Australian Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather: ‘We should take every chance to deliver our message for working people’

Max Chandler-Mather

In late October, Stuart Munckton and Federico Fuentes had an extended discussion with Greens federal housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather about the party’s campaign against Labor’s housing bill. The Greens eventually passed an amended bill, but only after winning $3 billion dollars in extra funding for public and community housing.  

The political method used in that campaign — which included nationwide door knocking and other means of direct community engagement —  was a continuation of the large-scale community work done by the Brisbane Greens in the 2022 federal elections that resulted in them winning three lower house seats (including Chandler-Mather’s seat of Griffith). This led to a quadrupling of the Greens’ lower house representation.

Below is the second of three extracts from that interview. In this extract, Chandler-Mather talks about the various ways they have sought to reach out, engage in a dialogue with, and organise people around the housing crisis and more broadly. (The audio of the full interview is available here. The extract below has been edited for clarity. The first extract, which focuses on the campaign against Labor’s bill, can be read 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, can be downloaded at Floodcast podcast.

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

FF: [In the first part] you spoke about how during the housing campaign you made a lot of effort to collect information on people’s attitudes and compiled it into a report to get a sense of what people were saying. Obviously it is difficult to do that on the same scale after the campaign, but was there any attempt to do so? What feedback did you receive — from people you did not know previously, from existing campaign groups and from Greens members — to the campaign and its outcome?
We held two public online town halls immediately after passing the bill — one to take feedback from members and supporters, and one for the general public. One had about 150 people rock up and the other had about 100 people. So, we spoke to 250 people. Then I went and held a few in-person town halls as well and we did a little bit of door knocking that discussed the housing deal to get feedback. 

To be frank, the feedback was mixed. There was a layer of people who felt disappointed because they had hoped we would get more. I think in particular they hoped we could have pushed the Labor Party into doing some form of rent cap. There was another layer that was happy that we got a bunch of money for housing. And then there was another layer of people who just wanted to talk about the deal more and understand the limitations, and have the sort of conversation that we are having now. 

I think that once we talked through the limitations of where we were at that point, what we actually got out of Labor and what Labor’s position was, it flipped over into largely being supportive. In terms of members of the public, people were actually just broadly, pleasantly surprised. I think a lot of people just did not think we were going to get anything. And largely the feedback I got from the public was: “Well, you guys were really brave for holding out as long as you did and good on you for getting the $3 billion for housing.” Like, that is not too shabby.

The challenge is that there was also this broader layer of people — renters and people who increasingly considered themselves as renters as a class position — who did not actually see their material lives improved. Certainly not in the short term, I mean some renters will end up moving into some of these [new public housing] homes that are built, but not on any large scale. 

That said, from the conversations I had, they actually were largely really thankful. They were like: “Oh, for the first time we just had a 12 month national debate about actually improving my life and I felt power for the first time in my life.” I will never forget some of the messages I got from people saying: “I went to the first rally I ever have in my life as a renter. And I felt like regardless of everything else, at least I was a renter and I was part of this group. And I’m really looking forward to continuing the fight.” So, I think there is this layer of people who for the first time became a bit politically conscious, but also class conscious. One of the goals written on the whiteboard in the Griffith office when we kicked off the housing campaign was developing a self-conscious renter class. And I think that a lot of people felt like that, in itself, was a win. 

I just had our last pop-up office of the year and spoke to this woman in her 50s. She has two kids who are both on benefits and live at home and they all contribute towards the rent. They have just had a $150 rent increase this year and they are really stressed. And, tentatively, I said: “Oh, what did you think about the housing deal we did?” And she was like: “I thought you guys did brilliantly.” I said: “But you must have been disappointed we didn’t get anything on rent.” She was like: “Well, no, no, the fight for that has just started.” And I thought that was really important. 

There is this narrative sometimes on the left around betrayal, but actually for the people for whom this affects their material lives, all she wanted to know was when the next fight is going to happen. She was like: “I went to a rally, I testified [to the rental inquiry the Greens initiated], and literally for the first time I felt like I had a voice.” I had a lot of conversations with people like that who would not consider themselves left wing but would consider themselves a renter. By and large, they are not super engaged in anything else political, but are engaged in the concept that they do not want another rent increase. So, she said: “I came along to get reassured and see we’re going to keep fighting”, and we were like: “We’re absolutely going to keep fighting.” 

