Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather: ‘Let’s build a movement to transform politics’

August 5, 2022
Photo: Max Chander-Mather/Facebook

The following is a slightly abridged version of Max Chandler-Mather’s inaugural speech to federal parliament on August 1.

* * *

Since the invasion of this continent, generations of First Nations warriors, organisers and leaders have fought and continue to fight to protect their lands, seas, people and culture against colonisation.

I would like to pay homage to them. In particular to the Yagera and Turrubal people, the traditional owners of so-called Brisbane, and my electorate of Griffith. Also to the traditional owners of this place, the Ngunnawal people.

As with so many issues in this place, there is a deep hypocrisy when it comes to the way politicians talk about First Nations people. How often are we told that governments support the rights of First Nations people, but then fail to introduce the 339 recommendations of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission over 30 years after they were handed down? Or allow coal and gas mines to open on land against the express wishes of traditional owners. While billions of dollars of mining revenue flow offshore into the coffers of billionaires — First Nations people too often lack even basic healthcare, housing, education and incomes. Politicians destroy First Nations land, then write laws that allow their corporate donors to rob their wealth and put it in the hands of people like Gina Rinehart.

It is abundantly clear that billionaires and big corporations run parliament.

Indeed, when it comes to representation, I imagine people like Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart must feel pretty good that 89% of the people in this place ultimately represent their interests.

The major parties have proved willing to accept an enormous human and environmental cost in order to serve the interests of big corporations and billionaires — such is their power over this place.

Three million Australians live in poverty, with millions more on the brink, while Australia’s richest 200 people just ticked over half a trillion dollars worth of wealth.

Our nurses, teachers and doctors are viciously overworked just to make up for the chronic underfunding of our public hospitals and schools. Meanwhile, the next federal budget will include billions of dollars of subsidies for fossil fuel corporations that just happen to be making massive profits.

In the middle of one of the worst housing affordability crises in our history, where single mums are forced to live on the street after massive rent hikes, the big four banks announce $14 billion in after tax profit.

There are close to a million people either on the waitlist for social housing, suffering severe private rental stress or homeless, but 89% of this place would rather support billions of dollars in tax concessions for property investors, than even contemplate capping rents or building enough public housing for those who need it.

Eighty-nine percent of this parliament literally support spending $224 billion giving every politician and billionaire an extra $9000 a year in the form of the stage 3 tax cuts.

But apparently bringing dental into Medicare is too expensive.

Apparently scrapping crippling student debt and making uni and TAFE free is too expensive.

Apparently building enough beautifully designed public housing so everyone has a place to call home would cost too much.

Apparently raising jobseeker and the pension above the poverty line is too expensive.

The top 10% of Australians now hold half the total wealth in this country. But apparently that 10% need a massive tax cut.

Truly, one of life’s great mysteries is why people don’t like politicians.

One of the worst things about Australian politics is the way it works to make some of the greatest injustices and outrages seem perfectly normal and reasonable.

Like a sedative, it dulls the senses.

And it relies on certain logic.

What is considered possible isn’t determined by what actually is possible with the resources we have to hand. But instead, the major parties, media, and various public and private institutions work to constrain the scope of political debate into an ever-narrowing band. One determined not by what everyday people actually want or believe, but by the interests of the billionaires and multinational corporations that parliament ultimately serves.

This logic is perhaps best exemplified when it comes to climate change.

The consequences of 2°C or more global warming are so devastating it’s hard to explain.

But the recent devastating bushfires, floods, heat waves, droughts and storms really are only a small preview.

Massive crop failures, sea level rises displacing hundreds of millions of people, 99% of the Great Barrier Reef lost. A recent study found that in 30 years time my home town of Brisbane could be virtually unliveable in summer.

But over 2°C of warming is exactly what 89% of this place supports. In fact, currently this place supports expanding coal and gas mining — and using public money to do it. Australia is the 3rd-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world — behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The idea that the moderate position on climate change is: use public money to expand coal and gas mining and drive global warming beyond 2°C only makes sense when you consider that the power holders in parliament are coal and gas corporations — not ordinary people.

It’s like standing in front of a burning house and declaring that the moderate position is we only put out the fire in one room, while we send someone out back to pour a can of petrol on the back deck.

