Max Chandler-Mather: ‘With long term planning and more organisation, we can change people’s lives’

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 and the political method used by the Queensland Greens to win an unprecedented three lower house seats in the 2022 federal election.

Below is the final of three extracts from that interview. In it, Chandler-Mather reflects on the connection between the housing campaign and their community-based strategies, along with broader issues such as Palestine solidarity and last year’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. He also discusses lessons from the housing campaign and opportunities that exist for transformative politics — ones that depend on the left’s organisational capacity to take advantage of them.

(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 second extract, on how the Brisbane Greens have sought to reach out, engage in a dialogue with, and organise people around the housing crisis and more broadly, 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 ofLINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Munckton is a former editor ofGreen Left.

SM: I'm wondering about broader issues around connecting to people in order to build a political challenge to the status quo. This inevitably means having to oppose pretty much every case where the status quo is hostile and damaging to ordinary people. That can include a lot of very controversial issues. I think in the chat we had last time, I framed it along the lines of “moral issues”, which I guess means something bad that happens to someone else, versus “material issues”, which I guess is something that happens to you, and I asked about the connection between them. I am wondering about the impact of the housing campaign in that sense, given we are now in the midst of an extraordinarily important, but highly controversial issue, which is Israel's war on Palestine. What impact do you think the housing campaign had on people's response to what you have said on Palestine?

Oh, that is a great question, Stuart. I have said before in terms of dealing with these moral issues, it can turn into a culture war. To quote someone I read a lot in university, [Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio] Gramsci, he always said political questions become insoluble when posed as cultural ones — something I have taken to heart. So, I always think: how do you avoid this turning into cultural positions and questions of identity, and instead turn it into questions of politics and material questions, and posing them in those terms.

I got up in Parliament and said what is happening right now [in Gaza] is a genocide. The Liberals tried to attack me about that. We had this layer of people who said: “You know what Max, I don’t agree with everything that you say, but I agreed with you on the renter stuff. I respectfully disagree [on Palestine], but at least you’re saying what you think.” I think part of that respectful response was a result of them knowing we are in their corner.

[Greens federal leader] Adam Bandt has this story from Melbourne during the [2017] marriage equality debate, where he went to a lot of the public housing towers where there are a lot of people who are more socially conservative, for a variety of reasons. There are more people of the Muslim faith who might not religiously agree with gay marriage. Adam’s line was: “We’re always going to be in your corner and we’re always going to fight for you. I’m just asking you to back another marginalised group here as well.” That really resonates.

Griffith has a lot of LNP [Liberal National Party] voters, but I have received almost no constituent push back on the position that we have adopted here with regards to Palestine: calling for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation and illegal blockade, and calling out what Israel is doing right now as mass war crimes and genocide. Certainly I think that is partly because we have got this relationship with the community and we have shown we are willing to fight in their corner.

I have also been quite careful in the way we communicated, just laying out the facts, under that mantra that you do not want to pose political questions as cultural ones. I think a lot of people have appreciated that.

FF: You mentioned posing political questions as cultural ones and the thing that came to mind is the referendum on an Aboriginal voice to parliament [which was defeated]. I am interested to hear your thoughts on the outcome and if what you are referring to helps explain the result.

I actually have not thought about that in terms of the Voice, but I think you are right. The first thing to say is the result was really hurtful. In particular, a lot of First Nations people I know were really hurt by it and felt really rejected. I think it is true to say that there is a lot of racism in Australian society.

But I do not necessarily think that is the reason the Voice referendum failed. I think there are a few things. One, there is a broad layer of people who feel very disconnected and alienated from politics and — for better or worse — the Voice referendum came to be seen as just creating another political institution largely advocated for by politicians. This was especially the case in those broader working class communities where the vote really did not go well at all. These are communities who are also over-policed and whose lives only ever get worse when politicians make decisions. I think they seem to see it as a sort of cultural position held by a lot of politicians that they otherwise distrust.

