Thursday, 1 March 2018
Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017; Second Reading
Of course, Labor will support the passage of the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017, because we don't want to hold up homelessness funding to the states. There are a number of design flaws with this legislation, and certainly there are profound flaws in this government's response to the issues of housing affordability and homelessness. I think I can boil down the problems with this bill to more red tape, no more funding, and very one-sided obligations. This legislation promotes obligations on the states and territories with no corresponding obligation from the Commonwealth government to say what it would do about reducing homelessness in this country.
We've had continued, year-after-year funding cuts. The member for Macquarie was talking about the original $44 million a year cut that has continued, year after year, from this government when it comes to homelessness, and that has particularly affected the funding of new build for homelessness services. When we were in government, we saw the construction of a number of new homelessness services. That has pretty much stopped with these funding cuts. There was $88 million of capital funding cut from the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and then year after year there has been a lower funding level for that agreement. The government have killed the National Rental Affordability Scheme. They've defunded housing and homelessness NGOs. The people who used to stand up for the rights of the homeless and people who were marginally housed have had their funding cut away from them. There's no minister for housing and there's no certainty about housing policy or homelessness policy. I don't think anybody could imagine for a moment that there is any comprehensive vision from those opposite when it comes to housing affordability and homelessness.
On the other hand, we are prepared to tackle issues of homelessness and housing affordability. We've been prepared to take the big step of reforming negative gearing because we know that is critical to issues around housing supply and housing affordability in Australia. The Liberals, in contrast, want to continue to give unsustainable tax handouts to property speculators so they can buy their 10th or 20th or 30th home, while all this time not really doing anything for first home buyers, for renters, for people who are living in caravan parks or sleeping rough. It is imperative that, if we as a nation are serious about housing affordability, we address the issues around the taxation of housing in this country. It's been disappointing in the extreme to hear member after member opposite say that the solution to housing affordability is to get rich parents, to move to Armidale. I guess moving to Armidale does make housing more affordable if you're living in the home of a rich mate. But telling people in my electorate or the Blue Mountains or Western Sydney that they need to leave their jobs and families and networks to move to the country isn't really a solution for housing affordability.
When we were in government we saw some of the biggest investments in housing and homelessness that this country's ever seen. During the life of our housing policies—the new building of social housing and the National Rental Affordability Scheme—we saw about 60,000 dwellings built. The National Rental Affordability Scheme alone was responsible for around 37,000 new dwellings. As I said, the first tranche of that scheme was 50,000 dwellings. It stopped at 37,000 because those opposite killed it when they came to government. We had already committed to a second tranche of 50,000 National Rental Affordability Scheme dwellings. What a difference that would have made to people on low- and middle-incomes in Australia.
We also saw through that National Rental Affordability Scheme the building-up of the community housing sector in this country. That's a really important contribution that we could have made—a structural change to housing affordability and availability in this country. As those community housing providers built up their portfolios of housing, they could have borrowed against them, they could have leveraged and they could have done their own building. Again, that was stopped in its tracks by those opposite. The National Rental Affordability Scheme was a program that had the support of organisations that support the interests of low- and middle-income Australians, including ACOSS, Homelessness Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia and St Vincent de Paul.
We saw through our social housing stimulus package the building of almost 21,000 new social housing dwellings and long overdue repairs and maintenance on another 80,000 homes around Australia. Some of those had been uninhabitable before these repairs. We did that at a time when that work was necessary to keep people in the building industry in work during the global financial crisis. The Social Housing Initiative provided 9,000 full-time construction industry jobs during the global financial crisis.
There were so many great measures when Labor was in government. There was A Place To Call Home—$150 million over five years to make available 600 homes and units across Australia for families and individuals who are homeless, with the states and territories to provide matching funding for that. We undertook a white paper on homelessness called The road home. We adopted the target of halving the rate of homelessness by 2020. Yes, that was an ambitious target. I wanted us as a nation to stretch ourselves, because it is completely unacceptable that a country as wealthy as Australia still has people sleeping rough and being turned away from emergency accommodation. We were very proud of the work that we did through that homelessness white paper process and so disappointed to see that, when we handed other the reins to those opposite, the momentum in this area completely dissipated.
