordinary people who have no connection to that world and do not relate to it. The aim seems to be trying to rebuild some sort of community politics and collective politics in order to then challenge that status quo that does not represent anyone’s interests. Is that a fair summary?

Yeah, pretty much. I think it is a dual strategy in the sense that, on the one hand, we are a parliamentary party, but we are also attempting to be a mass party and aim to establish roots within society. But as you describe, civil society has largely become alienated and disconnected from the political system. So, there are some contradictions, healthy contradictions I would argue, within that strategy that I think constantly raise important strategic questions.

We are a party attempting to win representation in parliament and use our representation as a way to provide a platform, resources and leverage to continue building connections with civil society that rightly distrusts, and has largely been disconnected from, that political system. We are attempting to build a party that can win more power and influence in a set of institutions that the group of people we are trying to organise largely distrust and are completely disconnected from.

We are going to talk about housing, and I think what happened around this housing fight really highlighted a lot of this and just how nascent and young our movement is, as well as how small we still are compared to our ambitions.

SM: That was something we discussed back in April when we had our last chat. It was the very early stages of that campaign and you used housing a fair bit as an example of the type of campaigns you wanted to run, where you were looking to use the door-knocking strategy that proved successful in the electoral wins in Brisbane. We have now gone through months of struggle around Labor’s bill and negotiations with Labor, and it ended with the Greens supporting an amended bill. I was wondering if you could reflect on the campaign and this outcome.

I think the first thing to say is that, obviously for us, this was just the start of the campaign. By no means do we think that the result we got on this in any way gets close to fixing the housing crisis. But in terms of the practical outcomes, there are probably three important practical outcomes.

The first is that separate to Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund, we secured $3 billion of direct investment in public and community housing. We got a commitment that all funding for that housing would go towards a particular design standard for those homes, including energy efficiency and disability access. And we got a commitment around guaranteeing $500 million of investment every year after that.

Obviously we wanted much more. Our demands on the table at the time were for a freeze on rent increases coordinated by the national cabinet and much more money every year directly for public housing. We did not get that.

But just quickly on renters: the other thing that came out of it was in terms of a manifestation of our power. The Prime Minister and every premier in the country had to meet around the table to start to talk about a national plan for renters and respond to the mobilisation that we had built.

I do not think anyone expected that to happen at the start of this process, when the Prime Minister called our proposals “pixie dust”. But within six months of our campaign, he had walked that back and they were discussing a national plan for renters. Obviously we did not get what we wanted out of that. But I think that for us, in-and-of-itself, that was a breakthrough.

I suppose the other thing for us was that this was a qualitative shift in the way people understand parliament and politics, and I think it was an evolution in our organising strategy coming out of the Queensland Greens. Not a revolution, but an evolution of it. By that I mean we took the organising capacity that we have built and that philosophy, and attempted to use it to enhance and build our negotiating power in Parliament around this housing bill, in the process establishing a template — essentially a structure — of how these parliamentary fights could work.

Ultimately, my firm belief is that if we had a major limitation to winning the war in this instance, it was our capacity to organise. The way I put it is that during this campaign we knocked on 20,000 doors, which is not a lot actually compared to what we could pull off. That ended up winning an extra $3 billion in funding. So, what could knocking on 100,000 doors get?

I say that slightly facetiously, but it was the first time where the direct activity of our volunteers could be linked directly to a material win in Parliament. I think that is almost as important as the actual win we got, in the sense that all of a sudden these volunteers now recognise that they had a collective power they could wield and can wield in the future. I think that is quite significant.

SM: I have seen some on the left criticise the Greens for agreeing to pass the amended bill. Of course, there is a type of left critic who will criticise you no matter what you do. But that point about what you could have won with 100,000 doors being knocked is the thing that always strikes me in those conversations, because what you can win is dependent on your actual strength on the ground. So, the question to them is always: ‘how have you helped in actually building strength on the ground?’

There were some people who were critical of what happened and who were in some way involved. What I think was really good was that this whole new layer of volunteers felt collective ownership for the first time over the strategies we were employing in Parliament.

We were having quite deep strategic discussions and holding quite regular housing town halls online: these were chances for volunteers and supporters to ask questions and talk through strategy. And I was going interstate and chatting to a lot of people.