What was really interesting was a poll done by Essential that found that if you were a member of your trade union, 67% of people voted Yes. If you were a member of a community organisation, 57% of the people voted Yes. But if you were not a member of any organisation, then Yes was 38%. In other words, while there were strong holdouts, I think civil society has largely disintegrated. In the holdouts of these civil society organisations, there are experiences of collective power and solidarity. There you understood that you could support something that helps build up another large component of this sort of universalist movement. You found you shared something in common with them. And because you shared something in common with them, you were willing to vote for them as well. Where you did not have those institutions, the Voice referendum did not do very well.

I think it is incumbent upon us to work out how to win. One of the big questions coming out of this is: how do we build a movement that can reach into those communities and say you have more in common with a First Nations person struggling to get into housing than you do with [mining magnates] Gina Rinehart or Clive Palmer. We have some collective power and common struggle to build on that basis. That is how you would pose it as a political question.

The Voice referendum ran into the fact that the vast majority of people in Australia feel largely disconnected and alienated from politics. As a result, people find it hard to trust the creation of another political institution that they do not necessarily understand. More broadly, people just do not trust an expansion of politics or its power to achieve anything for their lives.

SM: One other thing the referendum result showed – and it is probably important not to exaggerate this because it becomes a trope that the media pull out, but it has clearly got some truth to it – is the divide between a lot of the inner city suburbs, which tend to be more socially progressive and where the Greens tend to get a better vote, and a lot of other parts of the city. Anecdotally, I could feel that living in Granville, on the eastern fringes of western Sydney. There was some Yes stuff, no visible No stuff, and occasional Yes campaigners. But when you got on the train into the city for work and you hit the inner West, it was Yes everywhere. I also spent a bit of time in Canberra, where again it really struck me how Yes was everywhere. We discussed this a little bit last time, about how your political orientation works to break that down and reach out. My question is how that can happen and what progress do you think might have happened towards it.

Well, when this current war on Gaza kicked off, I went along to a meeting at an Islamic College just on the outskirts of Brisbane, in a working-class community. There would have been 4-500 people there from the Muslim community and I went and spoke in solidarity [with Palestine]. One of the only reasons I was invited to speak was because for the past few years, in Queensland at least, we employed a bunch of organisers to do a lot of organising in those communities. So, every year we hold a large Iftar dinner [during Ramadan]. We have about 1000 people come along, I reckon, from the Muslim and Arab community in those outer suburbs of Brisbane. A bunch of us come and speak and we put on free food. We also have a lot of relationships with a lot of the leaders out there.

And it was pretty amazing. I spoke and then afterwards many very grateful and very gracious leaders in that community came up and basically said: “When are you running a candidate out here?” It was really interesting, as well, in that they actually made clear they have socialist politics, for want of a better term. They would say: “I really like the stuff on rent freezes”. This lovely kid came up, he was really quiet but he said: “That was a great speech. But actually I just wanted to say keep going on that rent freeze stuff.”

Part of this is that I also think that to be honest our politics and organisation, once we were able to establish ourselves within those areas, [there is support for] this concept of a universalist politics that says we are brothers and sisters in arms regardless of the colour of your skin or your background or where you come from. We have a political movement and platform that has solidarity with Palestine, solidarity with renters, and understands that we actually ultimately share a common struggle. That politics is actually probably more potent and powerful in places like Western Sydney and western Brisbane, and out in suburban Brisbane where there are more multicultural working-class communities. I think again, it is just a question of organisation.

But it is not just posing it as a political question. Ultimately to break down cultural barriers you need organisation and an organisation on the ground. I remember in the 2019 election in the outskirts of Griffith, there was a lot of anti-refugee sentiment. We had a training class on how to break down that sentiment or try to get around it. I'll never forget the conversations we had. We were chatting with one particular woman who basically said something along the lines of how it would be great for her to get dental into Medicare because some of her teeth are rotting and she could not afford to go to the dentist.

