Brisbane’s new Greens MPs talk about the moments they “flipped” voters – the driveway conversions of climate unbelievers or hostile folks who had only ever supported the major parties.
The party’s “social work” style doorknocking campaign – focused on building relationships and listening to voters’ material concerns rather than spruiking – proved wildly successful in Brisbane, culminating in the capture of three federal seats.
Now, the Greens plan to expand the strategy’s footprint vastly and take on political contests in the outer suburbs.
“Once you have that experience [of successfully engaging a voter], you realize that the only barrier to expanding our representation is our capacity to organize,” says Max Chandler-Mather, the architect of the strategy and the new federal MP for Griffith.
“What’s proven with our campaign methods is that our vote surges where we can do that sort of community organizing and doorknocking.
“That organizational foundation we’ve built will allow us to project out across the state quickly.”
Bringing the Greens’ brand of environmental socialism to the aspirational suburbs might sound unrealistic – these are the “battlers” who backed John Howard, the “quiet Australians” who delivered Scott Morrison his 2019 election victory, the “working families” forever courted by Labor and the “forgotten” folks at the heart of Peter Dutton’s Liberal recalibration.
But potential Greens voters?
For the three Greens MPs who won Brisbane seats at the 2022 election – Chandler-Mather in Griffith, Elizabeth Watson-Brown in Ryan, and Stephen Bates in Brisbane – the evidence they collected at people’s front doors has opened up all sorts of possibilities that might otherwise (like the idea of winning three Queensland seats) be dismissed as fantasy.
The Greens’ success was built partly on the political mobilization of the renter class and service sector workers, people worried about the cost of living, and families concerned about their children’s financial future. Often climate was not the main topic of conversation.
“Socially, that suburban layer is crucial to us,” Chandler-Mather says. “This concept that we should be getting our fair share from mining corporations, that billionaires and corporations should pay their fair share in tax – when you speak to people in suburban areas and rural and regional communities – is broadly popular.
“The key component of our cost-of-living policies is abolishing means testing. This concept that you have a social right to dental care anda social right to free university education allows us to build broad-ranging class coalitions because you appeal to a politics that Labor used to represent but no longer does.”
Bates says middle-class voters – in areas of his seat considered Labor or Liberal strongholds – were mostly “excited” about universal social services.
“I found people resented paying their taxes for something so heavily means-tested they’ll never be able to access it. People feel that class resentment,” he says. “They feel like they’re paying into the system but not getting what they need or want out of it.”
New Greens MPs Max Chandler-Mather, Elizabeth Watson-Brown, and Stephen Bates celebrate with Senate candidate Penny Allman-Payne and senator Larissa Waters. Photograph: Darren England/AAP
‘People wanted hope.’
Watson-Brown, an architect whose electorate stretches from Brisbane’s inner west to some semi-rural areas, says her interactions with voters became almost “like a counseling session”.
“Every time we spoke to someone at the door, we could draw a direct line to the challenges they were experiencing in their life to what the Greens could offer in terms of help and hope,” she says. “That was the absolute power of it. People wanted hope. People have been beaten around the head for many years now.”
Central to the campaign was what Chandler-Mather describes as a “feedback loop” that attempted to take language from community conversations and embed it in the campaign.
“Volunteers often see words or phrases or ways of describing things they’ve used end up in our political advertising,” he says. “One of the reasons that it cuts through so much is that it is a language that people in the community use.
“The one slogan we used in Griffith was ‘nothing changes if nothing changes’. That only emerged because some random person said it to me, trying to describe what I was trying to say. It worked well.”
Do they sometimes feel like the Mormons, turning up on people’s doorsteps?
For us, the wins are foundation stones upon which to move to the next stage of party organisingMax Chandler-Mather
.“No, because it’s never, it’s never superimposition,” says Watson-Brown.
“Our Labor dude was lurching towards people [at polling booths] saying things like, ‘help me deliver my comprehensive plan’.
“We’re asking what you care about, what’s going on in your life. It’s deeply meaningful.”
The true effectiveness of the strategy seems to be that the major parties haven’t yet worked out how to respond.
Attack lines have repeatedly proved ineffective. In Queensland state politics, Labor argued that a progressive voice would better serve the electorate of South Brisbane in government – the former deputy premier Jackie Trad – than a rock thrower from the outside.
During the Griffith campaign, Labor rolled out posters claiming it could only rid the country of Scott Morrison.
“What was implicit in those sorts of messages was ceding the entire political ground on the platform,” says Chandler-Mather.
“There was an acceptance that our platform was better. We didn’t have to counter severe misrepresentations about how ppreferential votingjust had to say ‘dental into Medicare’ or ‘free uni and Tafe’. The relentless positivity of our campaign comes precisely because people are fighting for something they believe in.”
A template for further expansion
It’s tempting to view the Green wave in Queensland as something that will continue to grow, as it has since the 2016 election of Brisbane councilor Jonathan Sri, two state MPs, and now three representatives in Canberra.
But there are risks, too. The Greens still cop criticism for the 2009 decision to vote against Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme; some claim they bear responsibility for the subsequent 13 years of fraught climate politics.
The former member for Griffith, Labor’s Terri Butler, conceded last week by wishing her successor luck in “delivering on all the promises he has made”.
The message was clear. Campaigning is one thing, especially when you cannot be in government. But once you’re in, people will want their problems solved.
Airport noise was a significant issue in all three Brisbane electorates won by the Greens. Do voters now expect them to achieve something?
“They expect us to drive that campaign,” Chandler-Mather says.
“People always asked us, ‘What happens if you don’t get into the balance of power?’. We were very open about the fact that political change takes time, but at the very least, it starts with representatives committed to driving community campaign building.
“People are expecting us to fight for it. People understand that these things are difficult; theyy take time. But they also realize they’ll never happen if you elect representatives opposed to what they want.”
The foothold of three federal MPs’ offices now gives the Greens a base to spread their campaigning. It is proof of concept for progressive Labor voters – that Greens can win contests and effectively shift the political debate. The fact that the Queensland Labor party has responded by underlining its advanced and environmental credentials in some ways proves that the Greens’ wins can change the dial.
“That foundation of wins builds confidence that the Greens can win,” Chandler-Mather says.
“There are two carts I always feel to winning a vote, and that relateston material concerns, but also confidence that you’re voting for a political movement capable of eventually building some form of power. Those wins begat wins, and they build confidence that that next layer will come to us.
“This can be a template model for what we can expand across the country. So for us, the wins are foundation stones upon which to move to the next stage of party organizing.”