Paul Bongiorno
Inside Labor’s housing fight

Anthony Albanese is furious the “Greens political party” – as he insists on always calling them – is blocking his signature Housing Australia Future Fund in the senate and he is now raising the prospect of using it as a trigger for an early election.

Albanese told his caucus the Greens were bringing a “juvenile student politics approach, which needs to be exposed”. Clearly 31-year-old Max Chandler-Mather, the Greens’ assiduous housing spokesman, who has been a renter his entire adult life, is getting under the prime minister’s skin.

Albanese says continually deferring a bill, as happened for the second time this week, can be taken as blocking. To be sure, he is seeking further advice from the solicitor-general. It’s a formality. The constitution talks of “a failure to pass”, and one government adviser points to the precedent of the Coalition “blocking supply” in 1975. In fact, they were merely deferring the vote in an effort to destroy the Whitlam Labor government with the connivance of the governor-general at the time.

The stakes at this point are not as high – supply is not in jeopardy. But eminent constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey says this deferral, which is based on some senators waiting for the government to change its mind rather than a “committee inquiry or awaiting submissions”, amounts to a block. It could well give Albanese a trigger for a double dissolution election if the bill is deferred again after three months.

This ploy, from the scarcely 13-month-old government, has many in the national capital scratching their heads. Winning elections, especially for Labor, is no easy task. If history is any guide, voters don’t appreciate what can appear as political opportunism.

Labor’s most popular postwar prime minister, Bob Hawke, saw his majority trimmed by 16 seats in 1984, when he cut short his government’s first term by 22 months. Albanese doesn’t have that buffer and, although he’s riding high, double dissolution elections are a huge gamble.

In 2016’s double dissolution election Malcolm Turnbull lost a swag of seats in the house of representatives, which weakened his leadership. He did succeed in skewing the senate more to the right but at the cost of reviving the fortunes of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. When the entire senate is up for grabs, it is much easier for minor parties to be elected. Essentially, the quota of votes for a senate place is halved.

The threat of treating the deferral as the first step to an election emerged on Monday. The government’s deputy senate leader, Don Farrell, hit out at the Greens for joining what he called an “axis of evil” when they won the support of the Coalition to again defer a vote on the $10 billion housing future fund.

The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young said she wanted to postpone the vote until October, after the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers meet for national cabinet in August. That meeting has the housing crisis, and particularly rents, on its agenda.

Hanson-Young said this is so the prime minister “can show what he is going to do to relieve real pressure on one-third of Australian households”. This is the real clue to the Greens’ strategy. They are convinced the housing crisis, which has been building a head of steam for more than a decade, is as big a concern with younger voters as climate change – and it is not only younger voters, either. In other words, there are votes in them thar ills.

Chandler-Mather, who snatched the inner-Brisbane seat of Griffith from Labor at the last election, told The Saturday Paper that while 48 per cent of dwellings in the electorate were rented, well above the national average, that was not the only factor. Even older voters with their own homes were looking for government solutions and government action to assist their adult children unable to break into the housing market.

Chandler-Mather said the 10 per cent swing against the Liberals in his seat demonstrated this, especially as he campaigned strongly on the issue, promoting the need to curb negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions on housing to aid affordability for first home buyers.

Albanese accuses the Greens of grandstanding. In every question time this week he said they were standing in the way of 30,000 new social and affordable homes. He said they see issues to campaign on while the government sees challenges to act on. The prime minister said “for the Greens political party, this isn’t about renters, it’s not about people in social housing. It’s not about affordable housing. It’s about them.”

No doubt Albanese’s frustration was fuelled by the way Hanson-Young dismissed the $2 billion he announced at the weekend for the states and territories to immediately spend on social housing. She said it “was a bit of cash stashed at the back of the couch”. The Greens claim the new money was found in response to their pressure and say it encourages them to keep going to get unlimited rent rises made illegal.

In caucus the prime minister cited the Labor–Greens government in the ACT, which has imposed a rental cap of inflation plus 10 per cent of inflation. This cap means rises are currently limited to 7.7 per cent, not the 20 per cent and more the Greens say they are hearing about in other parts of the country. But Albanese says Greens leader Adam Bandt has been told the states don’t see rent freezes as the answer and are looking at other options.

In the meantime, Albanese called on the Greens to “put aside pettiness”, to put aside the politics and actually vote for more public housing. It’s the sort of spray normally reserved for the government’s conservative opponents and as good an indication as any that Albanese sees the Greens as far more potent in their advocacy on this issue than the Liberals. At least this is a battle over policy that matters, rather than merely being a political play.

Heaven forbid if we are shocked by politicians playing politics, but it is disappointing that this appears to be all the opposition is doing. Their chief tactician in the senate, Anne Ruston, was brazen about it when she supported the Greens’ deferral motion.

Ruston said she was supporting the Greens because the government has had every opportunity to negotiate with them and anybody else. That anybody else does not include the Coalition. Michaelia Cash told a Parliament House corridor media stop the Liberals weren’t supporting the fund because “it’s bad policy”. According to Ruston, the bad policy is Labor using the device of an off-budget $10 billion fund.

Ruston said Labor didn’t need legislation to spend that money on social housing – they could have allocated it in the budget, not that the Liberals advocated this. She accused Labor of “stuffing something off the balance sheet just to give yourself a budget surplus”.

The hollowness of this attack is in the fact the biggest future fund was set up by the Howard–Costello government, with a whopping $196 billion in its main fund, managing some $243 billion in assets. This device was used explicitly to assist future governments funding their superannuation liabilities, to take pressure off their budgets. Also ignored is Labor’s attempt to secure a line of social housing funding into the future, in the context of repairing a massive, accumulated budget debt.

By midweek Bandt was signalling a willingness to keep negotiating and pass the bill, but his bottom line was for the prime minister to organise with the states to make “unlimited rent increases illegal”.

Who will blink first is now the big question. The double dissolution threat is a trigger that would not need to be pulled until the end of next year, according to the constitution’s time frame. Publicly and privately, the Greens don’t seem perturbed by the prospect.

They are reading the politics very differently to other members of the crossbench. Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie says there’s not a moment to lose and every day the fund is stalled is an unconscionable delay because of the time lag between the money being allocated and the houses being built. She says the prime minister has assured her that if the fund falls short in its earnings, the government will “plug gaps along the way”.

Lambie says the Greens claim to be out there helping the most vulnerable, but “if this is helping the most vulnerable, blow me blimey bloody over this morning”. She added this has got nothing to do with politics, “it’s got to do with putting a roof over people’s heads. Get on with it.”

Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, told caucus that polling showed the electorate had come to know and trust Albanese and that Labor was the preferred party to handle the major challenges confronting the nation. Whether this is enough to embolden the prime minister to test his arm at an early election is not clear.

John Howard’s former chief of staff and trouble shooter, Tony Nutt, used to say that only God and the prime minister knew when an election would be held. He wasn’t sure if Howard ever took God into his confidence on it. Albanese, a keen observer of Howard, has almost certainly taken note.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Throwing stones in unbuilt houses".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription