Kos Samaras ended 14 years working for Labor as a strategist and campaign director years ago, but he doesn’t mind giving his old employer a bit of advice.
In a nutshell, it is this: housing is a huge issue with voters, Labor’s policy response is not cutting through, and the Greens are coming to get them.
These days Samaras is director of the polling, research and political strategy outfit RedBridge Group. The things his focus groups are telling him lead him to think housing affordability, and in particular rental affordability, could see Labor suffer the same fate as the conservative parties did when they lost a swag of heartland seats to teal independents. Except next time, the likely winners will be Greens.
“Housing, to the generation the Greens are talking to, which is mostly people under the age of 45, is just as important as climate change now. And the electoral impacts will be potentially just as profound as they were for climate in [the election of] 2022,” says Samaras.
The Albanese government’s signature housing policy, the Housing Australia Future Fund, he says, is an electoral dud – “a convoluted, $10 billion investment fund, which no one really understands” – an inadequate response in both political and economic terms.
Yet Labor doggedly refuses to negotiate with the Greens, who continue to block passage of the HAFF through parliament, and who have argued for far more sweeping reforms to the housing sector, including a two-year rent freeze and, until last week, at least $5 billion a year to be spent on the provision of social and affordable housing.
While Samaras’s research finds a degree of scepticism about the Greens’ policies as well, the broader message, that more needs to be done, is cutting through.
“Most punters know that governments can’t fix everything, but they want you to be emotionally on their side. In the contest between who voters think is on their side at the moment, the Greens are winning.”
Other research points in the same direction. A recent Essential poll found 60 per cent of people support a rent freeze.
Labor’s calculation has apparently been that it could stare down the Greens, and that the housing bill would eventually pass as is.
Last Sunday, the Greens did make a significant concession, offering to pass the HAFF legislation on the condition that the government directly spend a minimum of $2.5 billion a year on public and affordable housing – half its initial demand.
The party’s housing and homelessness spokesman, Max Chandler-Mather, says it was not a backdown but a good faith offer in a negotiation.
The Greens didn’t alter their demand that the federal government pay the states $1 billion to impose rent caps, improve renters’ rights and provide additional housing, although it is understood the party is prepared to negotiate on that one, too, perhaps by capping rent increases instead of freezing them.
But the government remains intransigent, and speaking to The Saturday Paper this week, Chandler-Mather dialled up the rhetoric.
“While renters get smashed by record rent increases, and soaring property prices lock millions out of ever owning a home, Labor’s dodgy housing plan shows they haven’t even started to comprehend the scale of the crisis,” he says.
“We need a rent freeze, proper investment in public and affordable housing and a phase-out of the unfair tax breaks for property investors that lock out first home buyers, but all Labor is offering is a gamble on the stockmarket that may not even build a single home.”
The line about the HAFF being a gamble on the sharemarket is not new, and clearly the constant repetition suggests the Greens think it is powerful. It also is essentially true, as Peter Martin, former Treasury official and now visiting fellow with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, pointed out in a comment piece last month for The Conversation.
His strongly critical assessment of the HAFF noted it was designed to “make it look as if you are spending a lot, without the need to spend much at all”.
In fact, he explained, the $10 billion the Albanese government has promised to put into the HAFF “isn’t actually ‘spent’ as far as the budget is concerned. It doesn’t come off the budget surplus, or add to the budget deficit, because it remains in the government’s hands.”
Instead of being spent, it is invested in the sharemarket in the hope of earning a return that can be spent. So the government’s apparent $10 billion promise is actually only a commitment to spend $500 million a year, at most. And possibly less, for the sharemarket does not always earn a return. Last financial year, the $250 billion Future Fund, set up under former treasurer Peter Costello, retreated 1.2 per cent.
Another criticism, made by Samaras and Chandler-Mather, among others, is that the way the scheme is structured significantly slows the process of building homes, because of the lag between when it is invested and when it produces a return, a year or more down the track.
“Labor’s plan won’t see a single home built until 2025,” says the Greens spokesman.
In any case, it’s nowhere near enough, he says, citing data from the UNSW Sydney City Futures Research Centre for the Community Housing Industry Association, which found a shortfall of 640,000 affordable and social dwellings, potentially growing to 940,000 by 2041.
Even if the HAFF built the promised 30,000 new homes over five years, it would not keep up with the growing demand.
The problem of housing has been a long time in the making. In the mid-1990s, almost 43 per cent of Australian households owned their home, mortgage free. By the time of the 2021 census, it was less than 30 per cent.
Over the same period the proportion of home owners with mortgages had shot up from about 28 per cent to almost 37 per cent, and the number of renters in the private market went from 19 to 26 per cent.