So, I think the response was mixed and a little bit confused in the sort of core group, and then the further you got out people were pleasantly surprised or just recognised that this was only the first step. 

SM: I wonder how you view the connection between that grassroots campaigning and the way that you intervene in parliament, and the impact one had on the other? Because it was very noticeable watching you speak in parliament that you are not really talking to anyone else sitting in that room; you speak pretty explicitly outwards. There was the viral clip where you spoke “to anyone watching.” I wonder if you could reflect on that and what impact it had? 

My view of parliament is that, obviously, I am not going to change anyone’s mind giving a speech there, right? Like I could say anything to Labor, I am not going to shift then. But I think two things. One, it was powerful to go to a group of volunteers and say: “Hey, we are sitting in parliament fighting, but we are holding out on passing this bill because of you. And we need you to go to people’s doors and tell other people about this fight and you are part of it.” That was powerful. 

I think the rhetorical reference to people outside of parliament was important as well, because the vast majority of people do feel disconnected and alienated from politics. And [it was powerful] to do that rhetorically in that building, in a place where often people just sit there and make decisions that destroy or hurt people’s lives, where they completely talk past and ignore the vast majority of people and largely serve the interests of the ruling class in Australia, for lack of a better term. There is a power in being able to stand there and say: “Well, you have got a voice in there who speaks on your behalf and who is responsible to you.” And we have received a lot of good feedback about that. 

It is funny because when you do that, you do not always see it on the camera, but it enrages, in particular, Labor MPs. In that viral clip you are referring to, to give you some context: a Labor MP got up and just launched into this quite personal attack on me. They were lying and saying “Max Chandler-Mather is blocking public housing” and all this stuff. No one paid attention to it, right? And look, to be frank, I got quite annoyed because here is this person just blatantly lying and no one is stopping them. So that clip was just me getting up and being like, you know what, screw it — I will just say what I think a lot of people are thinking about this whole thing. 

And while I was speaking, they were just yelling and screaming. One of the reasons that I feel emboldened to keep going in those scenarios — it sounds corny — is because I go door knocking afterwards. And those are the people I am representing. I will go to a town hall meeting and be like, well, no, I am not responsible to all of these Labor MPs who take corporate donations and would as soon throw someone out of public housing if it improved their careers. I am responsible to all these people and that is who I am talking to. 

And you know, taking this quite vanilla concept of representative democracy seriously ends up looking quite radical. Speaking to a point Fred made, I also think this is not something that would work, say, 20 or 30 years ago, because more people did feel represented by their politicians and politics — for better or for worse — and that is just not the case at the moment. Speaking of disconnection, if you want to see the actual process of disconnection, watch the way they talk and act in Parliament. It is remarkable watching the way they behave in parliament. It is abundantly clear to me that they feel no responsibility or sense of connection to anyone really, in any material sense.  

FF: I wanted to throw in a question, one that is often posed at more of a theoretical or abstract level but one I feel that his campaign might provide us with an opportunity to start to get some better understandings, if not definitive answers, to this question. The question is: how do you have democracy and accountability within an electoral party when, as you have pointed out, there are similar but different constituencies that have to be taken into account. You have the people who are voting for you, or perhaps may vote for you at the next elections, who have one idea of what they want. You also have MPs who have a different idea of what they want. And you have Greens members — and even within Greens members, you could further divide this constituency into active members and the broader membership. How can we begin to think of the best ways to navigate this? How do we go beyond simplistic slogans about “our MPs must always be accountable to the members”, when, for instance, your constituents, who voted you into power, might have quite different positions to party members, and that are not inherently always to the left or right of said party? As you have noted, politics is a lot more complex today than the simple old left versus right binary. And in the party, it is not always the case that the party rank-and-file ends up on one side and party leaders end up on the other side of a debate. 
That is a really good question. Again, I think you have asked a question that I think really speaks to the heart of the sort of contradictions we have to work out, and the sort of movement that we are building. 

One of the key points I just wanted to touch on is that I think you are bang on that the left/right divide does not often actually make sense with a lot of these political questions. I think part of the reason it does not make sense is because the social forces that constituted the left and right do not really exist anymore in any meaningful sense, in an organisational sense. So, you see this fracturing. I always say whenever you are door knocking, people are at once more left wing and more right wing than most of the left, like in equal measure. 