Then at the end, she saw on the flyer something about refugees and said something like: “I don't really like those Muslims”. My response to her was: “Look, our view is that the most powerful people in politics in Australia at the moment are the billionaires and big corporations. They pay no tax and wield a lot of power.” I said: “Do you generally agree with that?” And she was like, “yeah, they don't pay tax.” I said: “From our perspective” – her name was Norma – “Norma we think that those big corporations are really happy when our communities are divided. They want you to be fighting your neighbour.
Because we are less powerful when we do that. And they can get away with paying no tax, which means you don't get dental into Medicare.

She was like: ”Oh, yeah, I can sort of see that.” And I said our view is if we can get past some of our differences and recognise we all share more in common than we do with the billionaires and big corporations, then we'll wield enough power to finally make them pay tax. And that way we can get things like dental into Medicare and everyone benefits from that. I asked if she could support something like that? And she was like: “Oh it's a nice idea, but I don't know if it'll ever happen”.

You know, she did not come the whole way. But we had so many conversations like that. And part of the reason we were able to break down those barriers was precisely because we were at their door having that conversation, showing we cared about her as well. That we were a political movement that cared just as much about her as we cared about the refugees stuck on Manus or Nauru. As a result, that community ended up voting overwhelmingly Green. There were people there who had otherwise voted for the Liberal Party who ended up voting for us on the most progressive platform that has ever been run in that area.

And I should say that her neighbour was this lovely Muslim family. I knocked on their door and said: “Oh, you must have overheard a bit of that conversation from your neighbour. I’m really sorry about that. That must have been tough for you to hear.” He was like: “Oh no, that’s just Norma. She’s fine. We pray for her every weekend. She does it tough.” So, you know, solidarity goes both ways. He was a very patient guy who was lovely.

We just had so many experiences like that. It gave me so much hope. I always maintain that the real racists and the really socially conservative and awful people, from a moral perspective, are those people in power. Those billionaires and big corporations, or those people in the Labor and Liberal Party who not only hold racist positions but then fund and resource them. Powerless people in communities who might hold views that the left find morally disagreeable or materially disagreeable, I think can be won around. But they also need to feel like we are in their corner as well.

Part of the reason that I think they culturally end up opposing positions to the left is because they see the left is ignoring and forgetting about them as well. Building class solidarity and breaking down those barriers has to be a two way process. Just personally, in our volunteer movement, I have had so many experiences of that working and breaking down those barriers and winning people around to those movements. It gives me enormous hope and it is why coming out of things like the Voice referendum, my view is we just need to organise better and build a political platform that can reach across those divides that currently exist.

FF: I strongly agree with what you said in terms of a big factor in the Voice vote being this sense that it was just something being promoted by the political class. Every time Rio Tinto, Qantas, whoever it was, got on board, that was one more percent drop in the polls. You could literally track it as it occurred. But the thoughts that came to mind is the challenge of how to articulate solidarity. Often it is simply viewed as only helping someone less fortunate than you. Solidarity is not seen as a way of strengthening the social fabric and bonds between different sections of society. It is simply seen that you should automatically care about people that are worse off than me. But what happens when you are not on the bottom rung of society, but rather the second bottom rung, and you have been stepped on for so long. Why, in that case, should you automatically believe and trust that anything the government offers is going to help you or another section of society that is on a lower rung? How can we articulate a discourse of solidarity that is not just simply charity or expecting others to automatically hold a certain viewpoint.

My strong view is that, ultimately, to pose cultural questions as political ones again requires organisation. That Essential Polling showed if you were already a member of a community organisation or a union, you were more likely to vote yes. I think there are other reasons for that, but one of them is probably that if you already have a sense of collective organisation and collective power, you are more ready to understand the concept of sharing with someone else and are more trusting that it might be possible and real. That is notwithstanding the fact that if you are a trade union member, your experience of democracy is probably not great either, given how undemocratic most trade unions are.

And you know those things that you just described in Venezuela [in part 2] where there were these committees that could decide what they needed or they did not actually need more; I think committees like that would have ended up being far more open to voting Yes if they thought First Nations people needed that. That they need their own committees and their own representative bodies that can make democratic representations in politics. That they do ideally need to wield a bit of power over politics and I know that because I have had my own experience of wielding that and I think everyone in society deserves something along those lines. I think it is true that you would end up winning more people around to political proposals like that. But they need to have that material experience in their own lives,not just rhetorically or ideologically.