The most insulting lie is that Australia needs to expand coal and gas mining to protect workers. That would be more believable if the political establishment didn’t also believe that workers should pay more tax than the multinational corporations they work for.

But the reality is that over the next 10 years, coal and gas corporations will export hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars of our wealth. That’s more than enough to guarantee the jobs and incomes of not just every coal and gas worker, but ensure every regional mining community becomes a thriving hub of publicly owned manufacturing, renewable energy, and new industries with good hospitals, schools, public facilities and housing.

The political establishment doesn’t give a toss about workers — they’re worried about the profits of their donors.

The political system is completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people.

Spending only a week in this place has been a stark lesson in how so much of the pomp, ceremony and rules of this place work to deepen and reinforce that disconnection.

Literally the same week the Business Council was holding a special event in parliament house with the Prime Minister, children peacefully calling for action on climate change were dragged out by police.

Technically, I should be kicked out of parliament if I don’t dress like a business man — but you’re more than welcome to vote for laws that materially benefit corporations that also happen to donate millions of dollars to your political party.

Every member of parliament was forced to pledge allegiance to the British Monarch last week — one would think we should be swearing allegiance to the Australian people.

Then, there was installing massive security fences around the once publicly accessible lawns above parliament house that were specifically designed to symbolise the democratic nature of parliament, which as symbols go, is a bit on the nose.

This sense that politics, and politicians in general, are completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people — was a sentiment shared by almost everyone I spoke to during the campaign.

Over 14 months, I personally knocked on almost 15,000 doors, and time and again people told me they were fed up with politics.

But what also became clear was just how low peoples’ expectations are when it comes to politics.

It is this sense of low expectations, which remains one of the political establishment’s greatest assets.

Deny people hope that things can get substantially better — and you take their power.

But I’ve seen the power of collective hope. Indeed, it’s the only reason I’m standing here.

Over 14 months, over 1000 Greens volunteers in Griffith knocked on over 90,000 doors. Hand delivered hundreds of thousands of letters and flyers. Gave up countless evenings, mornings, rainy arvos and weekends to fight for something greater than themselves. We had tens of thousands of conversations with residents across Griffith where we actually took the time to listen, and often learn, about the issues people faced in their daily lives. Together, we built the biggest single seat campaign in the history of Australian politics — and helped continue to build a movement inextricably linked to the communities from which it emerged.

One of the questions I asked repeatedly on the Griffith campaign was: are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know, as hard as you would fight yourself?

Time and again — the answer was yes.

We fought for each other not out of a sense of charity — but out of a sense of solidarity, of righteous anger, and a sense of, most importantly, hope.

Hope, not just that we could defy virtually every political and media expert and win Griffith, but hope that we can, collectively, build a movement that will fundamentally transform Australian politics in favour of everyday people.

The philosophy and organisation of our movement was perhaps best represented by the response to the Brisbane floods.

The floods of this year were a harsh, brutal and unjust symbol of the consequences of a political system stacked in favour of big corporations and billionaires.

This apparent one-in-500-year event, occurring just 10 years after another one-in-100-year flood, an alarming demonstration of corporate and political driven climate change.

The slow response from emergency services and government — a consequence of decades of chronic underfunding and hollowing out of our public services.

The disproportionate number of low-and-middle-income renters and homeowners badly affected by the floods — a reminder that while this housing crisis is caused by a system that treats housing as a market commodity first and a home last — climate change will make it worse.

But as in Lismore, where incredible resident self-organisation drove a collective clean up, in Griffith we proved that where a broken political system fails, ordinary people acting together can step in to fill the breach.

Over the course of those weeks we suspended our campaign, and along with the brilliant member for South Brisbane Amy MacMahon, Councillor Jonathan Sri and their offices, used our organisational and logistical capacity to coordinate hundreds of volunteers in delivering free food, ice and eskies for those without power. We taxied residents to crucial services. We cleaned up entire neighbourhood blocks. Hauling flood damaged furniture, cleaning houses and sometimes just providing a shoulder to cry on.

It wasn’t just the floods. We coordinated protests against worsening flight noise pollution, planted community gardens and used the produce to provide free food to those trapped in COVID-19 isolation.

