Thursday, 1 March 2018
Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I'm glad for the opportunity to speak on this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill, which the opposition is prepared to support because it stands, in some part, to at least maintain the funding that's currently provided through the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. But it is very disappointing that it fails to do much more than that. It fails to be more than a kind of continuation of the status quo. It fails to do more than just keep us in a holding pattern, when there is a need for national leadership and reform in this space. The remarks of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Sydney, really pointed to how that failure has real and acute impacts in our communities. This bill, while belatedly giving some certainty around the continuation of the funding that was previously provided by those two other agreements, doesn't move us forward in addressing the acute shortage in affordable housing, doesn't move us forward in trying to improve homelessness support services, in partnership with the states and territories—and I'll come back to that sense of partnership—and it fails to show national leadership.
This bill establishes the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which I guess we'll call the NHHA, and it essentially continues funding of $1.4 billion per year from the Commonwealth to support affordable housing—that is what occurred previously through the NAHA—and about $125 million a year to support homelessness services, which was previously provided through the NPAH. But there is no growth funding. There is no increase in overall funding, there is no national strategy or set of targets, and there's been no meaningful consultation with the states and territories. But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that this is an area where the Commonwealth should blithely abdicate its responsibility, because the country does face a very big challenge when it comes to affordable housing and homeless services.
Homelessness Australia pointed out in its submission on this bill that, last year 195,000 Australian households sat waiting for social housing. There is a shortfall of 458,000 affordable homes across Australia, and yet this bill provides no additional funding and no growth funding to support social housing growth, which is desperately needed. We know that each year nearly 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services for help. Homelessness support services in my electorate are provided by St Patrick's Community Care Centre. I've been there to see and to assist, in my not very skilful fruit-chopping ways, in the preparation of breakfast for people who come in first thing in the morning having spent a night out, particularly a winter night. It's a reminder when you see a person come in a bit wet and a bit worse for wear and they're waiting out in the dark for the doors to open at the first possible moment to come in a grab a fresh towel and go and have a shower and have something to eat. You do get a sense, even just in a tiny snapshot, of what that's like and how different it is from the experience of those of us who don't have to worry about where we're going to spend the night.
Nearly 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services for help each year. The number is growing. Last year 66,000 people were turned away from homelessness support services. And yet, just as there is no growth funding to support social housing growth, there's no real growth in funding to help address the acute need for homelessness services. In fact, it has been pointed out that while there's no growth in funding, it appears that there's some change to the scope of the way funding can be applied under this reform, so that what used to be focused on public housing for people on low incomes, isn't necessarily going to be the focus of funding under this agreement. The NHHA isn't really clear. The scope appears to cover housing affordability in the broader residential property market. So there's a potential here for the existing flat funding to move into areas that don't represent the most desperate and acute needs.
In Western Australia, just to paint that picture, Western Australia does have more people sleeping rough. It's almost double the national average. If you look at the proportion of people who are homeless, state by state, the national average has six per cent of people sleeping rough. In Western Australia it's 10 per cent. More people are living in overcrowded dwellings in Western Australia, and half as many people are in supported accommodation.
In the absence of growth funding and consultation with the states and territories, and after nearly five years of doing not very much, the government comes out with the NHHA as a kind of ultimatum to the states and territories. We speak on this bill here today not knowing what the states and territories are going to do. This government has essentially said that if they want to continue to receive their current levels of funding they need to comply with some new conditions. They need to provide a strategy on affordable housing, social housing and homelessness on a state-by-state basis, with some reporting around that. The Commonwealth is not proposing to show any strategic leadership. It's not taking any responsibility, putting out a set of targets or identifying the kinds of evidence based mechanisms that should and need to deliver change in this area. As we know, and as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition pointed out, this government is not prepared to look at sensible reform in a range of areas in addition to direct funding for affordable housing and homeless services. It's not prepared to look at wider reform that would make meaningful change. Instead, the task of setting strategy and responding to this problem, gathering information, is being pushed onto the states. That's not the way reform should occur. It's not in keeping with the responsibility of the Commonwealth to show national leadership and take national level responsibility. The Productivity Commission has observed that in many areas, but in this area in particular, we need more, not less, cooperation and genuine partnership between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. It has also observed, quite rightly I think, that reform shouldn't be pursued through funding control or funding ultimatums, with effectively a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Yet that's how this is proceeding.
