How Australia’s Greens Are Winning a Left-Wing Vote in the Heart of “Conservative Queensland”

Max Chandler-Mather

After the Australian Labor Party’s 2019 election loss to the Liberals, the commentariat bemoaned Queensland’s seemingly entrenched conservatism. Yet as a state election approaches, the experience of campaigners and volunteers on the ground tells a different story.

Max Chandler-Mather is state strategist for the QLD Greens; Larissa Waters serves as a senator for Queensland. (@MChandlerMather / Twitter)

Interview by
Tom Ballard

The Australian Greens were founded in 1992, although the party’s origins can be traced to the anti-nuclear and environmental campaigns of the 1970s, as well as to the Green Bans movement, pioneered by the Builders Labourers’ Federation under Jack Mundey. After gaining momentum and a number of senate seats during the 1990s, green triangles bearing the party’s name became ubiquitous at demonstrations opposing the Iraq War, in the 2000s. Bob Brown, then the Green leader, shot to international prominence for his protest in parliament against George W. Bush.

Between the 2007 and 2019 federal elections, the Greens drew a primary vote of between 8.7 and 13 percent, locking them in as Australia’s third party (after Labor and Liberals), but also raising questions about whether they could break out of minor-party status.

Amidst a string of concerning results, Green members began to agitate for greater party democracy. Simultaneously, the New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD) Greens, state branches to the left of the party, bucked national trends. NSW maintained the Green vote, while QLD extended it.

Then, in February 2020, Adam Bandt, an MP for Melbourne and occasional Jacobin contributor, assumed the party leadership, championing a confidently left-wing economic and political platform, based in part on the Green New Deal popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One month later, in March, the Greens, led by activist Jonathan Sri, won a significant victory in the Brisbane City Council election, with a vote of 17.8 percent and a swing of 3.3 percent in their favor. In the October 2020 Australian Capital Territory election, the Greens recorded a similar swing of just over 3 percent.

Although it’s still early, these results may indicate that the party’s anti-privatization, pro-worker, pro-environmental stance is paying off. If so, the Greens are well positioned to increase their vote and potentially win new seats in the Queensland state election, due to be held on October 31.

To better understand the context and background for these recent shifts, as well as the Greens’ QLD election campaign, Jacobin is publishing an interview with Max Chandler-Mather, state strategist for the QLD Greens, conducted by Tom Ballard for his podcast, Like I’m a Six Year Old. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


TB

In the 2019 federal election, you stood as the Green candidate for Griffith. Before that, you managed Jonathan Sri’s 2016 campaign, where he won with a 14 percent swing and went on to run the Greens’ 2017 QLD state election campaign, where the party elected their first-ever state MP, Michael Berkman. Could you say a little about your political evolution and how you came to be involved with the Greens?

MCM

Before then, Jonathan had been badgering me for about a year to manage his campaign. We had previously done some university organizing, campaigning against the Young Liberals, who controlled the student union. I had been a member of the Labor Party, but I quit in 2013. When Jonathan first asked me, I told him “nah, Jonno, I’m not going to do a state election. It‘s unrealistic and you don’t have a chance.”

TB

Why did you quit the Labor Party, and what did you think of the Greens at that point?

MCM

Well, Labor was in government. They cut the single parents’ pension and reopened Manus Island detention center. “Change the system from the inside” became “inside, the system changes you.”

There’s a moment I remember. I had been working in a call center for United Voice [now the United Workers Union]. They covered hospitality as well as many of the poorest workers in Queensland, including teachers’ aides, cleaners, and security guards.

A relatively senior union organizer sat me down because I refused to sign my Labor membership renewal form. He told me: “We need people like you to stay in the party — we’re only a few members away from the Left taking control.” It was the classic Labor Left line.

I asked him: “If the Labor Left took over the entire Australian Labor Party [ALP] overnight, including every state branch and all the MPs — what would change about Labor’s platform? What would change about the party?”

He waited a second and said, “Oh well, it’s true that in some areas, the Left falls flat as well. This is why we need people like you in the party, Max.” I thought the answer was complete bullshit — it added to my disillusionment. So I refused.

