Australia’s Greens Aren’t the Ones Blocking New Housing

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese doesn't have a real solution to the housing crisis. That’s why his Labor Party is trying to smear the Green Party as NIMBY antidevelopment activists.

Residential buildings in Sydney, Australia, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (Brent Lewin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As debate over the Australian Labor Party’s Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) hit a fever pitch in recent months, so too did accusations that the Greens are antidevelopment NIMBYs. The term (Not In My Back Yard) has long been an insult reserved for residents who support development in theory — only not in their backyards (or neighborhoods).

Labor Party senator Anthony Chisholm recently told the senate that the Greens are “always finding ways to oppose new developments,” adding that “Greens councilors have been doing it in communities all across the country.” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Greens have “never seen a medium-density development that they supported.”

Indeed, the anti-NIMBY crusade has united the right and center-left. According to a recent article by senior News Corp journalist David Penberthy, NIMBYs are “one of the key reasons Australia is in the midst of a housing crisis,” and the Greens and their supporters “are the worst offenders when it comes to any kind of development at all.” Labor Party tragic Van Badham echoed the sentiment, calling Greens spokesperson for housing Max Chandler-Mather the “the Nimby Prince of the Greens.”

It all begs the question: Are the Greens really NIMBYs, and if so, why would they advocate for a large-scale public housing construction program in parliament at the same time as opposing redevelopment locally?

The Logic of NIMBYism Accusations

The most vociferous attacks are naturally reserved for Chandler-Mather, and Labor has sought to maximize any political capital that can be made from his opposition to certain housing developments in his electorate. Their implicit logic seems to be: unless you support every single residential development, private or public, you aren’t serious about the housing crisis.

By this logic, the Greens are hypocrites — because there are plenty of developments they have opposed. But if that’s the case, so is Labor.

Labor MP Jerome Laxale recently called for Chandler-Mather to be dropped as Greens housing spokesperson for his housing positions. But, according to the Age, he was “one of the most aggressive NIMBY local government leaders in Sydney” when serving as a mayor. In one instance, he fought against what would have been Australia’s largest social and affordable housing project. And Albanese himself has spearheaded campaigns against new developments in his electorate.

Indeed, beyond garden-variety hypocrisy, sometimes Labor’s rhetoric has descended into farce. Responding to opposition from Darebin Council in Melbourne against a proposed fifteen-story apartment block, a Labor state MP claimed,

with the Greens political party dominating so many of these decisions at a local level, their total hypocrisy on social housing is writ large on project after project they have obstructed.

She didn’t mention — or, at least, the Age didn’t quote her as saying — that Labor has the same number of councilors on that council, and those Labor councilors also opposed the proposal.

The Facts vs. the Rhetoric

But the point isn’t just to prove that politicians are hypocrites. Beyond anecdotes or the general vibe we get from social or mainstream media, the question remains: Is the “Greens political party” — as Labor communications headquarters insists on dubbing them — more opposed to high-density developments than other parties?

To answer, it might help to turn to studies using actual data. And, seeing as most of the accusations of NIMBYism often target Greens councilors, it’s probably best to start at the local government level. Unfortunately, data on exactly how many developments Greens councilors have opposed and why are hard to find. But there are data that put the “Greens are NIMBYs” rhetoric into context.

In March, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) released a paper assessing which council areas in Sydney had the least new higher-density housing development. The study plotted this number against large gaps between the cost of construction and sale price, with the assumption that this gap arises to a significant degree from local councils limiting the supply of new housing.

This paper’s methodology is built on assumptions that less orthodox economists take issue with. But perhaps it’s instructive that despite its assumptions, a study produced by a center-right think tank goes some way toward vindicating the Greens. And, in any case, there aren’t many other metrics of “NIMBYism” at hand.

