Max Chandler-Mather: ‘80% want us to stand firm on housing’

April 20, 2023

Green Left’s Alex Bainbridge spoke to Greens’ housing spokesperson and federal member for Griffith Max Chandler-Mather about negotiations with Labor over its housing package, arguments for a rent freeze, the safeguard mechanism and the AUKUS nuclear submarines.

Can you outline the shortfalls of Labor’s housing bill and what are you seeking to change?

Under Labor’s current plan, the housing crisis would literally get worse.

Labor’s proposal, the Housing Australia Future Fund, is essentially to get $10 billion of public money and gamble it on the stock market, via the Future Fund set up by [former Liberal treasurer] Peter Costello.

They’ve then said that some of the returns from that Future Fund would be spent on social and affordable housing.

The first problem is that, last year, the Future Fund actually lost 1.2%, so the housing fund would have lost $120 million and not a cent would have been spent on housing.

And even where the returns might be good, spending on housing is actually capped at $500 million per year.

They’ve said that the target is to help finance the construction of up to 20,000 “social” and 10,000 so-called “affordable” homes from 2025 to 2030. Even if they reach those targets, which they almost certainly won’t, the shortage of social and community housing will get bigger than it is now.

Thirty thousand won’t even keep up with the increase let alone tackle the overall crisis.

The bottom line is that you wouldn’t fund schools or hospitals by a chaotic risky gamble on the stock market. The government should be investing directly in public and affordable housing.

What are the Greens calling for?

We’re calling for the government to invest at least $5 billion a year in directly building public and genuinely affordable housing.

Secondly, we’d like to see the federal government coordinate a national freeze on rent increases.

On a population basis, if the federal government was building the same amount of public housing as they did in the 1960s then, over the next five years, it would build 150,000 public homes.

That would really start to tackle the crisis.

We’ve said we’re willing to negotiate in good faith, but Labor have responded by issuing threats.

Talking about a rent freeze, two common arguments are: “Landlords should be able to charge as much rent as the market will bear”, and “Mortgages are going up and house owners have no choice but to raise rents”. How do you answer these?

First, housing is an essential service. It should be a right for everyone. And we wouldn’t allow access to any essential service to be left entirely up to a private market, or certainly we shouldn’t.

We know that rental regulation works around the world. A lot of European countries have used rent freezes recently or ongoing rent controls.

Regarding mortgages, we’ve called on the government to stop interest rate increases.

It’s important to note that there’s no economic link between increases in interest rates and increases in rents. It might give the landlord an excuse to jack up the rent, but rents are mostly determined by what the market will bear.

It’s a completely broken system where 30% of the country who rent are basically held to ransom to get what is just as important as health care or education.

What ideas do you have for mobilising extra-parliamentary pressure on the Albanese government to push for better housing outcomes?

We have been organising some national door knocking targeting federal Labor electorates. We’ve asked people: “Do you think the Greens should back down [on the demand for $5 billion per year for public housing, especially after the federal government just found $368 billion for nuclear attack submarines]?”

Over 80% said we should hold firm and push for Labor to come to the negotiating table. This is in places like Ipswich, in Queensland, where the Greens polled 6% of the vote at the last election but over 80% of people were supportive of our demands.

Also we held a good rally down in Canberra with the [construction union] CFMEU.

Our strategy is to mobilise as many of the people affected by the housing crisis as possible and make Labor realise there are going to be electoral consequences if they take the sides of the banks and property developers again.

Some were disappointed the Greens voted for Labor's climate safeguard mechanism (even with some improved amendments) because it entrenched failed carbon trading measures and offsets. Do you want to respond to this? And in relation to passing the housing legislation, do you have bottom lines that you will not cross when negotiating with Labor?

I can understand the criticisms of [the Greens' vote for the] safeguard [mechanism]. The concessions we [won] from Labor were not insignificant, although negotiating with Labor is like negotiating with the fossil fuel industry so getting anything out of them is remarkable.

The limitation in that instance was that the Greens were relatively isolated because there were no mobilisations on the streets. The large sections of the climate movement were completely demobilised.

It's very hard to get any more major concessions when you have a completely demobilised civil society. Long term we need to work out how to build social power on the streets and at the doors and build the same capacity to mobilise during parliamentary fights [as we do in federal elections].

Which is a lesson we've taken to housing.

We’ve made very clear we’re not going to just wave this bill through unamended. We’ve made clear that we want a substantial increase in direct guaranteed funding every year for public and genuinely affordable housing and action on capping rents in some way. We’re not going to back down from that.

We’re attempting to mobilise on the ground as well, including reigniting our large scale door-knocking [efforts] to mobilise social pressure on Labor to make significant concessions.

What about organising protests?

We’re looking forward to exploring the possibility of organising more.

My view on protests is that it’s only worth organising more when you have either big groups, like the CFMEU, onside willing to help or you’re confident you can turn out thousands of people. I don’t think we’re there yet.

We’d definitely organise more protests with the CFMEU and I think that did put some significant pressure on Labor.

Finally, can I ask about the Talisman Sabre war games coming up in Queensland and the AUKUS submarines. Can the Greens help organise protests against this militarism?

Really important. We're actually thinking about organising some large town halls and public meetings about pushing back against the AUKUS deal.

We've had lifelong Labor members living in the electorate get in touch with our office saying they'll never vote for Labor again. They've underestimated the public pushback.

Tying ourselves so permanently to the US empire and direct military conflict with China is catastrophic for Australia.

I think it was telling that while Labor are going around saying they can't find a single extra cent to build public housing, they can out of nowhere magic up $368 billion [for nuclear submarines].

This says everything you need to know about where Labor is at. They are a centre-right/right government, perhaps even more enthusiastically militarist than the previous Coalition government. We need to find ways to resist that and make Labor suffer the electoral consequences.

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