I went on to work as an organizer for the National Tertiary Education Union [NTEU]. Around 2015, Jonno asked me again to manage his campaign, this time for the Queensland local council elections. When I was in the Labor Party, I was very critical of the Greens, as other members were. I thought they were a very middle-class party; neoliberals in disguise. After quitting the ALP, I was still ambivalent. But at least I trusted Jonno — so I agreed to manage his council campaign.

I remember going to a Greens branch meeting, where I was asked if I was a member. I told them I wasn’t. They were like “OK, whatever.”

TB

And so you were put in charge of Jonathan Sri’s Brisbane City Council campaign?

MCM

That’s right — when Jonno and I kicked off the campaign, everyone in the party told us we couldn’t win. The council electorates in Brisbane are huge, as a result of a long history of council amalgamations. Brisbane City Council is about the size of a state electorate, with about thirty thousand residents.

If you win, you are funded to hire two full-time staffers. A counsellor is paid $160,000 a year plus expenses. It’s a unique setup, comparable to a state member of parliament in Victoria, not least because each counsellor gets an infrastructure budget of $750,000 to spend in their electorate. The Brisbane City Council itself has a budget of $3 billion. That’s a bigger budget than Tasmania.

Out of nowhere, we won a 14 percent swing. A lot of people in the Queensland Greens were very impressed. It’s actually a quite open-minded organization. So, they began to reflect on the ideas and strategies that we developed. Today, many are more willing to criticize politics in a structural way — that’s something that the Queensland Greens hadn’t done up until that point.

TB

Finally! It was the first win the Queensland Greens got on the board since federal senator Larissa Waters was elected in 2010. People might have been familiar with Jonathan Sri after he appeared in the background wearing a rainbow scarf, during a television appearance with Larissa Waters.

But can you tell us a little more about Jonathan’s campaign? As far as I can tell, Brisbane has elected a really good local counsellor, who’s known for being tenacious and unashamedly leftist.

MCM

The Brisbane City Council campaign was loosely grouped around an idea called “right to the city.” “Right to the city” is a theory developed by David Harvey and a few other Marxist urban geographers. Their point is that the city has become the locus of the reproduction of capitalism in Western countries. It’s the center of finance capital. And thanks to property development and investment, there’s an enormous inflow of capital into the cities. They have become, in a way, the new factory.

We tried to recognize this. For property developers and banks, the role of the city is to accumulate profit. So, especially when organizing around housing affordability and renters’ rights, we almost developed a new, opposed class identity. Instead of being together on the factory floor, we are together because we live in the city.

And even if you perform different functions — you could be a cleaner, a teacher, a nurse, or a student — reproducing the life of the city gives us some common identity. I would describe the core of our approach as “radical municipalism.” It focuses strongly on local control and on people having control over the things that happen in their area.

In fact, the loss of control over politics is really important. I remember the final letter we hand-delivered to something like thirty thousand residents with a miniature volunteer postal service. The first line — I’ll never forget it — said: “You know you’ve lost control over the city.” It was really powerful. For example, I remember all these older Greek ladies coming into the polling booths, clutching the letter and asking, “where do I go to vote for Jonno?”

Because of the massive inflow of property development, it captured the mood. People felt like they had lost control over everything, including what was happening in their area. So we demanded that, as a basic collective, democratic principle, you should at the very least control what happens in your neighborhood. It both demonstrated that politics is completely broken and offered a pathway out. It really captured something — in the last two weeks of phone banking, with almost every person we talked to, we flipped their vote.

And we didn’t have a huge group of volunteers either. I would say we had a core of twenty or thirty people, at the most. Every night for those last two weeks, we were on the phones or knocking doors. I remember turning to Jonno and saying, “holy crap, you know we can win?”

We spoke to people from the widest range of political backgrounds, including One Nation, Liberals, and Labor. We said “look, no matter what you say about everything else, it’s clear that you’ve lost control over what happens in your city. We think that’s partly because the other parties receive millions of dollars in property-developer donations. We don’t. We’re on your side.”