The CIS study found that in very few of the councils dubbed the “Biggest NIMBYs,” the Greens hold a significant position of power. Most of the biggest NIMBY councils were, predictably, wealthy Liberal or Liberal-style independent areas. These are places where the Greens have little to no presence, with either no Greens councilors or, at most, two in a council of twelve to fifteen councilors.

And even in the few local government areas where the number of Greens councilors came close to that of the major parties, they don’t have the numbers to block anything — unless councilors from the major parties vote alongside them. From these numbers, it’s hard to see how the rhetoric of the Greens being the biggest NIMBYs accords with the reality of who is blocking the most developments at the council level.

Greens councilors in Sydney may be regular opponents of new housing — as their detractors claim — but given their minority position, they wouldn’t be able to block any developments without support of the major-party councilors.

Speaking to Jacobin, the report’s author, Peter Tulip, says that the Greens are regular blockers of new housing developments — or at least that’s the impression he has gotten from the media. Nonetheless, as he explained,

there are people out there who like to blame the Greens for out housing problems. And that is definitely unfair because Labor and Liberal controlled councils are very bad also. And the worst planning excesses tend to occur in Liberal-controlled councils.

Overall, Tulip believes that there’s no one NIMBY party, but rather, local councils per se should be seen as the main locus of NIMBYism. The fights between Labor councilors and state MPs supports this hypothesis. “Local councils believe, rightly or wrongly . . . that their constituents oppose development,” he explained.

And if they want to be re-elected, they need to oppose development. . . . I’ve spoken to both Labor and Liberal councilors and they’re both strongly of that view.

Tulip’s CIS paper suggests that, at the local government level, NIMBYism is perhaps more correlated with an area’s wealth than the party affiliation of its councillors.

City of Cranes

Outside of Sydney, there is also evidence that the Greens’ reputation as local government NIMBYs may be overblown. The Age recently produced a study showing that inner-city Green strongholds in Melbourne approve most planning applications.

With the support of Green-aligned independents, the Greens hold sway in Darebin and Merri-bek, in Melbourne’s north. Despite this, over the last few years, these councils have approved applications at a rate of 95 and 88 percent respectively. Melbourne’s Yarra City Council — the only council in Australia controlled by the Greens — approved 99 percent of planning applications in the past four financial years.

There are some issues with this method of measuring NIMBYism. For one, the vast majority of planning applications have nothing to do with apartment complexes. Consequently, the above figures include every application to, for example, put a pool in a backyard. At the same time, heritage overlays and zoning restrictions may mean that many higher-density developments never get to the planning application stage.

Nonetheless, approval numbers between 88 and 99 percent certainly throw a bit of cold water on heated Labor claims that the Greens are the enemy of high-density development.

Independent Socialist councilor Steve Jolly from Yarra agrees. And he has certainly had his fair share of disagreements with the Greens. In 2021, he fought tooth and nail against them over a public-private partnership development plan for council land, in which 50 percent would have been social and affordable housing.

Jolly supported the project, while the Greens opposed it. Then-councilor, now state Greens MP Gabrielle de Vietri said it was a “gifting of public land for private profit to developers.” Jolly doesn’t quite buy their argument, but he doesn’t think party members are NIMBYs. As he explained to Jacobin,

I’m speaking to you as a critic of the Greens, yet in this instance, this accusation [that the Greens are NIMBYs] is objectively non-factual. . . . The whole of Yarra is full of cranes. So the argument that the Greens — or resident organizations, or anyone for that matter — are holding back development, and therefore housing supply and therefore are contributing to rental stress, it’s total bullshit. . . . It’s a developer shill argument.

If there’s one group often accused of being developer shills, it’s the YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard), who, in opposition to the NIMBYs, support more high-density urban development. If the Greens were a major hold-up against development, you’d expect the YIMBYs to say so.

However, even YIMBY Melbourne’s lead organizer Jonathan O’Brien says the party is “certainly no more [NIMBY] than any other party.” O’Brien once volunteered with the Greens but is no longer a party member, and to be clear, there is no suggestion he’s actually a developer shill. As he explained to Jacobin, NIMBYism “isn’t really aligned with any party.”

