Paul Bongiorno
The power of the HAFF deal

Going into the last sitting week before the referendum on a Voice to Parliament, Anthony Albanese was desperate to have something positive to talk about, to assure Australians he was paying attention to their immediate concerns. But as his plane landed back in Canberra at 9.30am on Monday, after five days of summit meetings across three countries, his negotiations with the Greens over his $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund were still up in the air.

The Greens were playing hardball on the cost of their support. They were not budging from another billion dollars for immediate and direct spending on public and community housing. This was conveyed to the prime minister’s office when it called, anxious to know where they had arrived after weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions involving Albanese, the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, the minister for housing and homelessness, Julie Collins, and the Greens housing and homelessness spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather.

When Albanese arrived at his Parliament House office, he was apprised of the situation and agreed to the demand. “He was driven to get a deal” was the way one of the Greens senators put it. Bandt and Chandler-Mather then went to the PM’s office to shake hands on it with Albanese and Collins.

Labor insiders are impressed with Bandt’s willingness to negotiate. He certainly strikes a different tone to his firebrand colleague Chandler-Mather, though the two proved an effective tag team. Bandt says Labor has become a government of the centre right, leaving the Greens to be champions of the centre left. This irks senior ministers. One says even when the Greens exercise the balance of power in the Senate they still don’t have the responsibility of government and it is glib to dismiss the Albanese government on social and environmental issues.

A measure of Albanese’s relief and gratitude was the precedence given to Bandt in parliament, where he was allowed to ask the first of the questions normally allocated to the government. Bandt duly asked the prime minister to update the house on the additional funding for social housing agreed to with the Greens’ support “to ensure that the Housing Australia Future Fund bill passes the Senate this week”. Albanese thanked Bandt for the “constructive discussions that we have had” and contrasted it with the Coalition, which he called a “great irrelevancy in Australian politics” that is “obsessed” with saying no to everything.

This is a foretaste of the tack the government will take after the Voice referendum vote on October 14. Labor will get on with governing whatever the result, convinced Australians are unimpressed with oppositions that offer no alternatives, only criticisms.

The Coalition maintained its rejection of the HAFF, even though the amendments agreed to, not only with the Greens but most of the Senate cross bench, will see immediate starts to housing construction as well as a future fund mechanism pioneered by the Liberals themselves.

The Greens are buoyed by their win and are promising to apply similar pressure when the government brings in other foreshadowed bills to address the housing crisis. Chandler-Mather says the Greens secured six times what Labor wanted to originally spend and “now we are going to use that power to win a freeze and cap on rent increases”.

Chandler-Mather has the scent of political blood in his nostrils and names a string of Labor seats with high proportions of renters as targets at the next election. Among them is the seat of Macnamara in Melbourne.

Chandler-Mather says the Labor incumbent, Josh Burns, has reason to be worried. Burns knows he has a fight on his hands but says he’s ready for it and is confident many of the young professionals who live in the electorate recognise there is no quick fix to housing supply issues or cost-of-living pressures in a global inflationary environment.

Burns was given a slice of the HAFF action with a Dorothy Dixer to the treasurer on what the government was doing on housing. Treasurer Jim Chalmers praised Burns for being a “champion ... for  the substantial number of renters” in his electorate. Labor is obviously finding the opposition the Greens are posing from the left more challenging than the blanket naysaying coming from the Coalition on its right.

The glaring exception is the opportunistic politicisation of the Voice referendum. For a brief few months after the Nationals rejected any sort of constitutional recognition late last year, Peter Dutton seemed unwilling to follow suit. His then shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, a champion of the “conservative recognition” proposal that came out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, was still calling for engagement with Albanese on the formula of words.

However, as soon as Dutton locked the Liberal Party into rejecting the proposal in April, immediately after its humiliating Aston byelection defeat, it was no longer above partisan politics. Leeser, who thought he had persuaded Dutton to back the cause, had to quit the front bench to support the referendum, even though he had quibbles with the formula.

RedBridge Group political pollster Kos Samaras says once the referendum was dragged into this sort of contestability, it lost its authority. As a result, Dutton was given a much easier way to inflict a defeat on Anthony Albanese than winning an election.

Mathematically, the “No” campaign has to convince far fewer Australians to reject the referendum than the “Yes” campaign has to convince to support it. “No” needs only three states to vote its way to deny the double majority of the popular vote and four states. The gun is not so loaded at a general election, where either leader, after preferences, has to secure just over 50 per cent of the vote. So far, according to all the latest published opinion polls, Dutton is a long way from achieving that.

Samaras believes all the polling, including his own in the first week of the campaign, suggests the “Yes” case has reached the point of no return.

This proposition is rejected by Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, who told caucus the party’s research found 30 per cent of voters, or about five million people, were still in play.

A major obstacle to winning over soft “No” voters , according to reports on the “No” campaign’s focus group research, is that the referendum is “divisive”. The blame game here has already begun.

On Monday, 90 minutes before Albanese was due to go to Government House to witness the writs being issued for the vote, Dutton urged him to abandon the “divisive” referendum before it was too late. Had Albanese been gullible enough to accept this advice, he would have suffered even more damage to his integrity than Kevin Rudd did when he walked away from his carbon pollution reduction scheme after declaring climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

The cynicism of Dutton’s call is unmasked by the counterfactual. Imagine how uniting of the nation this referendum would be had he supported it. Like John Howard, a month out from the 2007 election campaign, he could have promised to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, to recognise “their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation”. Howard even called it “unfinished business”.

The then prime minister, who now urges Australians to “maintain the rage” against the Voice referendum, urged for a “new settlement” of practical and symbolic recognition to deliver “better lives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. That is exactly what Julian Leeser is arguing the referendum proposal would do, in speeches he is giving around the country. The proposal was framed by Indigenous Australians at the invitation of Tony Abbott – who, like Howard, is now vehemently against it.

Graham Richardson, one of Labor’s more astute operators in the Hawke era, believes the damage to Albanese will be minimal if the referendum goes down. He says a vast majority of Australians don’t believe they have much, if any, skin in the game.

Samaras says his polling finds exactly that, especially in the outer suburbs. Many resent that the focus isn’t on their struggle to make ends meet in the face of escalating rents or mortgage repayments. Albanese, as we saw this week, is alert to the toll housing affordability and supply restraints could have on his government if left unaddressed, but the Voice is still central business.

In parliament, Chalmers pointed to the destructiveness of the campaign Dutton is running, saying he was tipping “more poison in the well” to divide and diminish the country. He said the purpose was “to reap a political dividend”. Dutton told his troops “whatever the outcome of the referendum, on October 15 our nation will be bruised”.

The debate has become that bitter, but Dutton’s talk of making a bipartisan effort after the referendum to deal with Aboriginal disadvantage smacks of cant. All it is about is opportunism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "To HAFF and have not".

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