It was as though we’d discovered this common material interest that cut across a whole range of political and social identities. And from there, we won. It was really cool.

TB

Do you think people have a weaker ideological attachment to who they vote for in local council elections? It seems that there’s less investment in the Coalition or Labor, and instead, you see more independents or outsider parties.

MCM

Yes, I think so. On a federal or state level, politics are far more about traditional class interests or class lines. Of course, you’re far more likely to encounter people who vote for the Liberal National Party (LNP) in richer areas.

I remember door knocking in those areas too. One guy said, “oh you want to tax me more.” I tried to explain that wasn’t the idea, but he replied “no, I’m a major investor in a corporation — and you want to tax corporations more.” I was like, “yeah, nah, that’s true.” That was in the [2019] federal election.

Council elections are interesting because the stakes are lower. But I would say that council politics are tough. It’s often the foundation upon which you can build powerful movements. Getting those early wins on the board, even in one or two wards, can build confidence in your movement. And that’s crucial. The Left really just needs to win sometimes — because we really don’t win often.

TB

I’m tired of the Left winning, myself.

MCM

Yeah, I mean if you do it seriously, you can win. Getting those wins early on builds confidence. It draws people in, and it clarifies your politics. It also allows you to build trust in a candidate. We can prove that when Greens are in power, the sky doesn’t fall in.

So, Jonno’s initial election [in 2016] really laid the foundation for our push across the state. It helped us get Michael Berkman elected in Maiwar, in the 2017 state election. And in the coming state election [on October 31, 2020], it looks like we could win three or even four state MPs.

TB

In case people aren’t aware, in the Queensland state election, the Greens have announced a series of policies. They want to fully fund Queensland state schools, to reduce class sizes, cut school fees and hire more teachers, creating twenty-three thousand jobs a year.

They want to build 100 percent publicly-owned renewable energy by 2030 and cut electricity bills by 46 percent and create twenty thousand construction jobs per year by building a hundred thousand public homes. They’ve proposed to establish a public pharmaceutical company to produce crucial drugs and keep revenue in Queensland. They’ve also promised to hire 6,500 nurses, 3,000 doctors and to establish 200 public, bulk-billing [cost-free] GP clinics. They want to bring private hospitals into public ownership, funded by levying the big banks and increasing mining royalties, which can raise $67 billion dollars over four years.

Hashtag more for Queensland, less for billionaires.

MCM

Yeah, that sums it up perfectly. What’s remarkable is that we went into the 2017 QLD elections with a similar sort of platform. A lot of people were worried that it would be very unpopular.

There’s a common sense among the Twitter left that Scott Morrison won big in Queensland because the majority of people here are quite conservative. They were afraid that when confronted with leftist ideas, Queenslanders would reject them out of hand. I can’t emphasize enough how wrong that is.

This speaks to a popular misconception about politics, that if people vote for either Labor or the Greens, they’re progressive, and if they vote for the LNP or One Nation, they are conservative — and would never vote for us. But that’s not true at all. When we go door knocking, we keep track of our conversations. By the time we identify as Greens, 50 to 60 percent of people end up likely voting for us in some degree or another.

The easiest voters to convince, we find, are One Nation voters. That’s because for us, the divide in politics at the moment isn’t between the Left and the Right. I don’t want to sound like a Third Way Blairite or a Labor Right hack. What I mean is that the divide in politics is increasingly between a very small layer who are in favor of the establishment and the vast majority who are increasingly anti-establishment. The majority are, in some way, fed up with politics. So they become separated from the political system.

The best way to illustrate this is to point out that in the early 1980s, something like 50 percent of people were members of a trade union, giving them a sort of genuine social connection to the Labor Party. Similarly, there were Country Women’s Associations and church groups connected to the Liberal Party.

Today only 14 percent of people are members of a trade union. The membership of political parties has been hollowed out. The general disconnect between civil society and politics is so great that in political opinion surveys, only 17 percent are loyal to the Liberals. Even fewer — something like 14 percent — are loyal to Labor.

So, when you go door knocking, you encounter people with leftover ideological residues from Labor or the Liberals, but who no longer have any connection with them. And for many of those people, our politics is common sense. Most people think that yes, big corporations should pay their fair share in tax. They agree that privatization was bad.

