Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather on the tension between parliament and movement-building

April 10, 2024
Max Chandler-Mather speaking at a rally
Max Chandler-Mather speaking at a Palestine solidarity rally in Magan-djin/Brisbane on April 7. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Stuart Munckton and Federico Fuentes sat down with Max Chandler-Mather, Greens MP for Griffith, to discuss the Magan-djin/Brisbane Greens’ political vision and how parliament fits into their strategy for social change.

Based on previous discussion, it seems the Brisbane Greens’ perspective is based on turning away from the political class and towards ordinary people who have no connection to that world. The aim seems to be rebuilding collective politics to then challenge that status quo. Is that a fair summary?

I think it is a dual strategy: we are a parliamentary party but we are also attempting to be a mass party and establish roots within society.

But civil society has largely become alienated and disconnected from the political system. So, there are some contradictions — healthy contradictions — within that strategy which, I think, constantly raise important strategic questions.

We are attempting to win representation in parliament as a way to provide a platform, resources and leverage to continue building connections with civil society, which rightly distrusts, and has largely been disconnected from, that political system.

One of the big questions the left faces is how to convert discontent into ongoing solid social organisation.

That is a key organisational question. Our message, rhetoric and campaigning is very much designed to appeal to, and speak to, people’s material experience of being disconnected and alienated from politics.

But that is one thing; it is another 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.

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.

On this housing campaign 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 to understand your limits.

How do you navigate the danger of being seen as an appendage of the government, or the political class, when supporting bills, such as Labor’s housing one?

Often, when parliament does pass things, or parties sell things, there is a process of envelopment, or incorporation, that is hard to avoid.

There was 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 to use our leverage again.

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.”

[This] 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.

How do you have democracy and accountability within an electoral party when there are similar, but different, constituencies that have to be taken into account — voters, supporters, party members, other Greens MPs — who might have quite different positions and are not inherently always to the left or right of each other?

That question really speaks to the heart of the sort of contradictions we have to work out and the sort of movement that we are building.

You are bang on that the left-right divide does not often actually make sense with a lot of these political questions.

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.

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? 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 party and the broader constituencies that we represent.

I think part of it is an organisational question. That is part of the reason we are pushing so hard to build a mass party and rebuild 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: 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.

The other part is having a parliamentary party that is committed both politically and ideologically, but also organisationally, to being responsive to those organisations and institutions.

Then there are formal questions around the rules and structures of the party, which is a whole other conversation.

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.

That was the sort of social trust building that comes 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 [with the housing campaign].

How do you relate to people who are not in the Greens but are involved in campaigns, for example on housing?

In terms of managing that tension around groups that did not want to necessarily be involved in the Greens, we have a long standing policy of providing material support to those groups.

With SEQUR, the Southeast Queensland Union of Renters, which is a relatively small group but I think growing, we provide support both in-principle and, where they need it, material support to continue their work.

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.

[This is a short extract, abridged and edited for clarity, from a longer interview conducted in late October and published at LINKS. Another extract, focusing on the campaign against Labor’s bill, can be read here. The audio of the full interview is available here.]

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