How do you deal with that? I think part of it is building a membership base who have a broad sense of political education, but are actively involved in door knocking and organising in their communities, and attempting to dissolve that barrier between the membership and organisation of the party and the broader constituencies that we represent. Certainly you watch some of that process start to happen in the sense that we would come back from door knocks and do a debrief and people’s political position changed depending on the conversations that they had and you started to see this moulding. The other thing that happened is the few times where we held really big housing town halls, you also watched people change their positions depending on where they saw the group going. And by people, I mean not party members or activists or organisers, but actually just general members of the public who came along to engage. 

So, I think part of it is an organisational question and that is part of the reason we are pushing so hard to build a mass party. By that I mean a party with genuine roots; rebuilding civil society institutions. Then, I think, you start to get almost an active and organic negotiation between the membership and activist base, and the general public. One where people can say I am voting for the Greens and I understand that the Greens have all of these party organs and large volunteer groups, and I am going to go along and have my say because it is going to help decide where the party goes. 
I think that is one part of it. The other part is actually having a parliamentary party that is committed both politically and ideologically, but also organisationally, to being responsive to those organisations and institutions. And that is part of the reason we developed all those reports, so that we could give them to every member of the party room and they could get a broader understanding of where the membership and supporter base was at. But also to get them to understand that there is an organisational, political and, actually, electoral good sense to respond to that rather than what the media was saying. Then more people can say: “If I back in what my membership and my constituencies are saying, then in the next election we’re going to have thousands of volunteers out there because they feel like I’m listening to them as well.” 
Then there are formal questions around the rules and structures of the party, which is a whole other conversation. But I think the final thing to say is that we found there were a lot of constituencies who just trusted us because in Griffith, for instance, we run free breakfast programs and we are always there. When we went down to some of those areas, people said “we trust you guys”. We were like: “Well how should we vote” and they would say: “I don’t know, you guys decide, we trust you”. People would say sometimes: “That’s a tough question. I’m glad I’m not you!” That was the other sort of social trust building that comes I think with being permanently active in a community. It allows you to take a leadership position over a large social grouping and we saw evidence of that starting as well. 

SM: I am wondering about other forms of community engagement aside from door knocking and the online and in-person town halls you mentioned. How do you see the campaigns that you are running intersecting with other housing campaigns of various strengths that exist? I am also wondering how you deal with the issue of trying to encourage people to get involved in the door knocking campaign, but where they may say: “Well, that’s just the Greens and I’m not in the Greens.” How do you relate to people who are not in the Greens but are involved in other public housing campaigns?

Great question. In terms of the answer to the first part, along with door knocking and town halls, we ran online and postal surveys, and had lots of what they call pop-up offices, where anyone could come along and talk my ear off. I did a few talkback radio segments, which was really interesting. I also reached out to other housing organisations to try to get them involved in the campaign, inviting them along to the rallies and having conversations with their groups and getting feedback. So, that was sort of the extent of it, as well as the online national meetings where anyone could log in and have a chat. The biggest one of those ended up having 250 people at it.  

In terms of managing that tension around groups that did not want to necessarily be involved in the Greens, we have always had a long standing policy of providing material support to those groups. You know, helping with printing promo material, turning out volunteers if we feel like it is a particularly big moment or using our lists to help turn people out for those things. So, like SEQUR, the Southeast Queensland Union of Renters, which is a relatively small group but I think growing, we provide support both in-principle and sometimes, where they need it, material support to continue their work. Certainly we have said to them that they need to be big as well. We want to build a mass party but we do need others in the housing space. 

Frankly, the only way we are going to win substantial rent caps and rental reforms is involving large scale direct rental organising. There probably will need to be rental strikes and anti-eviction campaigns. If you look around the world, that is the only way that stuff ends up happening, along with political organising. So, one of the things we have struggled with is working out how, if at all possible, we can help give those a nudge along and say: “Hey keep going, like maybe go faster.” I do not think we have necessarily resolved that. 

Then the final question is what about those groups who say they just do not want to get involved in the Greens. I understand that. You know our perspective — and I sound like a broken record — is that we do want to build a mass party. So, my view is that it is fine if you do not want to get involved in what we are doing, in the project we are building. But then do not turn around and criticise us without fronting up your own strategy and form of organisation. I do not mind receiving constructive criticism. But I also think it is incumbent upon you when you offer strong criticism to then start to at least talk about or describe what alternative forms of organisation and strategy might look like. 