For example, in the [2019] federal election campaign, I spoke to a man who started by telling me, “You won’t like me, but I think Tony Abbott was too left-wing.”

Our training prepares us to talk to all voters, including those who usually support Labor, Liberals, or even One Nation. And it stresses that we shouldn’t judge or make assumptions. So, we had a chat. As it turns out, he was an ex-boilermaker and was a member of his trade union until the 1980s. He felt betrayed by Labor — he told me the privatization of essential services had been a bloody mistake. I agreed, saying that multinational corporations shouldn’t be dodging tax. I mentioned the need to bring dental care into Medicare [Australia’s universal, public health system], which he thought was a great idea. He ended up agreeing to vote Greens this time.

For me, this is a microcosm of the problems we face. I think the Left is demoralized because they believe the population has moved away from them. But actually, the Left has moved away from the population and are no longer capable of representing people.

It’s not as if capitalism has gotten any better. People’s lives haven’t improved. It’s just that there are no political parties that can organize around people’s material interests, to build power and to make demands which can politicize them in a progressive way.

But nothing beats the feeling when you go door knocking, or when you have political chats with someone who isn’t political, and you convince them. It’s like a drug; it helps us to realize that we share the same material political interests. Every time you have a conversation like that, you come away on such a high — it’s a little glimmer of hope.

TB

And it’s, working right? For example, you ran in the seat of Griffith last year. You won a 7.2 percent swing toward you, bringing the Greens primary vote up to 24.2 percent. For all the talk about Queensland being backward, the Greens senate vote went up by 3.5 percent.

So, can you give me more details about the Greens? There are some explicitly socialist members of the Greens — in fact, Adam Bandt [the federal leader] has a PhD in Marxism. And when you look at their policy platform, the Greens regularly identify neoliberalism as the problem.

At the same time, a lot of members are more conservative about beating back the power of capital than perhaps you or I are. So, how do you cultivate socialist ideas when you’re talking to voters? Is the language of socialism a turn-off that doesn’t really connect with people?

MCM

This is a really good question, I think. The first thing is to abandon a lot of the cultural baggage that the Left has brought from long-since-lost fights in the twentieth century, like how we should understand the Soviet Union.

A lot of people think of the Queensland Greens as a socialist utopia — but we don’t really use the term. People use “socialism” as shorthand to describe some of the things we campaign on, but the way we talk about it is common sense and popular. Our primary goal is to talk to working people and build an organization that slowly accumulates the capacity to reach people, building the foundations of a mass party.

Elected representatives and resources come with that. And increasingly, so does a large layer of politically educated volunteers and organizers. I would say our strategy is designed to work over fifteen to twenty years. We don’t expect mass gains in a few years.

And while we don’t use the term socialism, it just so happens that we want to build a hundred thousand public homes. And we want to transition toward universal public housing, where anyone can apply to live in a beautifully designed public home, with a child-care center, a rooftop garden, and social services embedded in it.

TB

Broadly speaking, do you think the Greens have a class problem?

MCM

It’s complex. There’s certainly a section of the Greens from a middle-class milieu, around the environmental movement. If you take the layer of organizers that are grouped loosely around the Queensland Greens, they are a bunch of young, precariously employed people. Some are older, but I would describe them as working class.

But I would say that politics in general has a class problem, in the sense that there is no organized [working] class represented in any political party or political movement in Australia, or really to be honest, around the world.

Are the Greens a mass party, with roots in civil society and organic working-class movements? No, we aren’t. I think becoming that has to be one of our primary goals.

TB

Do you see any unions, perhaps ones that are disillusioned with the Labor Party, aligning with the Greens? Have any unions in Queensland become friendlier? The Queensland Labor Party has lurched to the right — they recently froze the wages of public servants, including nurses and teachers, who are frontline workers. And at the same time, they suspended the royalties mining corporations owe Queensland.

MCM

Freezing mining royalties in the same month as freezing wages really pissed off a lot of trade unions.