And all of a sudden, there were people asking pretty detailed questions about what was going on in parliament, because they knew their activity was part of that parliamentary fight. And we always made a point, rhetorically, to say that while we are in the balance of power in the Senate, ultimately the only reason we were able to hold firm was because of the little movement that was building.

As for some self criticism, I think one of the contradictions we still have not worked out is, if there is going to be a large people-powered movement with people giving up a lot of their time to help build leverage in parliament, how do we make sure that they do not feel alienated by the decisions that the parliamentary party ends up making? How do we make sure there is a much stronger democratic connection between the two?

Because there will be moments where that movement will feel like they have been called on to help build power but then do not feel like they have a collective say in the way those decisions happen in Parliament. And I think that is something to work on, for the party to improve.

This will be quite crucial given the history of the left in the 20th century. How many times have parliamentary parties ended up alienating the social base of that party and drifting away from that social base? Working out how to avoid that is quite crucial. I do not think we fully solved this in this housing fight, but at the very least it felt like there was some connection between the two.

FF: I’m interested to get your thoughts on how the campaign either reflected or perhaps showed up things that you had not seen before in terms of politics in Australia today? Because often we never try to reflect and think about what we learnt through any given process about politics in general. For example, one thing that struck me is when you said “we only knocked 20,000 houses, imagine what we would have got if we did 100,000 houses”. That is one way to look at it. But perhaps another way to look at it is that maybe if you had knocked on 20,000 doors 15 years ago, you might not have gotten the same positive outcome. Yet it seems today there is something happening, so much so that even small-scale but targeted campaigning can hit a nerve in today's politics where previously it might not have…

MCM:I think that is an excellent point. I think maybe what you are getting at is the hollowing out of Australian politics and in particular the growing disconnect between the Labour and Liberal Party and civil society, and the collapse of trade union membership.

Early on, when we started this door knocking movement, a few things became clear. We were only a few weeks into door knocking and it was already clear that Labor was very spooked by it. I think that is partly because their capacity [to counter it] is so low that it did not take much for our organising capacity to start to have an impact. But the other thing it did was help the [Greens] and the parliamentary party realise that people were largely on our side.

Early in the door knocking we started to really quiz people. We went out into outer suburban, working class Labor areas where the Greens polled 6%,and at the end of every door knock conversation we said: “Well, what do you think we should do? How should we vote in parliament? Should we keep holding firm for more or should we just pass it?” And we were getting 90% [say hold firm].

We did this amazing door knock in Ipswich really early on, which is sort of the west of Brisbane; it is a working class area. At the booth where we were door knocking, where in the federal election the Greens got 6% of the vote, 80% of responses of people whose doors we knocked entirely supported the Greens position.

We took all of that information and put it together into this report. This is what was going on everywhere, we were door knocking across the country. And this is early on when the attacks from Labor and the media were getting very intense.

At the time, the experience in parliament was extremely hostile. I have never faced more hostility than after we abstained on the housing bill. There was a lot of pressure on the party to fold. One of the only reasons I think we did not fold was precisely because we were getting all of these on-the-ground reports that in fact everyone was with us.

The other thing that I think is different [compared to the past] is that the media’s capacity to shape and control a narrative, and to reach and start directing people, has also degraded. Just as politics has been hollowed out, major media institutions no longer have the influence they used to.

I think that the fragmentation of civil society and politics also has an impact. It makes us weaker in a way, but it also makes the political establishment a lot weaker as well.

So, one of the really new things for me is that we could organise some pretty small-scale door knocks from our perspective that clearly applied pressure. But starting to build that direct connection with civil society, and then actually making an effort to understand what was going on, emboldened us. It strengthened our resolve in parliament as well because we felt like we were being more representative. If we had just followed the media, then I think this would have gone a very different way.

SM: Did you find that Labor’s attacks cut through at all? Because you seem to be suggesting that it did not as much as you might think if you just watched the media. But was that a factor, their idea that you are just blocking, you are stopping people from getting homes and there are going to be women on the streets due to domestic violence, all those types of attacks — was that something that, when you accepted the bill, it was because the longer you waited the more people might be convinced by that?

So this is a big question. Why did we end up making the decision that we did? Maybe to give some perspective, we had managed to delay it until September when we ended up doing a deal with the government. We knew the bill was coming back on October 16, which would have been the final day of parliament for that sitting. We just had to make a choice at that point: either we voted it up or we voted it down.