It's enormously disappointing that the government has no interest at all in broader responsible policies and programs in the housing and homelessness space. If you look at the record since 2013, it's a record of retreat. It's a record of damage, deconstruction and taking away from the work of the former Labor government. This government abolished the Housing Help for Seniors pilot. It closed the National Rental Affordability Scheme. It defunded homelessness and community housing peak bodies. It abolished the National Housing Supply Council.
Labor took on what is a serious problem in our society, a problem that enables unacceptable circumstances to persist for some of the most vulnerable Australians. There were some areas where we made really significant progress, there were some areas where we began to make progress and there were some areas where the progress was not as fast as you would like. But, if you are a responsible government, you pick up the baton and move forward—you don't set about wrecking the joint, and yet that is what has occurred. There isn't even a housing minister in the current government. It is a record of abject retreat and abject policy and program abandonment.
Labor take a very different approach. We're proud to take a very different approach that is in keeping with our values. We're not going to turn away from this challenge. We take the view that the federal government, the national government of Australia, has a role to play in providing proper funding, but proper funding isn't the be-all and end-all of it. It's also about providing leadership on reform and policy innovation.
We know Australia's tax investment settings have an influence on the cost of housing. We know that urban design and transport infrastructure have an influence. The government just doesn't seem to get that. I'm glad that the Reserve Bank Governor understands it. I was in a hearing with the Reserve Bank Governor the previous week and he noted:
… we have made choices as a society to give us high housing prices, on average, and that goes with high debt. … we've underinvested in transport, so we've restricted the supply of well-located land. And we've got a liberal financial system and zoning restrictions. If you asked anyone how a country would deliver high housing prices, you'd find we've made all those choices: live in fantastic coastal cities, most of us; underinvest in transport; have a liberal financial system; and not want high density. We've done all that, so there are high housing prices …
Labor is prepared to look at some of those factors. We should all be prepared to look at some of those factors and do something about it. We funded smarter cities planning in the past. In the last Labor government we invested more in public transport than all previous federal governments had invested. We're prepared to look at tax reform when it comes to negative gearing and capital gains tax. We're also prepared to boost funding for homelessness services. We went to the last election with a policy for an additional $88 million through a safe housing fund. We're committed, in keeping with our legacy of policy and program action in this space, to re-establish the National Housing Supply Council and reinstate a dedicated minister for housing.
Homelessness Australia's submission on this bill really summed up the wide and pressing gap that the bill doesn't address. It does present a holding pattern. It does essentially continue with flat funding and business as usual. Homelessness Australia observed:
They noted that the last serious investment in social housing growth was the investment by the former Labor government in response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09. In turning their attention directly to the question of national leadership and strategy they noted:
Without safer and affordable housing, everything else is contingent and at risk. Until you've had some experience of that, you might be able to live your life without a proper appreciation of just how bleak and disabling those circumstances can be. I can't say that I've experienced them in an acute form. I grew up in a single-parent household. We rented house after house after house. Sometimes we got very short notice from a landlord that it was time to move on, and my mum would get out the cardboard boxes and the packing tape and we would put everything in them and go again. I was lucky to live in Fremantle in the 1980s and 1990s, when rents in Fremantle were relatively cheap. That's not the case now.
Until you've had some passing experience with what homelessness and insecure housing really means, perhaps you could think that it's not the problem of the national government. It is the problem of the national government. A national government should do more. It should ensure that people have housing so that they can turn their mind to the next-order things—health, education, employment, social inclusion and participation—so that they have the opportunity to breathe out, to sleep without fear, to plan for the future, to love and be loved, and to escape a fraught, dangerous, unhealthy edge-of-survival experience.