The Greens capitulate on housing
The Greens capitulate on housing)

As the housing crisis continues to worsen, the Greens have capitulated to the Labor Party, helping it to pass the utterly inadequate Housing Australian Future Fund legislation. They have secured no relief for renters, despite having positioned themselves as “the party of renters”, according to leader Adam Bandt, since last year’s election. 

The Greens had good reason to block the HAFF, which was first introduced to parliament in February. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised $10 billion for social and affordable housing, but not in direct funding. Instead, the money was to be invested in the Future Fund, Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, and cash allocated to housing construction only after the investment produced a return. 

In June, Labor amended the legislation to include $500 million in guaranteed annual spending, following pressure from the Greens. Labor also included the $2 billion Social Housing Accelerator: a one-off payment to the states for social housing. 

The Greens still refused to support it, arguing, correctly, that it did nothing for renters and wasn’t enough money for affordable housing. Max Chandler-Mather, the Greens housing spokesperson, called for a two-year rent freeze followed by a 2 percent cap on annual rent increases, as well as a $5 billion annual spend on affordable housing, which the Greens later revised down to $2.5 billion.

Chandler-Mather wrote in a June press release: “The Greens will keep fighting to freeze and cap rent increases, and give the millions of renters doing it tough some light at the end of the tunnel”. 

This week, Chandler-Mather and his fellow Greens senators turned off the light. Not only did they pass the legislation, they are chalking it up as a victory. But what have they achieved? A national rent freeze? No. A 2 percent cap on annual rent increases? No. A guaranteed $2.5 billion annual spend on affordable housing? Again, no. The Greens have not secured a single one of their supposed red lines.

Instead, Labor offered another one-off $1 billion payment to the National Housing Infrastructure Facility to invest in new social and affordable housing builds. Let’s put this into perspective.

There are 175,000 people on the social housing waitlist—a number that increased by more than 11,000 people in 2022, and which is still climbing—and Australia’s population grew by more than 600,000 people in the year to June. Yet the promised $1 billion is a one-off payment. The Grattan Institute estimated earlier this year that, on average, each new social housing build costs $300,000. So even if every cent were spent on new dwellings (rather than fixing existing properties), that would translate into around 3,300 extra homes.

The Greens are now touting this paltry and hopelessly inadequate number as a victory.

Also, there is not a shred of relief for renters—and rents continue to climb at a rate well above wage growth.

Chandler-Mather insists that the Greens will continue to fight for rent freezes and rent caps, but the party just lost the only bargaining power it had by passing the HAFF. Indeed, he said as much himself in an article published on the Jacobin website in June:

“Threatening to vote against the HAFF is the only immediate leverage the Greens have to force Labor to take serious action ... if the Greens were to wave through the HAFF bill, it would foreclose on the possibility of building the social and political pressure needed to force the government to take meaningful action ... allowing the HAFF to pass would demobilise the growing section of civil society that is justifiably angry about the degree of poverty and financial stress that exists in such a wealthy country.”

Labor knew this as well. So, on passing the legislation, Albanese said: “This is the last of the commitments I made in budget replies to put into legislation. We spent our time in opposition developing good policy that will become good programs in government”. For Labor, that’s housing done and dusted. And the government got its way thanks to the Greens.

There’s a pattern here. Since taking office, the Albanese government has treated the most urgent issues as a simple checklist. Whether it’s the environment, industrial relations or now housing, Labor has introduced legislation that makes it look as though the government is taking serious action, but which is usually just window-dressing for the status quo.

The Greens have developed their own rhythm in tandem with the government. First, they criticise proposed legislation for not going far enough. Next, they pass it anyway, amid claims that they extracted great concessions. Finally, they insist they will keep fighting, despite having lost all leverage.

What makes the Greens’ housing capitulation even worse is that they had serious support for their proposals. Chandler-Mather wrote in the Jacobin article: “According to data gathered while door knocking, over 80 percent of people we have talked to nationwide agree that the Greens should refuse to support the HAFF until Labor agrees to coordinating a freeze on rent increases and invest billions per year in public housing”. A May Guardian Essential poll found that most people support a rent freeze. The combined efforts of the Labor Party, the media and the NGO sector to slam the Greens for blocking the legislation just did not cut through. 

Following the Greens’ announcement about the HAFF on Monday, Chandler-Mather took to X (formerly Twitter) to send a message to his supporters: “Come next election Labor should be prepared to hear from renters loud and clear”. Earlier, at a press conference, he said: “Now if we get to the next election—and maybe this is what it’s going to take—and Labor lose a bunch of new seats to the Greens because they ignore the one-third of this country who rents, then so be it, that may be what needs to happen”.

So the message is “vote Green”.

The Greens’ whole shtick is that they are the progressive alternative to Labor. Their strategy is to win seats in parliament, gain the balance of power and use it to force the government to pass reforms. But both times they secured this power—during the 2010-13 Gillard government and again today—they have failed to achieve any meaningful reforms, and instead rubber-stamped Labor’s agenda, albeit with some criticism. But words are meaningless without action.

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