But to answer the broader question, we are inspired by histories like that of the German Social Democratic Party, when it became a mass-membership party in the first decade of the twentieth century. We are also thinking very seriously about how to build a mass-membership party with an organic base in the unions while bypassing the union bureaucracy, which is often, to be frank, made up of hacks who want careers in the Labor Party.

Our union membership is fantastic, although it is still small. But during the 2019 campaign, organizers based out of Larissa Waters’s office did a lot of building in working-class areas outside of Brisbane, in electorates like Rankin and Oxley. They would be, I suppose, the equivalent of West Melbourne.

TB

Isn’t that Pauline Hanson’s old seat?

MCM

Yes, that’s right, when she was in the lower house. That area is really working-class. There’s also a really strong First Nations community.

In fact, we won some of that biggest swings in working-class areas. If you look at the Senate vote, we got 4 to 5 and sometimes 6 percent swings in these areas. No one expected us to do well there. I think that is one of the first signs that we are building a working-class base.

TB

You mentioned hostility between Greens and ALP members. I’d like to pick that apart. For a long time, I was disgusted by the Labor Party, mainly because of their stance on refugee rights. That issue played a key role in attracting me to the Greens. But now, I’m also starting to understand members of the Labor Party who come from a democratic socialist tradition.

The Greens take a long view. They know the next government will be either a Coalition or Labor government, or ideally, a coalition between Labor and the Greens. But Labor is here for the foreseeable future. So, how do you think about the relationship between the ALP and the Greens?

MCM

It’s a good question. Because of the hollowing out of politics I mentioned before, the Labor Party in Queensland is in a lot of trouble. It’s really a dying organization — and it’s neither our fault nor our job to revive it. But it’s collapsing and dying, by which I mean it’s losing its connections to the workers’ movement, especially as trade union membership declines. It struggles more and more to find volunteers.

So, we don’t really feel bothered when the Labor Party gets angry or accuses us of taking their seats. To be honest, the vast majority of people we speak to or who we recruit aren’t already involved in party politics.

The second thing I would say is based on Liz Humphrys’ book, How Labour Built Neoliberalism. She writes really eloquently about neoliberalism and the Labor Party. Especially recently, Labor has been very effective in capturing progressive movements and incorporating them into capitalism and neutering them. A classic example was the “Your Rights at Work” campaign in the lead up to 2007 [the election in which the ALP’s Kevin Rudd defeated John Howard, backed by a union-led mass campaign].

It was a huge movement. Local groups organized organically to fight Work Choices [Liberal Party anti-union IR legislation] in areas that had never seen unionism before. And then, the campaign flipped from “Your Rights at Work — Worth Fighting For” — it became “Your Rights at Work — Worth Voting For.”

After Labor was elected in 2009, Kevin Rudd introduced the Fair Work Act. It kept the ban on the right to strike and enshrined enterprise bargaining, reinforcing a neoliberalized version of unionism. It legislated a lot of the rules that the unions wanted to get rid of with the [more recent] “Change the Rules” campaign.

Do I think it would be better to have a Labor government than a Liberal Government? Of course. It can make space for changes at the fringes. But I also genuinely think the Labor Party, over the last twenty to thirty years, has actively harmed working people.

The ALP is just as responsible for the neoliberalization of government institutions as the Liberal Party. Although the Labor Party doesn’t like to reckon with it, they carried out all of the privatization through the nineties. And there is a reason there are now forty thousand homeless women on the streets. The day after [former Labor PM] Julia Gillard gave her famous speech, attacking Abbott for being a misogynist, she cut the single parents’ pension.

My question to socialists in the Labor Party would be: what’s your strategy? Albo [Anthony Albanese], from the Left, is the leader. But his criticism of JobKeeper was that it gave some people a pay rise.

As far as I would argue, there’s no discernible ideological difference between Labor Left and Right, beyond little things at the fringes. Of course, people on the Left of the Labor Party will say “Hey, we all have the same goals; we’re all actually going for the same thing. But the only way to make changes is by forming a government.”

And it’s true that Labor is the only party other than the Liberals that can form a government. But if you replace a potential Labor MP with a Greens MP, when it comes down to it, the Greens will form a minority government with the ALP. That makes it possible to push the agenda further to the left — which can only be a good thing.