In reality, he argues that “NIMBYism” and “YIMBYism” are “thin ideologies.” Which is to say, they are vague, catch-all terms that politicians throw around to mask deeper, more structural issues.

As O’Brien explained, local councilors of all political stripes get “hamstrung” by a kind of “legislative capture,” in which “a small minority will oppose any motion and make spurious demands of any new development.” According to comments O’Brien recently made to the Guardian, this can make the Greens “more prone to nimbyism,” due to their focus on consultation and localism.

His logic is that local homeowners have far more time and incentive than renters to lobby local councils against new developments. Consequently, thanks to their focus on consultation and localism, the Greens may sometimes end up representing the interests of these small groups of local homeowners.

At this point, however, the hypothesis is also more vibes-based than evidenced. And, based on studies like the one led by Tulip, it’s hard to see how the amount of rhetoric attacking the Greens as NIMBYs is in any way commensurate with the party’s actual effect on housing supply at the state or local government level.

A Compelling but Ultimately Obfuscating Narrative

So, why do the major parties so often deploy “Greens are NIMBYs” rhetoric?

Probably because it allows them to shunt attention away from their MPs and councilors’ own role in blocking the supply of private housing developments. If you believe — as both Labor and the Coalition do — that increasing private sector supply is the primary solution to the housing crisis, this is something that they need to shunt attention away from.

On a broader level, calling the Greens NIMBYs allows Labor and the Coalition to reaffirm the narrative that boosting supply is the key to solving the housing crisis. It also takes the spotlight away from the Greens’ campaign for direct investment in public housing, allowing them to frame Greens opposition as purely negative. In short, it muddies the waters in order to distract from questions about the failure of the private housing market.

And sometimes it’s even more cynical. In more than a few cases where the Greens are accused of NIMBYism, Labor is seeking to knock down pure public housing in favor of developments that mix private and social housing. Social housing does not need to be government-owned or -operated, but may be run by not-for-profit organizations. In other cases, Labor is handing public land to developers, in exchange for promises that a certain amount of it will be social housing.

The Greens oppose these moves, and rather than actually address the Greens’ opposition directly, it’s easier for Labor to castigate them as NIMBYs. There are a few reasons for this. For one, explicitly arguing that public housing should be replaced by multitenure developments would require Labor to acknowledge that they’ve abandoned any kind of housing policy that could be called socially democratic, by international or historical standards.

And in the Thunderdome of Australian parliamentary politics, why would they divert debates into the minutiae and nuance when they can just bludgeon their opponents with well-rehearsed lines that tap into public sentiment?

This is not to say that there’s no kernel of truth to public sentiment. If your metric of NIMBYism is “consistent opposition to medium/high density private development,” then yes, there are Greens who fit that description. But the evidence for this being a broad trend in the Greens never seems to be more than anecdotal and is often largely based on media reports. And without anything more concrete, it sometimes feels like the media reportage is intentionally designed to feed into existing preconceptions.

Take, for example, recent coverage in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) of Merri-Bek council voting against a proposal by the not-for-profit developer Nightingale. The AFR led with a headline reading “Ex-Greens councilor defends move to block affordable housing.”

“Typical Green,” many AFR readers probably muttered. Hopefully they made it two-thirds through the article to discover that the council’s three current Greens members all supported the proposal.

There’s also likely a more structural factor at play here too, magnified by a media that often eschews sober analysis for coverage of political conflict or “gotcha” pieces, ostensibly identifying political hypocrisy.

The Greens have a larger presence in inner-city areas, and that’s where there are more new developments. More new developments mean more fights over new developments, which, to media outlets, means more content.

In the leafy Liberal strongholds, thanks to existing zoning restrictions and strong local council hostility, it’s likely that a lot of developments never make it to the application stage. This means no political brawls, which in turn means no media coverage.