I do not want to sound too arrogant, but I would say that since 2016, when we started this project in Queensland, it has taken us seven years, but we just won $3 billion for housing. That is probably more won at a national level than any organisation has won around housing in a long time. I do not think the response to that should be: “Well that failed and we should do something else.” Surely part of the response has to be: “Well, that didn’t solve the housing crisis and there are clear limitations to it. But how do we overcome those limitations? And what do we do differently next time?” I am interested in that conversation. I am not necessarily interested in a conversation that throws the baby out with the bath water. 

SM: The housing campaign and door knocking does seem like an extension of the political approach you developed in Brisbane, which is quite unique in Australia. No one else is really doing it, certainly not in the same way. I am wondering if you could reflect on that as an outcome of the housing campaign. How has that gone as an attempt to nationalise the approach that you have had in Brisbane? Do you think it is going to alter not just how the Greens campaign, but maybe even others? Do you think Labor will try to copy it?

Labor did start to try to copy it towards the back end of this housing campaign. It was very sad. They started doing some [door knocking]. They set up volunteers out the front of one of the last housing town halls, handing out flyers saying “Greens block money for housing”. But all that was in [the inner Brisbane suburb of] West End. All that happened was they just got accosted by members of the public; people just stopped and said things like: “How dare you, you hate renters” and they never showed up again. But you saw them try to do it. 

I think they clocked that they needed to do something, and a few Labor senators tried to organise some door knocks. They have lasted one time and it did not go anywhere because they door knocked in areas where we have very robust networks, like proper social networks. We found out immediately because they door knocked several of our volunteers and then those volunteers just had long conversations with those Labor volunteers and attempted to flip the Labor volunteers. It just did not go anywhere. 

You are bang on though in that I think we were able to start to shift other parts of the party across the country around understanding exactly what we meant by building a mass door-knocking movement. I was able to go down [to Victoria] and run some training. The week after we did the housing deal, I was down in Victoria running a training for over 100 volunteers around door knocking on housing and then we went out and door knocked in a federal Labor electorate around a rent freeze, which was great. I think it was a great moment for political education as well, because here were all these people who were like: “Oh, but isn’t the housing fight over?” And I was like: “No, no, no, it’s just started” and there were so many people up for it. 

The other thing that happened, and I have not had a chance to talk about this yet, is that halfway through this housing fight we were holding these housing town halls and all these people were logging on from random regional parts of Victoria who had never really been involved in any of this before. We explained to them what the back end of it was like, here is why your door knocking is going to help us win more, and they really imbibed it. So, we had instances, in particular in Victoria and it happened a little bit in NSW as well, where people just took it upon themselves to start organising door knocks, just random Greens branch members. We started getting calls at our office: “Hey we’re not really talking to the state organisation down here, but can you send us some flyers and some materials?” We had to start running online trainings for people interstate on how to door knock and how to have persuasive conversations and talk about housing. There was this organic response, people were like: “Oh, I finally understand what you guys are talking about in Queensland.” In fact, one of the people that started doing this, we ended up hiring as an organiser because he single-handedly organised the first wave of housing door knocks in this random part of Victoria, completely outside the organisational structures of the party. I think that helped shift things as well, and actually we have a lot of organisers telling us interstate: “There's all these people that keep on doing stuff. Do you have any more materials for us?” I think there was a shift organisationally. 

And I think finally people realise what we meant by scale. Because I go interstate and I could say we knocked on 20,000 doors and everyone is like that is great and I will be like “that’s nowhere near good enough”. I would point out: “Do you know that the Griffith campaign, in one area of Brisbane alone, we knocked on 90,000 doors? And we knocked on 20,000 doors across the country in this housing campaign. But here is the five step process around how we can get to having Griffith scale organising in every part of the country.” And people were like: “Huh, I do get that.” All of a sudden, for a broad layer of volunteers, a pathway emerged in their brains: “Oh, we’re here, but I can see what could happen over the next few years for us to get there. And by there, I mean knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors and having a much bigger movement. And I can see the people I would need to recruit. I can see the number of people that would need to be trained. And I can see that we actually have the chance and capacity for that.” So, that is the other I think: people’s horizons expanded as well over the course of this fight. 