TB

And to be honest, we’re not necessarily fighting for the same things as Labor. Socialists recognize that class conflict has to be contended with. But Bob Hawke’s focus was on bringing everyone together. His consensus model of politics claimed that there is no top end of town, no inherent conflict between the interests of workers and of bosses, and no tension between the majority of people and capital. They aren’t interested in being able to talk to the shop floor, only the corporate boardroom.

And if you can’t acknowledge opposed class interests, then you end up buying the idea that Bill Shorten’s 2019 election campaign was “alienating” and “anti-aspiration.”

MCM

Exactly. It blows my mind. Actually I used to be much angrier about it. But then, I remember at the end of the Griffith campaign [in the 2019 federal election], I reached this almost Zen moment. I turned to my campaign manager was like, “a lot of the establishment left just doesn’t matter, do they?”

TB

And as you were saying, Labor is letting the Tories define its political ambition and imagination. Yes, Labor will say a progressive agenda is easily demonized, or that it lets the Liberals build a scare campaign. But the Liberals are going to do that no matter what — so why not outline what you believe in and fight for it?

MCM

Exactly. The Liberal Party tore the 2019 Labor platform to shreds because it was milquetoast. The positive initiatives they proposed were so heavily means-tested that you would only receive them if you were born on a Tuesday, on a full moon, in a town that begins with a “T.”

If Labor had gone into that election on a platform of universally bringing dental into Medicare and building public housing, funded by reversing cuts to the corporate tax rate and literally nothing else, they would have wiped the floor with the Liberals. You wouldn’t believe the number of conversations we had with people who were confused and angry during that election. The problem wasn’t that Labor was too left-wing or radical — but that it was confused about what it stood for.

TB

Means-testing is interesting. Thanks to neoliberalism, it’s a common sense part of how we think about things. It’s so common to hear that assets-testing is necessary to make sure the government doesn’t give a single cent to anybody who “doesn’t need it.”

To this way of thinking, free university is middle-class welfare. But this ignores the fact that making public services universal and free, at the point of service, saves money by cutting bureaucracy and enforcement measures. And we could easily pay for it all by raising taxes on the wealthy. Do you think there’s still a fair way to go to beat back that neoliberal logic?

MCM

I think we have to convince a layer of middle-class lefties that universal access to higher education or dental care is necessary. Those proposals are most popular in working-class areas, whereas in wealthier suburbs, it’s more common for people to say “Oh, I don’t need that, it’s not necessary.”

The difference is partly because means-testing mostly affects working-class people. Before you can access a service, you basically need to hand in five different pay checks to prove that you deserve what should be a human right. It’s deeply humiliating. When you argue for means-testing, people imagine being humiliated by Centrelink or MyGov, or some faceless bureaucracy.

The most persuasive argument I can think of for universal social services is Medicare. It’s the one social institution that the Right hasn’t really been able to destroy. As you know, the Labor Party set it up, and it has severe limitations. But it’s far better than most other health systems.

Gina Rinehart can access the same health care as anyone else in the public system. No one on minimum wage says “oh, that’s a bit offensive.” That’s because we treat health care as a universal right. Once universal rights are won, they are very difficult to take back. And you can’t place conditions on a right. To get health care, you don’t have to jump through hoops or prove you’re looking for a job.

TB

So, before we wind up, we’ve heard a bit about the Greens platform in QLD. But how do you think you’re doing?

MCM

We have a chance of winning up to seven seats. I reckon we’re in with a good shot. And if we win, we have a very good chance of holding the balance of power — probably our best chance ever. It could be a win for the Left that could help transform Queensland, the state of Pauline Hanson, and the ground zero of One Nation.

Imagine finding out on November 1 that we hold the balance of power. We could tell Labor: “We’re not going to form a government with you unless you stop mining in the Galilee Basin. And after that, start building public housing to lift people out of poverty.” It would send a message to everyone on the Left that if you argue for wealth redistribution and universal social services, you can win in the heart of apparently conservative Australia.