How Tenants Become Swing Voters and Reshape Federal Politics
“You find them working in the myriad professions across the country, from high-end law, medicine to IT, service industries, arts industry, healthcare, media. They are American Democrats, if you want to best describe them.
Tenants have historically favored Labor and the Greens – particularly, for example, in Sydney’s western suburbs. The Australian National University election study found that in 2019, 41% of tenants voted Labour, 20% Greens and 27% Coalition.
But this class of downtown tenants is more capricious. “They’re not comfortable voting for Labour, they don’t really see Labor as a modern solution to their thirst for a different form of politics in this country,” Samaras says.
They may like the Greens’ rhetoric on climate change, but they’re not necessarily enamored with Greens’ positions on local housing and development, where “not in my backyard” attitudes limit the supply. They want medium and appropriate density development in areas where they really want to live.
For example, Steele says the state government’s original plan for 45-story towers on the former Pyrmont Fish Market site was overkill; the revised 35-story version which he finds more palatable. “We have to accept that areas like this need more housing. It should also happen in a lot more areas closer to the city,” he says.
Steele and his girlfriend signed an $800-a-week lease for a two-bedroom patio in Darlington. They are interested in buying a home, but do not believe it is a realistic possibility in the next two or three years. Like most of their cohort, they don’t want to move to more distant suburbs of the city. “This is my home, this is where all my friends are, I want to continue living here,” Steele says.
This is exactly what Samaras learned from his focus groups with the “light greens”.
“They don’t want to move to the western outskirts of Sydney or Melbourne. They are happy to pay a premium to live in the community they want to live in,” he says. “Over the past couple of years, they’ve really looked down on conservative politicians who laughed at them about their life choices. They want to own some kind of property, but they want to be able to own it where they live.
This creates clear incentives and opportunities for political parties to seek support from these voters – especially at the state level, which primarily controls housing. New South Wales Liberals are aware of the elements of the problem; Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet has prioritized first-time home buyers in the budget by giving them the option of paying annual property tax instead of the initial stamp duty.
Planning Minister Anthony Roberts regularly tells the public that increasing housing supply is his top priority, while Treasurer Matt Kean has enthusiastically launched a master plan for his home base of Hornsby which will see 4,500 new houses built around the station and will transform Hornsby – in Kean’s words – into a “thriving metropolis”. Kean was approached to comment on this story.
Liberals are worried about the implications of this year’s Willoughby by-election, in which the party’s primary vote fell 13.5% – almost enough to give the seat to independent Larissa Penn. Previously held by former prime minister Gladys Berejiklian, the seat straddles the federal division of North Sydney, which turned turquoise in May.
Samaras says NSW Labor could learn a lot from the re-election of Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews in 2018. It was proof the ‘light greens’ will vote for Labor if it gives them what they want, he says.
“Not only did Daniel offer them an acceptable social program, but Labor presented a very aggressive tenancy reform program in this election, which included expanding tenants’ rights,” Samaras said.
“It was a deliberate tactic. I know because I prepared it for them. We did some research to go and get the tenants. We were actually after the green voters because we knew they belonged to the tenant class Labor needed a way to talk to green voters through an economic lens.
In Samaras’ analysis, ‘density is the friend of work’, and the party has deliberately embraced it in Victoria. “It turned some of our marginal seats into safe seats. It’s really a matter of political demographics,” he says.
As an example, he proposes the state seat of Bentleigh, in south-east Melbourne. “It’s the upside-down capital of Victoria. In two years, 400 houses were demolished and 1600 townhouses were built in their place. The people moving into these townhouses are nurses, teachers, low-income professionals,” Samaras says.
“You don’t catch Labor here arguing against density or development. The Liberals here are aware of this problem. Whenever these houses are demolished, they know who is moving in, and it is not their constituents.
NSW Labor has yet to unveil its housing policies for the March state election, but Shadow Housing Minister Rose Jackson said the party is talking “a lot” about the issue – disregarding the possible political windfall.
Rising house prices have created a “fundamental break” in the social contract, she says, because it can no longer be assumed that if you find a job you can buy a house. Tenant stress has also worsened, and the two problems are no longer confined to Sydney.
Jackson says Labor accepts the need for a “sense conversation” about density, but understands that people don’t like their roads suddenly getting more congested or their children being placed in collapsible classrooms.
“It needs to be done fairly across Sydney,” she says. “Some areas of Sydney have done all the heavy lifting, some areas of Sydney have changed very little – and that’s not fair.”
Jackson says the basic proposal to build dense developments near transport infrastructure – such as new and upcoming tube stations – makes sense for Labor, but the party is still concerned about having enough schools and open spaces.
The Greens also struggle with this dilemma. A new wave of young Greens who now sit on metropolitan councils are advocating for reasonable development and density, and at times clash with their NIMBY elders.
“Two years later and I continue to argue with some Greens that demolishing a dilapidated church for 55 [not-for-profit] and four social housing units, that was a bargain,” Interior West Greens councilor Dylan Griffiths tweeted this week.
The 29-year-old has called himself a development centrist. “NIMBYism is real and a scourge, but ideological YIMBYism and the uncritical regurgitation of developer propaganda is equally intolerable.”
Griffiths told the Herald many Greens members took a sensible approach to development, and the party was “the only game in town” for those who wanted real action on social housing. There was a real interest in fleshing out the party’s position on density, he said.
“Everyone just needs to engage critically with development, not be afraid of it,” Griffiths said.
Steele says he’s willing to engage with any political party or politician offering serious policy on housing affordability. That means not just density and development, but also tenant rights, taxation and negative gearing — the promise that spooked federal labor after its defeat in 2019.
But when Steele looks at the political class, he sees wealthy landowners with investment properties, not tenants who know what it’s like to be in their place. “They all seem relatively well-off and financially stable even before entering politics. Even Albo owns it,” he says.
“They don’t know what it’s like to rent in Redfern where you constantly have fire trucks and police cars and all the other noises of downtown life, and looking at those houses and seeing small terraces cost $1.6 million.
“When I receive The Sydney Morning Herald on weekends, I throw away the real estate section right away because it’s too depressing to go through.
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