FF: Yeah, that is the big dilemma you talked about at the start of the interview, where on the one one we have a disconnect that exists, which creates these openings, but the flip side is that we also have this huge vacuum in terms of organisation that is really difficult to properly fill in an ongoing sense. The discontent creates this huge opening that you can intervene into, but it brings with it these other huge challenges. It seems that this is another aspect of why door knocking is so important in terms of reaching these people who by and large are not in unions, etc.

That's right. Most of the communities out there have never had an experience of being in a trade union, never been on strike. Maybe their experience of a trade union is getting insurance out of it, or union shopper if they are a member, but by and large they are not members. They have never been a member in their lives and never had any experience of walking out collectively or experiencing anything that even comes close to some sort of social or collective power. I think union density is about 14% or 12% now, and 7% in the private sector. Over 90% of people’s experience of life is having no collective or social power. Their only involvement in politics is getting a bunch of leaflets shoved through their letterbox in the last two weeks of an election, voting for a party, and then their lives only getting worse.

The only time that briefly changed was during COVID, and that was a sugar burst because just briefly, they got a bit of extra. A lot of people were lifted out of poverty or got some direct material benefit, and then that all disappeared. As a result, the sort of distrust and disconnection from politics reemerged even stronger.

SM: Looking forward, what do you see are some of the main contradictions or potential openings for the type of struggle you have around housing, and the possibility to continue with the housing campaign and the push for a rent freeze. What are some of the issues that you think might provide some openings for the type of campaigning that you carried out around housing?

In terms of openings, I think one thing that is happening at the moment is obviously that the cost of living crisis is getting much worse. That is not just rent increases but mortgage increases and also the cost of food going up as well. We feel like one of the openings is to start to expand our organisation around a broader set of policies around improving people's material lives. So, not just a rent freeze, but also a super profits tax to pay for putting dental into Medicare, or freezing mortgages, or nationalising the electricity system to halve people’s bills, whatever it might be. And a sharper message around going after corporate profits in particular. We found that resonates very well.

The other thing we are very interested in doing is expanding a lot of our free food programs and ideally expanding them out into the more outer suburban parts of Brisbane, trying to make them also a point of organisation as well. And in the lowest income parts of my electorate, we are going to start running weekly free dinner programs as well. We are already running two a week: one for a lot of the rough sleepers in my electorate under the bridge and under some bridges in the West End and one in another community, along with three free breakfast programs we are running in three state schools. We are looking to expand those as well, which I think is very interesting.

I think a lot of this, in Queensland at least, is going to be framed through elections [as we have local and state elections in 2024]. But going into next year, I am very interested in finding how we expand that organisational capacity interstate. I have always felt that our only barrier to organising more people is that capacity to organise. I feel like we have the right strategy in politics, but it always just feels like we are straining against our resource constraints more than anything.

I think going into 2024 you are going to see an explosion of organising in Queensland based around the elections. But I think it is going to resonate with a much broader layer of people because I also think that the strength of feeling around anti-politics and the sense of disconnection from politics has intensified a lot over the past 12-14 months, as I think people’s lives have gotten tougher. So, a lot of that is going to be based around going after corporate profits and super profits and talking about very clear cut wealth redistribution.

FF: In terms of rounding up, I am interested to hear about something that happened as part of the campaign that you perhaps found new or that reaffirmed your existing ideas? And what is something that, moving forward, you might do differently or not do again?

I think one thing that we would have done differently — this is sort of a boring organisational question, but one that I think worth repeating — is concentrating our door knocking and movement building capacity in a few particular areas. What happened during this housing fight is that we spread our door knocking and organising capacity over large geographic areas in each state. I think in terms of building pressure, and building volunteer morale, I think one thing we could have done differently is pick a few big set piece moments and a particular area and try to get 50 or 100 people along. So that if you are volunteering for the first time on one of these things, there are another 50 and 100 people there. I think also recognising early on that we needed to build direct relationships with organisers on the ground in those areas interstate.