So, in September, we had to make a collective choice. We had already got the billions in the social housing accelerator, where it is widely acknowledged that it was us that got it. And one way or another, we were going to lose our leverage specifically on that bill if we voted it down. Also, then the bill's gone, right, in the same way as if we voted it up.

What was also happening was the Voice campaign was really picking up and understandably there were some people who really wanted to divert their energy there as well. And our organisational capacity, to be perfectly frank, was waning to a degree; not as many people were getting involved for a variety of reasons.

So, we felt we had reached the point of maximum leverage and we used it. To be clear, if Labour had offered us nothing then we would have told them to go jump. It got to a stage where basically we said billions more or we walk. And we got it: $3 billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at.

On your question about where the public was at that point: the most broad sort of feedback we got door knocking was that no one really believed Labor’s attacks. But what a lot of people thought — I think especially sort of less politically engaged and not the left but just general people — was “hold out for as long as you can and get as much as you can, but then eventually you need to get something because I can see homeless people on the street or in tents”.

So they appreciated our position of holding out. But did we have the social consensus to say “rent freeze or we are going to vote the bill down”? That was not clear. I think if we had bigger [organising] capacity then maybe. But there were a lot of people who I think largely backed us in.

Having said that, I think there was another key component of people who understood that what happened with this fight was that, on one side, there was the Greens saying the housing system is broken and we need some fundamental shifts in the way it works, like a rent freeze, scrapping negative gearing; that tinkering around the edges is not going to work and certainly gambling $10 billion on the stock market is not going to work. And then you have Labor basically defending the position of the banks and landlords.

There were a layer of people who just wanted us to wreck the joint, in the sense of just voting everything down until we get what we need. That is not what we did. I think that is a legitimate position in the sense that it is a question lots of left parties have faced in the 20th century: do you just play an oppositional role in parliament and is there any value in dealing or working with these political institutions and parties?

To be frank, I fundamentally believe that negotiating with Labor was like negotiating with the real estate or banking industry. It was amazing. Some of the things they said to me; we were basically having an argument with the political wing of the banking and property industry.

Some people might say: “well there is no way you can deal with them and actually our job is just to build up so much social power that eventually we replace them”. I think that highlights that there is always going to be a tension around our role and function in Parliament vis a vis building our movement on the ground.

FF: I think you hit on a really important point. One of the challenges that the left involved in serious parliamentary work constantly faces is walking that tightrope when there is a strong sense of discontent that can be tapped into by an oppositional voice. We have seen internationally how very small groupings — both on the left and right — just by having a very confrontational discourse have come from nothing to win a significant protest vote. But then the challenge is how do you convert that into something more solid in terms of an electoral base? How do you convince people who are happy to vote for you as a protest vote, but are not that sure about you actually being in power? There are those who respond by saying: “Well, we have got to show the people that we are ready for government by taking ministries whenever we can. We have to show them that we are the ones that are the best at negotiating.” But what often happens is that you become seen as part of the same old political class. So, that is a very difficult tightrope. A big question we face is how do we convert that sort of discontent into ongoing solid social organisation.

I think that is bang on and that is a key organisational question for this entire project. Our message and our rhetoric and our campaigning very much is designed to appeal to and speak to people's material experience of being disconnected and alienated from politics.

But that is one thing and, as you say, it is another thing to convert that into organisational and social strength in the same way that in the 20th century you had those large social bases of parties that would vote for it almost regardless of what it did.

That was one of the other tensions that was borne out in all of this. Because we were also door knocking people in public housing and on the public housing wait list for whom this is sometimes a life or death question. For these people, getting more money for public housing was the end goal.

If you ever door knock people in public housing, you will see that they are the biggest supporters of public housing because often they want to move into another place or they want to be able to get their kids into another place. So, there was a component of people who were just really happy that we got more money for public housing.

Another thing that was going on is we were door knocking these very alienated areas and started getting some of these people coming along to our forums and getting quite seriously involved. One of the puzzles we have not fully solved yet is how do you convert this into a stable mass party that develops ongoing relationships with those communities?

I think we started that with [the housing campaign] process. But a lot of it involves things that I do not think we have solved yet.