FF: One thing that I am taking out from this is that door knocking is much more than just simply an exercise in knocking on someone’s door, delivering a message, and moving on to the next door. What I found very interesting is the way in which door knocking acts as a sort of feedback mechanism and tries to break down that sort of wall that currently exists between Greens members and organisers and broader society. It reminded me of one of the interesting aspects of having lived in Venezuela during Hugo Chavez’s presidency and their experiences with communal councils. These were not party-political things, but rather small councils of 200-500 families and the government said to them: “Look, we’ll give you money for projects, but you’ve got to organise yourself.” In some ways this kind of forced them to organise themselves. But how to avoid the problem where it is just the people who have the most profile or contacts in the government who end up controlling these bodies? They overcame this by ensuring that the first step before they could elect council members was enlisting volunteers to door-knock every single family and carrying out a census. This allowed them to have everyone’s name, who lived in what house, and what were their main concerns. And in turn, everyone knew that a communal council was going to be formed in their area and that they could get involved if they wanted to. Through this process, all of a sudden, they somewhat turned politics on its head. It is no longer just a popularity contest. Now, actually, you have to go and talk to everyone and convince everyone. And it is no longer dictated by what one person or a few people think are the key issues; by door knocking they found all sorts of issues that they did not know existed in their community. Obviously we are talking about a different country, but I raised it as part of trying to better understand why you say door knocking is so important to your strategy. 

Now, you may want to comment on that, but that brings me to my question. You talked about others looking at how they get from here to there, in terms of very small numbers of door knocking to knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors. The one problem I can see with door knocking though is that you cannot continuously and forever just door knock. At a certain point you need to probably do two things. One is to build ongoing structures. This does not mean you do not door knock, but you have to have more organic structures. That is a big question, so maybe we can put that one to the side. But — and this relates to what Stuart mentioned with your talks in parliament and your TikToks that have gone viral — the other thing has to do with having one’s own media to help with getting out the message. Is that something that came across as an issue in the campaign? Or is that something that is out of reach at the moment, given what you have already mentioned regarding the very important resource limitations you face? Has some thought been given to this issue? 

Excellent points and that stuff on Venezuela is fascinating. I think you are right. Just to be clear, one of the things we say to people at the start of our door knocking trainings, one of the first mantras we give everyone, is that people are experts in their own lives. Just because people might have political views that you find you disagree with, it does not mean they are a bad person. Your job is to find common ground and relate to their material experiences and then give them a political perspective about those material experiences. 

Our style of door knocking is something that I am quite proud of actually. A very experienced social worker who is very involved in our campaigning came up to me recently. We have these like 5-hour long door-knock training sessions around how to relate to people, how to be sensitive about their issues, how to tease out particular issues that people have and then disagree respectfully. He said: “The training you guys provide is more sophisticated than any training I’ve received as a social worker in terms of relating to someone else.” And I was quite blown away by that. But he was really adamant.

One of the things we are trying to work out now is how do you build more semi-permanent institutions that are directly embedded in a particular community so we can reach out to them very quickly and they can communicate to us. I think part of that is working out how to use that organisational door-knocking capacity to, say, turn out thousands of people at a rally. How do you translate that organising power into demonstrating social power? That is another thing we are really grappling with at the moment. 

In terms of media, I have got to give a shout out to all the staff who actually helped with this; we have some brilliant, quite brave media advisors who were going into the belly of the beast. They would sit down with me before interviews and say: “Take a deep breath, be calm, remember who you’re fighting for and don’t let them fluster you and just put your message out there.” The left often thinks about the media in terms of whether we should trust them or should not trust them and therefore disengage. But I think the thing to remember is, if we genuinely believe that our message appeals to the majority working people and there is still a layer of working people who watch it, then regardless of what the journalist says, trust that people, again, are experts in their own lives and that they will engage with this in good faith. They are critical enough to understand where they are being lied to. They will listen, hear you out if they feel like a conflict is happening, and actually try and engage. We took that philosophy and I think that really worked as well. 

And it actually ended up engaging a lot of people. There is one particular interview, the 7:30 Report interview, where Sarah Ferguson just talked over me again and again and again. She would make claims that were completely factually incorrect. I just sat there saying: “Well, look, you know, the one-third of this country who rents shouldn’t have to cop unlimited rent increases,” and just calmly put that position. And, at the end of that interview, I remember thinking: “I don’t know if that went well.” But it was actually a real turning point, where we just got all these emails and feedback from people saying: “I really respected what you said there and I engaged with it on that basis.” 

And so I think also there is value in the left more broadly putting its money where its mouth is if our view is that of a material position that says we want to redistribute wealth and power towards working people. One of the things the left has on its side is that there is more of us than there are of them, and that the broad mass of working people would support that position if only they heard it and then felt like it could win. We should back that in and find every opportunity to deliver that message.