Australia deserves a better left populist than Max Chandler-Mather

by novellagabb

If Max Chandler-Mather is trying to be Australia’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his antics this week expose him as a poor tribute act.

His election in 2022 provided some progressives with hope, particularly given Australians were never graced by a genuine “left populist” in the 2010s. America got AOC and Bernie Sanders, Britain got Jeremy Corbyn, Spain got Pablo Iglesias Turrión, and Australia got… who exactly?

This is perhaps unsurprising. As Anton Jäger and Arthur Borriello explain in their recent history of the left after the global financial crisis, The Populist Moment, progressive firebrands were most able to foment backlash to “the 1%” in countries scarred by recessions. Thanks to the Rudd government’s economic stimulus, Australia managed to dodge the downturns that ravaged Europe and America, leaving the centre-left and centre-right relatively impervious to outrageous outsiders.

But just because Australia maintained growth did not mean all was well economically, or that there wasn’t latent discontent ripe for translation into a political program. Inequality of wealth had widened, particularly between homeowners and renters. Wages had failed to keep pace with essential costs. Finally, the post-COVID cost of living spike has drawn attention to slow-burn inequities that the GFC had not.

Enter Max Chandler-Mather — a new kind of Greens MP employing explicitly left populist rhetoric. Where former Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s ilk had been urbane and professional, Chandler-Mather is brash and unapologetic, forged in the fires of student politics. The system was rigged, he told us, and it was about time someone shook things up.

I never underestimate the Greens’ tendency to disappoint their erstwhile bedfellows, and minor parties’ capacities to influence change in Canberra are invariably limited. But even I was briefly intrigued — could this egalitarian upstart positively influence the discourse, elevating the often ignored interests of young workers and renters? Could he pull an AOC?

He is certainly a gifted orator, a savvy content creator and a talented channeller of millennial and gen Z rage at our inequitable economy, particularly the housing system. He has pushed the interests of renters up Canberra’s priority list and championed the victims of our housing crisis with moral clarity. For this he is to be commended.

But his communications nous unfortunately overcompensates for glaring patchiness and unsophistication on policy matters, particularly so in his chosen portfolio of housing. And when challenged, he doubles down on his worst impulses.

This threatens to undermine his positive contributions, raising the salience of housing issues only to divert the righteous rage of young renters into dead ends.

Take his performance on the ABC’s Q&A this week. Chandler-Mather stated categorically that the planning system has almost no impact on housing affordability. This was despite fielding the question from the CEO of Nightingale, perhaps Australia’s foremost developer of affordable, high-quality homes, who had witnessed the planning system stymying his developments firsthand.

Evidence is increasingly mounting that planning rules that limit the supply of homes, such as height restrictions, heritage protections, cumbersome neighbourhood consultation and the like, reduce the relative affordability of housing, particularly for renters.

NSW Housing Minister Rose Jackson, who was also on the Q&A panel, correctly pointed to Auckland as just one city of an increasing number that have seen rents moderate under a relaxed zoning regime. It wouldn’t fix all Australia’s housing problems tomorrow, but planning reform is one important part of the solution. And it’d make it a whole lot easier for Max’s proposed public housing developer to break ground.

His refusal to accept this highlights the straitjacket of an overly dogmatic adherence to “left populist” rhetoric. Chandler-Mather prefers to criticise negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount — rightly, they’re terribly inequitable and expensive policies that should be repealed — because property investors can more easily be pitted as the “elite” against the downtrodden masses.

But the uncomfortable truth of Australia’s housing crisis is that the blame runs deep — far more people than just obnoxious big-time investors are implicated. Indeed, most homeowners are.

Thousands of suburban property owners have used the planning system to say “not in my backyard” to reasonable developments in their areas, out of nothing more than financial and aesthetic self-interest, and millions more have quietly benefited from their neighbours who did. And all homeowners benefit from a far larger tax concession than negative gearing, the capital gains tax exemption for the family home.

Such planning logjams and tax concessions are not in opposition; they reinforce one another to keep housing unaffordable. The former helps to make housing scarce, which increases its value; the latter further increases competition for those scarce units, increasing prices further.

The insidious logic of property capitalism has seeped deep into Australia’s bloodstream. Only confronting that fact and encouraging a broad acceptance of change will alter the status quo. Pinning all the blame on squillionaires, however odious, is just a willful diversion.

The traditional playbook of left populism might provide a few immediate answers to such a diffused set of vested interests, but many prominent exemplars have proven flexible enough to advocate the full gamut of housing solutions while maintaining the fire in their bellies. AOC, for instance, is a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”).

Chandler-Mather’s approach, conversely, represents a much older tradition within the Greens than their newfound populism: a reliance on local NIMBYism to reach beyond the party’s traditional environmentalist base. The Greens are certainly not the only party guilty of this — almost all Australian parties have been at various points — but to continue this strategy amid the current rental crisis would amount to a betrayal of the very voters whose concerns Chandler-Mather has elevated.

If Max Chandler-Mather cannot champion renters’ interests in accordance with the evidence, then the hope invested in him by some young progressive voters will have been misplaced.

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