One of the things I have confronted over the past 12 months on this housing campaign is we hit some pretty big organisational and capacity limits, going from just speaking to people about anti-politics and shifting over into something more serious and long term with aspirations of wielding real power. I suppose the first thing you need to understand is understanding your limits.

SM: It seems when you decide to support a bill, there are a couple of things to take into consideration. One is, is it an overall step forward in some way? But the other is how do you avoid being seen as just an appendage of the government and responsible for things, like its housing bill, when they fall so far short of what is needed? How do you navigate the danger of being seen as an appendage of the government or the political class as a whole, and maintaining your independence, while supporting the bill as a step forward?

Yeah, it is a great question. I wrote a Jacobin article that talked a bit about this prior to passing the bill. One of the points I made was that often when parliament does pass things or parties sell things, there is a process of envelopment or incorporation that is hard to avoid.

Part of it is rhetorical; like when we did pass it, I made the point that negotiating with Labor was like negotiating with the property and banking industry. Workers face this in trade unions where they are negotiating with the boss, right. Eventually they do end up striking a deal. It is a bit different in politics, obviously.

I think there probably was a layer of people who saw us as getting incorporated or becoming a bit of an appendage of Labor. One of the ways to dissuade people of that notion is to show that we are still up for the fight and use our leverage again in the same way we have used it this time. To demonstrate to people that we are still going to keep pushing for more and we are not going to just sing from the rafters about how we got $3 billion and then rest on our laurels. So, I think that's part of it.

I think the other part is continuing to build our organisational capacity and the political education of our membership and supporter base and saying: “Hey, we tried for the last 12 months but one of the barriers was we were not big enough or organised enough to get more.”

But again I do not necessarily have all the answers. It is one of the things I grapple with all the time; to be honest, it kept me up at night in the weeks after that housing deal in parliament.

Parliaments and democracies in capitalist states do sometimes play the role of incorporating oppositional movements or movements attempting to shift power and wealth in the direction of ordinary working people, and then defanging them. It is an ongoing tension and something that I do not think we have necessarily fully worked out.

SM: There is a practical question here of when the struggle over the bill resolved itself, you lost your leverage around rent freezes, and that is something that affects probably more people in a direct way than the question of public housing. Just numerically, there are a lot more renters. Do you see ways to continue the campaign for rent freezes? Is that a focus of yours?

It is. And look, the first thing to say is, for us, when we came out of that fight, we did not see that as losing leverage. In a way we saw it as laying a foundation.

Out of that we came out with hundreds more trained volunteers and organisers. And winning $3 billion more for housing proved to our volunteer base that their activity can get actual material wins and thus built confidence among our organiser and supporter base.

We also forced the national cabinet to reach an agreement that there was going to be a national plan for renters. We won public support for a rent freeze over 12 months of getting to argue for it. Now 74% of the country support a freeze on rent increases, including 58% of Coalition voters. I believe this is a foundation in terms of where to go from here.

Now, all of the state parties coming up to their state and local elections, including in Queensland, will be campaigning in an environment quite different to before. Now they will be campaigning in an environment where most agree there needs to be a cap or a freeze on rent increases.

All this means that we are in a much stronger position to fight for [a rent freeze] at a state level as well as on a local level. And certainly that will be happening in Queensland, where we will have thousands of volunteers knocking on doors saying: “Don't vote for Labor because they do not support capping your rents.”

And Labour will recognise that and that will apply pressure on them. I think they will need to make a concession for renters at some point along those lines at a federal level.

And I think one of the good things that we have shifted in public perception — as well as in the media funnily enough — is recognition that the Greens' role is not just to rubber stamp Labor bills regardless of what they are.

So, there will be future housing bills coming up. And what we have won is consent that, actually, it is fair for the Greens to hold out until they get something real and material out of Labor. So, at the federal level, that could be coming back to the national cabinet and putting some sort of rent cap on the table, or it could be direct cash grants for renters, or it could be all sorts of things at a housing level.

I can reasonably sit there and say over the past 12 months, we have built a massive people powered movement and we have got $3 billion for public housing. I think everyone can accept now that we are not just going to roll over for nothing on this one.

Labor knows what our position is on renters. They know what our position is on rent caps and a rent freeze. So, for us, we feel like going into the next negotiation on the next housing bill, we're in an even stronger position.