Thursday, 1 March 2018
Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing And Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017. Homelessness is a destructive and growing social and economic problem. It is unacceptable that in a country of wealth and opportunity such as ours many of our fellow Australians have nowhere to call home. Having an affordable, secure and appropriate home with reasonable access to services is essential to financial, social and emotional wellbeing.
I've spoken often in this place about the damaging effects of growing inequality in our communities. More than 74,000 Tasmanians live below the poverty line. As housing costs rise, low-income Tasmanians find it increasingly difficult to access affordable housing. Lack of affordability is a major cause of homelessness and a barrier to pathways out of homelessness. There is no greater example of inequality than people having to sleep on the streets, to couch surf, or live in overcrowded and unacceptable housing conditions, whilst others live in unimaginable luxury and privilege.
The causes of homelessness are varied: lack of affordable housing, loss of employment, family breakdown and domestic violence, mental health issues, substance abuse, and transition from care or custody. These are all potential reasons why a person might find themselves without suitable accommodation. On any given night in Tasmania, for example, there are approximately 1,500 people experiencing homelessness. This could mean sleeping rough, couch surfing, spending time in supported accommodation or making do in other dwellings like a car or a tent. Indeed, in the last two weeks it's been brought to the attention of my office that within 100 metres of my electorate office there are people sleeping homeless in one of the laneways within the CBD of Launceston.
Young people and children are the fastest growing cohort of homeless people. Thirty-three per cent of all people seeking housing support are under 24 years old. This is of particular concern, because we know that children who experience homelessness have an increased risk of becoming homeless in later life. We are now in the shameful situation where we are seeing third-generation homelessness in Australia. This is the result of a failure to invest long-term in people for whom housing is unaffordable and inadequate, and who are at risk of homelessness.
According to Shelter Tasmania, in the 2015-16 financial year homelessness services in Tasmania assisted 7,859 individuals, an increase of 19 per cent over the previous two years. Even more concerning, there was a 20 per cent increase in unassisted requests in the same year. Currently, on an average day in Tasmania, around 18 requests for housing assistance cannot be addressed because of a lack of available accommodation.
This is not to downplay the critical work being done by support services providing social housing and crisis accommodation. In northern Tasmania, there are several organisations working tirelessly to support people experiencing homelessness and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. For example, a small community organisation called Launceston Feeding The Homeless is a volunteer-run group set up by local woman Kirsten Ritchie. Anyone who is experiencing homelessness or is in need of a decent meal is welcome to attend their daily barbeque, which is held at a local park. The group also provides basic necessities such as swags, blankets, clothing and toiletries to those who are in need.
I have also worked closely recently with Karinya Young Women's Service, a specialist service based in Launceston. That service recognises that homelessness is not only not having a home; it's also when you don't have a safe home to go to. Karinya provides short-term crisis accommodation, meeting the need for safe, confidential accommodation for young women in the Launceston and Greater Northern Tasmanian region. I must also recognise the work of organisations such as City Mission, St Vincent de Paul, Colony 47, Anglicare and others.
I know from many conversations with constituents that the demands for these services are ever increasing and resources are often stretched to capacity. Of course, this is not by any means a problem confined to Tasmania. Recent figures indicate there are approximately 100,000 Australians experiencing homelessness on any given night. A further 394,000 Australian households currently reside in social housing and around 288,000 Australians access specialist homelessness support services every year—not to mention that pressure on housing affordability and markets means that, for many Australians, the dreams of ever owning a home would likely never become a reality.
The legislation that we have before us today represents the government's response to this critical issue of housing and homelessness in Australia. This bill seeks to legislate aspects of the proposed new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, the NHHA, as announced in the 2017 budget. The agreement combines the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness into a single agreement from 1 July 2018. Under the new agreement, a total of $4.6 billion over three years from financial year 2018-19 is provided. Of this funding, there is slightly more than $1.4 billion a year for housing related purposes, provision from the ongoing funding in the budget for the National Affordable Housing Agreement. There is also $375.3 million to be provided over the forward estimates to fund ongoing homelessness services. This funding, which is indexed, is intended to be matched dollar for dollar by state and territory governments. The matching fund requirement is sought to be legislated in this bill.