Certainly, the big learning for me out of all of this is that one of the key lessons we need to crack is how do we build permanent organising capacity outside of election cycles. It took us a long time to get the door knocking machine going again. And I started to realise that so much of our door knocking and organisational capacity emerges during election cycles because we have the resources to pay the organisers. So, one of the things for me going forward is how do we keep that capacity going on the back burner all the time? I think that was one of the things you were getting at earlier, Fred, about how do we make sure this is not just something where we are door knocking 12 months out from an election, but how do we have permanent organisations that constantly have relationships with those communities and are constantly door knocking around particular issues or holding community events.

Maybe the final thing I learnt was in some of the areas we door knocked that I had never door knocked before, like out at Woodridge or Logan. Literally the only barrier to those areas becoming Green seats with hundreds of people rocking up at free dinners every week, thousands of people coming to lots of different events, lots of people being recruited to door knock for the first time, is that capacity to organise in those areas. The political and social conditions exist on the ground there for that organisation to exist and to thrive and to be really successful. I sometimes sort of half wish that I could not be an MP for a bit and just spend some time organising in Logan and Ipswich for that reason.

I think those conditions exist around the country. So, out of this housing campaign it probably reaffirms what I actually now believe in my soul as a result of door knocking a lot around Woodridge and Logan, that we have this incredible opportunity right now where the political establishment is actually very weak and extremely disconnected from the groups that they used to have connections with.

In Australia we do not really have an organised far right in the same way that exists with say [Marine] Le Pen in France or in Italy where they have a Prime Minister [Giorgia Meloni] from the far right. So it is up for grabs. There are communities now where if we could organise 1000 people to build a movement, say out in Western Sydney or in Western Brisbane or in Western Melbourne, we could fundamentally change the politics of this country. All we need to do now is recruit enough people, train enough people and get going in those communities.

For me that is really exciting, slightly exhausting and daunting. There are a lot of things we need to learn and do slightly differently, but I feel like we are on the right track.

Maybe just to finish on that question of hope. Again, I want to borrow from Gramsci, on the whole pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, which I have always taken on board really seriously. It is hard to be hopeful right now for a lot of really obvious reasons. I think so much of our experience of politics at the moment is mediated via online or through the media or through Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. But there is no better antidote than sitting there serving a bunch of free quesadillas to families at a school or rocking up with 20 other people at a door knock and then coming back and realising you have just shifted 50 or 100 people. And then sitting there and thinking, well, here is all this organisational capacity and here is all this potential that we could actually seize on as a pathway to changing things in the next 10 to 20 years.

I'll finish with this. Our view of history is always focused on those key moments where things change or something really transformational happens or this big transformational win. But, as any good historian knows, there is about 30 years of work that goes into that happening in the first place. I am just rereading Eric Hobsbawm on how the labour movement emerged in the 19th century over decades and decades of work. I fundamentally believe that the movement we are building right now should have a 10 to 20 year horizon, not a one to two year horizon.

We are all trying to fill this vacuum that Fred mentioned, that is a result of the collapse of political and social institutions that were built up over 100 years. We should not expect that we are going to fill them in six months. But I really do feel like there is enough evidence to show that the work that we are doing now — not just in terms of winning all these federal seats for the Greens, not just in terms of winning $3 billion, not just in terms of recruiting hundreds or thousands of people to this movement — is challenging the Labor Party and the political establishment. They have tried their darndest to stop us, but we have won. How often do you get to say that?

The thing I'll leave readers with is that I think you should look at 2024 as the year to make your own critical assumptions about the movement that we are building here. But think seriously about how long it has taken to build movements that have won in the past and then look at how much we have achieved in a very short space of time. And then think: imagine if what happened in Griffith happened in Rankin, or in Western Melbourne, or in Western Sydney, and how that would change politics and change people's lives.