If we had stayed on the trajectory that Labor set for reducing homelessness, if we had maintained our effort, if we had protected the programs and policies that we developed through the white paper, I'm convinced that we would be on track to halving the rate of homelessness in Australia by 2020. The government haven't just given up on the policies and programs; they have even given up on the ambition of halving the rate of homelessness in this country. How sad is it that they can't even sign up to this ambition of halving the rate of homelessness? They just gave up on it.
I still visit and stay in touch with a lot of the homelessness services that we funded and supported when we were in government, such as the fantastic and absolutely beautiful new construction for Common Ground in Melbourne, Common Ground in Brisbane, Common Ground in Adelaide, Annie Green Court in Redfern and Common Ground in Camperdown. All over Australia you can see that during this period we built beautiful new homes for people who had previously been sleeping rough. In the case of Annie Green Court in Redfern, they were frail, aged homeless people, many of whom had been sleeping rough for years.
There is a fantastic service in Melbourne, in Victoria, which I visited a number of times, called Wintringham. They have 1,800 people over the age of 50 who are waiting to get housing. If you are talking about frail, aged homeless rough sleepers, these are some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Their health is so very bad. Wintringham is essentially a nursing home. It's funded mostly through aged care funding. What we did for organisations like Wintringham, Annie Green Court and others that were funded through aged care funding was pay a supplement for people who had been homeless. They were people who were more expensive to look after because their health was more complex, and also their behaviours were sometimes more complex. They were very difficult to find places for in mainstream aged care services. The supplementation hasn't kept up with the cost of looking after these people, and because of that you see these growing and growing lists of frail, aged homeless people who need accommodation, and services are unable to offer them that accommodation.
We saw not just more roofs over people's head but programs that were designed to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place or to reconnect them to housing—fantastic programs like Reconnect, which assisted more than 67,000 young people to reunite with their families and return to school or training. We helped address unemployment as a cause of homelessness and placed 175,000 homeless job seekers in jobs, and about 35,000 of them were young homeless people. We worked on an approach of 'no exits into homelessness'—so, working with psychiatric institutions, hospitals, jails and out-of-home care to make sure that people weren't exiting state care into homelessness, straight onto the streets. We introduced a vulnerability flag on people's Centrelink records so that, if they weren't answering Centrelink's correspondence because they were sleeping rough and didn't get the letter, they wouldn't automatically be cut off their benefits. We established a home organisational management expenses advice program.—we called it the HOME Advice Program—which helped stop families from becoming homeless.
I remember visiting one of these programs in Melbourne that we ran with NGOs, and they told me the story of a refugee family who had finally made it safely to Australia—mother and children. This family went to the beach one day and one of the children drowned at the beach. The mother had made a decision to pay for the child's funeral, but that decision meant that she didn't have money for rent. The family were facing homelessness because they had decided to pay for the funeral of the child, the brother or sister they'd lost. A little bit of help at a time like this, keeping a roof over the heads of this family, by making them a small loan for a few weeks to help them pay the rent meant that they didn't become homeless. It is about preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.
We invested $5.5 billion into the remote Indigenous communities programs to build houses in remote communities. This program is due to expire this year, and we still have no indication from the government about whether it will be extended or not. Are we going to give up building and maintaining homes in remote Indigenous communities? We don't know. We established the Assistance with Care and Housing for the aged program. This is a program for older people who are in insecure housing arrangements or who are homeless to help them find a home and keep a home in the community. We assisted 4,200 people to remain living in their homes through that program. There are so many things we can do, so much help we can give, and so much of that lost since the change in government.
We've had all sorts of fantasies from those opposite about what our negative gearing tax changes would do to housing in this country. It is supposed to push house prices both up and down, according to those opposite. What the Treasury actually say is:
Overall price changes are likely to be small , though the composition of ownership may shift away from domestic investors.
What they mean is: to first home buyers. Well, that's a pretty good thing, really—if we have more first home buyers able to make it into the housing market. It is worth remembering that over 50 per cent of the benefits of negative gearing go to the top 20 per cent of incomes and the top 10 per cent of incomes receive nearly 75 per cent of the benefits of the capital gains tax concessions when it comes to investment in housing.
We want to continue to offer real support to people who need it. It was devastating for me when last year a fantastic homelessness service in Darlinghurst closed after 40 years of operation because those opposite couldn't find $900,000 a year to keep it open. The Haymarket Clinic had to close its doors. It was a service that looked after homeless people. It looked after their health and referred them to housing providers. We have the opportunity to do much, much better in the area of homelessness—and we should. This bill doesn't do that.