Ultimately, you build power by acting collectively, as a community. And if we want to take on the power of billionaires and big corporations then we must build a party and movement that is capable of improving people’s lives outside the cycle of electoral politics.

Whether you’re struggling to put food on the table or pay the rent; whether you’re fighting against profit hungry airport corporations or dodgy developers; whether you want help planting a community garden or help fixing up your school; whether you’ve been abandoned by state authorities as another climate-fuelled flood devastates your neighbourhood; or you're just in need of a friendly chat.

We will have your back.

Really, at the end of the day what we’re fighting for is a future where everyone has what they need to live a good life.

And perhaps the greatest injustice of all is that in such a wealthy country, our system denies so many people the chance to fully enjoy their one, short life on this earth.

Healthcare, education, housing, a good, well-paying job and a beautiful home are the foundation to do what makes life truly meaningful.

Time with family and friends, footy in the park, painting a picture, reading a book, a day at the beach, a hike through the wilderness, a beer at the pub.

I so strongly believe in a 4 day work week, with no loss of pay, because it would do much to give people that most precious of resources — time.

Beyond all the specifics it can sometimes be hard to describe exactly what we mean by a good life.

But the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf, writing in A Room of One’s Own, for me comes close to describing what I mean.

Woolf reflects on the “instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition” which keeps “the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine”. With that five hundred pounds, she wrote, came the freedom to think and write as she pleased.

So often in political debates we reduce people to numbers. But what value do you put on a family no longer having to worry about the next rent increase and finally having the money to spend the summer at the beach?

What value do you put on that afternoon playing footy in the park with your kids?

How much human enjoyment, creativity, new loves and friendships are denied by a political and economic system that prioritises profit for multinational corporations over the happiness of everyday people?

What has given me so much hope is that the vast majority of everyday people across Australia share this vision.

That we should tax billionaires and big corporations to fund things like dental into Medicare, free childcare and build one million public and affordable homes, is a view shared by the vast majority of everyday people.

What’s more, this is a truly universal vision. That a small town in regional Queensland — Biloela — demonstrated a greater level of solidarity and kindness towards refugees than this place has done in decades, is a reminder that while the decisions this place makes often impose unimaginable cruelty on people fleeing persecution, war and famine — those decisions don't reflect the will of the people.

After all, what sort of good life is it when our country demonises and mandatorily imprisons our brothers and sisters for the crime of seeking that same good life?

And this is why I have so much hope that, ultimately, we can win.

Because no matter what the political establishment throws at us. No matter how many times they tell us not to hope for anything better. No matter how many times they try to divide us up. No matter how many millions of corporate dollars they spend trying to stop us.

We’ll keep fighting.

Because we recognise that we all have more in common with a refugee in detention, than with a billionaire like Clive Palmer.

We don’t fight for self interest.

We fight for each other.

And we won’t stop until everyone has what they need to live a good life.

To be alive in the sunshine.

For those watching at home, who despair at the state of the world, but feel powerless to change it.

I understand. After all, how often are we brow-beaten and lectured about expecting anything but the bare minimum from politics — often by self-proclaimed experts.

But here’s the thing. I lost count of the number of political and media “experts” who said we had no chance of winning Griffith.

But they were wrong, and people like you were right. The cleaners, paramedics, nurses, students, tradies, retirees, refugees — ordinary, everyday people, who fought everyday for a better future on the Griffith campaign — they were right.

And the representatives of the political establishment were wrong. And believe me — that knowledge terrifies them.

So next time an expert or politician tells you it’s unrealistic to expect that in a wealthy country like Australia no one should go hungry or without a home.

Know that we were right and they were wrong. Know that when they tell you tax cuts for billionaires, more coal and gas and mandatory detention of refugees is the best you can hope for — know that they’re wrong.

Because if the Greens wins in Brisbane, Ryan and Griffith proved one thing, it’s that the only barrier to change is our capacity to organise campaigns like this across the country.

Our collective power terrifies the major parties and their corporate donors.

But it should give you hope.

Because the Griffith campaign was not the end of something, but the start.

And if the political establishment thinks this is our movement at its biggest — that somehow this the best we can do.

Then oh boy — they’ve got another thing coming.

We’re just getting started.

[Max Chandler-Mather is the Greens MP for the seat of Griffith.] 

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