At this point, I might note that this bill was introduced last year, on Wednesday, 25 October. This was a full two days before state treasurers and housing ministers were supposed to meet with their federal counterparts to negotiate the contents of the agreement. Treasury has since confirmed that states and territories were not consulted about whether the tied funding arrangements which are provided for in this bill would be legislated. Neither did they receive legislation prior to its introduction into parliament. It speaks volumes as to the priorities of this government that they would seek to bring to this House a bill for a national agreement on housing and homelessness before any deal had state and territory approval. It is, in my view, pure arrogance that those opposite think that this is the way to negotiate with states and territories on national reform in this critical area. For such a critical matter, you'd think that the government could at least get this right. Rather, all we have is another example of the chaotic and dysfunctional way in which this government operates.
The government announced its intention to negotiate a new NHHA as part of its 2017-18 budget measures. Those opposite talked up the measures as a comprehensive plan to improve housing affordability, although it soon became abundantly clear that that was simply not the case. Mr John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute and an acknowledged expert in the field of housing policy, has said that he could not see any reason why this budget would make any discernible difference to housing affordability or to the ability of a number of young people to buy a house.
The organisation Homelessness Australia noted the budget was 'not fair' because it failed to fix a broken housing system—a system that encourages investors to own more than one house, while 105,000 Australians haven't any home. Mission Australia quite correctly pointed out that the budget contained insufficient assistance for people in rental stress who remain one step away from homelessness, with rents increasingly unaffordable for young and old Australians alike, with those on Newstart and the age pension struggling to find a home within their means. Richard Holden, a professor of economics and a fellow at the University of New South Wales, summed it up perfectly, saying that the housing measures in the budget involve 'not much more than tinkering' by the government, with the 'biggest disappointment' being the total absence of any measure to address negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions for rental properties.
It is almost universally agreed that any credible national housing affordability plan must include reform of negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts. During the inquiry into this bill by the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, the issue of tax reform came up time and time again as being absolutely essential. Peter Windsor, the executive director of the Community Housing Industry Association, told the committee:
… as a point of principle I'd say that we would think that that's capital gains tax and negative gearing distributions should equally benefit the whole of the community, not just those on high incomes, or those who are in a position to accumulate wealth through property.
Mr Adrian Pisarski on behalf of National Shelter made similar comments, bringing to the attention of the committee the disparity between the effective subsidy of negative gearing and the capital gains tax discounts provided to private market rental housing and the depth of subsidies provided to social housing. He also emphasised the very different standards of accountability and transparency the government demands from each sector, saying:
There is a double standard for the Commonwealth where it is perfectly prepared to hold the states accountable for a billion dollars' worth of spending but for some—I think the figure is $14 billion or $17 billion worth of tax expenditure that goes to support the private rental market—there is no accountability—none at all.
In fact, the Senate inquiry into this bill highlighted several issues with the legislation and the government's housing strategy more generally. These were discussed in some detail in the additional comments by the Labor senators in the committee's report. Firstly, there is a concern from this side of the House that the input controls placed on the states and territories as a condition of funding will not necessarily contribute to improved performance against housing and homelessness outcomes under the NHHA. Rather, a more effective way to improve outcomes would be to build mechanisms into the agreement to provide a clear basis for outcomes.
As I indicated in my outline at the commencement of this speech, the issue of housing and homelessness is something which will not go away without direct, concrete action. That means that this government needs to put before this House legislation which deals with the issue of homelessness and housing affordability in a proper strategic manner. Unfortunately the government has done nothing which fulfils that objective. What it has put forward are a series of budgetary measures which have been extensively criticised by the community organisations that operate in this field.
This is something which affects people from across society. Every community in Australia is beset by the scourge of homelessness. It is simply not good enough that within 100 metres of my electorate office in a regional town like Launceston in northern Tasmania in a wealthy First World country like Australia that we have people sleeping rough. We have people sleeping rough in every town and every major city in this nation. It is simply not good enough that we fail to adequately resource the many organisations that are in a position to provide proper shelter for our homeless people.
We know the evidence shows that people who are suffering homelessness are more likely to present at our public hospitals. They are more likely to have multiple issues with mental health and poor physical health when they attend the emergency departments of our hospitals. We need to do more than simply sit by. We need to invest in the future of these Australians that are presently either experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. In my speech, I also made reference to the people that are affected by domestic violence. In closing, I would urge this government to put more money into addressing the scourge of domestic violence because people that need to leave the safety of their own home because they are fleeing from domestic violence need to have safe housing accommodation.