Albanese’s passion can be partly attributed to his decades-long fight with the Greens in his inner-Sydney seat, Grayndler, which could be within the Greens’ sights if not for Albanese’s personal brand.
The housing issue exploded this week when the Greens sought another delay on the housing vote, heightening tensions in a feud that may define the way in which a powerful Greens balance-of-power interplays with a Labor government that wants multiple terms in office.
Labor has offered multiple concessions to the Greens and this month announced a one-off $2 billion public housing injection. But the Greens, which also halted a vote on the bill in March, last week sought to delay a vote until after a national cabinet meeting that the Greens hope will agree to cap rents (a step-down from the freeze the Greens are pushing). Rental increases are capped in the ACT and Victoria is likely to announce caps as part of a major housing reform package. NSW has ruled out the policy change.
To Labor, the Greens’ call for another delay exposed the party’s arrogance and unwillingness to settle for a compromise. If blocked later this year, the government believes it would be able to use it as a double dissolution trigger in the unlikely event it wanted an early election. For the Greens, another period of negotiation creates the possibility of more concessions and increased pressure on Labor to pursue ambitious rental reform when state leaders meet with Albanese before the housing vote.
Labor MPs privately speculate that Chandler-Mather’s tactics on the HAFF – a stock market fund that would use earnings to fund social housing – are splitting the Greens party room and causing unease among the party’s more moderate MPs. But, according to several Greens sources, his colleagues are energised by the feedback they receive in their electorates and back their young colleague strongly in party room meetings in Canberra.
They say Greens leader Adam Bandt believes the depth of housing stress opens up a new constituency for the Greens as it seeks to become the party of renters. At the last election, 22 per cent of renters voted Green, nearly double the level of support it won across all voters.
The Greens also believe they are winning the online debate, as reflected in comments from treasurer Jim Chalmers this week: “They care more about retweets than renters, more about TikTok than housing stock.”
Chandler-Mather, whom Labor targets for opposing some developments in his own seat, says: “National cabinet, chaired by the prime minister … has the opportunity to introduce proper caps on rent increases, and the Greens are ready to work with them to do it.”
Parliamentary battles between Labor and the Greens inevitably raise fundamental questions about the purpose of the Greens. Are they a protest outfit empowered to block Labor’s agenda, or must they respect the mandate of the governing party?
The author of Inside the Greens, Paddy Manning, said the common criticism that the Greens allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good had grown stale. On climate change and the Voice, the Greens pushed the government but ended up finding consensus on policies Greens voters mostly supported.
On housing, Manning argues, the Greens have found a white-hot issue on which Labor, which has abandoned policies to rein in tax breaks for property investors, is not acting with the strength the community demands.
“The Greens are determined to fight on this,” Manning said in an interview.
“And where housing is different is that Adam Bandt is the first Greens leader who is unashamedly hard left on economics. He has a view the Australian public, post the financial crisis where we’ve also seen a rise of right-wing populism, is going through a backlash against what you might call the neoliberal agenda.”
The Greens’ call for a freeze on rents represents an extreme intervention in the private housing market and could be perceived as a bridge too far by many voters, Manning cautioned. The hardline stance aligns with what Manning explained is a particularly radical brand of politics in the Brisbane Greens where Chandler-Mather grew to prominence after quitting the Labor Party in his 20s.
“There is a danger for the Greens in overreaching,” Manning said, adding that the Greens flew under the radar at the last election and its mandate for its economic agenda would be properly tested at the next poll.
Then there is the question of the legitimacy of the Greens’ claims. Australian National University associate professor Ben Philips challenged Chandler-Mather’s claim that renters were facing a $100 a week average rent increase; Philips said it was up $23 a week. The conflicting figures stem from different methods of recording rent prices, one of which lags the other. Just as in another of the Greens’ left-wing economic campaigns, its push to scrap HECS debt indexation, the Greens face questions from some experts about exaggeration and misguided proposals.
Coalition MPs are watching on with amusement as their ideological foes brawl. Dutton’s office spent time checking the Jacobin article to determine if Albanese had misleadingly quoted it. Liberals judged that he may have misrepresented a paraphrasing as a quote but that the crime did not warrant prosecution.
Liberal frontbencher Dan Tehan, elected in 2010, stayed back after question time to watch the stoush between Albanese and Chandler-Mather. He told this masthead: “This is unique. I have never seen a first-term MP get under the skin of a PM like Max has. It has been quite unbecoming for a PM.”
The hands-on involvement of the prime minister in the housing spat with the Greens has become a point of significant interest for commentators and MPs. Similar to the Voice debate, the strengths of Labor’s relevant minister, Housing Minister Julie Collins, are not particularly suited to an intense daily brawl.
At Australian politics’ version of the Met Gala, the Midwinter Ball, the host jokingly referred to Bandt as Australia’s opposition leader. (Albanese also made fun of Chandler-Mather’s hyphenated surname). Jokes are just that, but they often contain a kernel of truth.
Pollster and former Labor operative Kos Samaras points out that Labor could be more defensive against the Greens than the Coalition at the next election. The Greens, who have been a thorn in Labor’s side long before the teals necked a swag of inner-city Liberals, will aim to win another seat in Melbourne at the next election, and potentially others across the country, to improve their record lower house haul.
However, Labor’s well-oiled political machine that now dominates mainland Australia won’t give up another seat without a fight. And it wants Griffith, the Brisbane-based seat won by Chandler-Mather, back in its own hands. Labor Senator Murray Watt and dozens of volunteers haven began door knocking in Griffith to make Chandler-Mather’s first term his last. On the other side, Greens volunteers in Victoria have handed out rent freeze pamphlets at more than 100 rental inspections.
“Queenslanders are fair dinkum. They’re starting to realise the Greens political party spokesman and Member for Griffith says one thing but does another – both in the parliament and in the local community,” Watt told this masthead.
“If the Greens Political Party actually believe in what they post on Instagram about supporting social and affordable housing, they’ll walk into the Senate chamber as soon as possible and vote for the HAFF.“
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.