Add in those in government housing, and renters make up about 30 per cent of households, though the proportions vary widely by age group. Among households whose reference occupant was under 35, renters made up 60.1 per cent, according to an analysis of the 2021 census by the government’s own Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Of course, younger people have always been more likely to rent, but the data shows more and more people are still renting into their middle years.
Given the increased costs of renting, and other financial pressures – such as student debt, insecure work, the general cost of living and high house prices – Samaras says many in this younger cohort “will spend most of their days in debt and probably never be able to pay off their house, if they’re even lucky enough to enter the housing market”.
Some are fortunate and can lean on parents to help them buy a home. But increasingly, he says, they can’t afford that and can’t, given record low vacancy rates, even find a rental property. For those people, says Samaras, “It’s not the bank of mum and dad, it’s the hotel of mum and dad.”
The housing crisis was a major factor in propelling Chandler-Mather into federal parliament at last year’s election, in which he trounced the Labor incumbent for the Brisbane seat of Griffith, Terri Butler, winning 60 per cent of the vote after preferences.
He was already an experienced political operator. Now 31, he was the strategist behind the campaign for the state seat of South Brisbane in 2020, and before that for another state seat, Maiwar, in 2017, and before that for a local government ward within Griffith in 2016. All were successful.
He was one of three Greens who won Brisbane seats in 2022. They did it with new-fashioned grassroots campaigning – assembling an army of several hundred volunteers, who not only knocked on some 150,000 doors but logged the feedback they got on issues of greatest concern to voters.
The 2022 election has frequently been termed the climate election, but Chandler-Mather’s campaign identified housing as a big issue, if not the big issue.
“We talked about investing in public and affordable housing and phasing out negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions,” he tells The Saturday Paper.
The electors of Griffith were particularly receptive to that message. According to census data, 48 per cent of dwellings in Griffith were rented, compared with the national average of 30 per cent. Almost 9 per cent – more than twice the national average – were share houses. Only 20 per cent of people owned their homes, mortgage free.
Griffith has notably fewer children than the Australian average, notably fewer people over 55, and way more 20-, 30- and 40-somethings locked out of the housing market. Chandler-Mather’s thumping win presents a case study not only of the efficacy of grassroots campaigning but also of the electoral power of “generation rent”.
“Renters are an increasingly powerful social force. And they grow every year. And certainly, in Griffith, one of the underlying reasons for our win was that we were the only ones speaking to the material conditions of renters – and mortgage holders as well – that feel completely locked out, or unrepresented in the political system,” Chandler-Mather says.
While the demographics of Griffith made it an obvious target for the Greens, there are many other such seats, particularly in urban areas.
Chandler-Mather nominates a couple of targets in his home state of Queensland. Lilley, currently held by Labor’s Anika Wells, for example, also has a high proportion of younger, well-educated renters. The Greens are already on the ground, doorknocking there, as they are in the Liberal National Party-held seat of Bowman.
The Greens’ campaigning is perpetual. The day we spoke, Chandler-Mather was going doorknocking again.
Interestingly, while most of the focus in the current standoff over housing policy has been on the Greens’ demands for a rent freeze, the party’s platform also includes more widely accepted measures – such as changing the tax system that currently gives huge breaks to investors.
The Greens would phase out negative gearing for people with more than one investment property and completely scrap capital gains tax concessions on investment properties, which overwhelmingly go to top income earners.
Analysis commissioned by the Greens from the independent Parliamentary Budget Office, released last November, found the top 10 per cent reap more than half the benefit of negative gearing and capital gains tax. Indeed, they claim more in capital gains tax deductions than the remaining 90 per cent combined, the PBO found.
Forgone revenue from the two tax concessions was $8.5 billion in 2021-22, and growing fast. It would be more than $20 billion a year within a decade.
Labor used to favour winding back these tax concessions, too.
Under Bill Shorten’s leadership, the policy was to limit negative gearing to new builds and to reduce the capital gains discount on property from 50 to 25 per cent. But after Labor lost in 2019, it abandoned those positions – a mistake in Samaras’s view, given the electorate’s increasing concern about housing costs.
The shift away from the major parties in seats with a significant cohort of renters was not “in full flight” at the last election, he says, “but it was just one election cycle away”.
So Labor had the right policy, but at the wrong time?
“Yep. The Greens’ proposition – and part of Labor’s membership’s position – to remove negative gearing for people who own more than one investment property, is pretty popular,” he says.
This suggests that the current political standoff over the HAFF, even if Labor eventually gets it through, will not be the end of the issue for many of its core constituents. It’s likely that the party will face growing internal pressure to do something, at least, on tax breaks.
Meanwhile, there is every reason to expect the housing crisis to worsen between now and the next election, exacerbated by record immigration and a shortage of new supply.
And in vulnerable seats all over the country, the Greens’ gathering army of campaigners will be knocking on rented doors.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Inside the Greens’ housing reform strategy".
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