Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Matters of Public Importance
It goes without saying that Australia is a very lucky country. Australia is a very rich country. We have the 13th biggest economy in the world, and our per capita national wealth is second only to the Swiss. So it beggars belief that in Australia these days so many people are finding it so difficult when it comes to housing accessibility and affordability. Indeed, when I look at the most recent 2016 census figures, I see that 116,427 people are homeless. In a country with a relatively small population like our own, over 100,000 people are homeless. Even in my small state of Tasmania, over 1,500 people are homeless. In the electorate of Denison, over 500 people are homeless. It beggars belief. In fact, those who have been following the Tasmanian media in recent months would have seen the appalling situation of whole families camped out in tents at the showground. We even had a short period where people were camped out in tents on the lawns of our state Parliament House.
And that's just the homeless. When it comes to disadvantaged people who are relying on public or social housing, the latest figures are, just in Tasmania, over 3,400 families on the public housing waiting list. That's over 3,400 people and families on the public housing waiting list, and the delay to get public housing in Tasmania, for priority applicants, has now blown out to 63 weeks. When it comes to people buying a house, it's now judged that Australia is second only to Hong Kong when it comes to the unaffordability of buying a property.
It's not just Sydney or Melbourne, which do soak up a lot of the media attention. Just in Hobart in roughly the last 12 months, our market price has gone up by over 13 per cent—an unsustainable growth in the price of property and in buying property. Moreover, the affordability of rent is likewise going up steeply. When I look at the latest Rental Affordability Index, I see that Greater Sydney, Greater Adelaide and Greater Hobart are all judged as being unaffordable. When I look at the regions, the rest of New South Wales is judged as being unaffordable. This is a remarkable situation. The most unaffordable rental market in the country is Hobart. When you look at average local wages versus average local rents, you see that we are now the most unaffordable capital city when it comes to renting a home. This affects a whole raft of suburbs. The Hobart CBD, Sandy Bay, West Hobart, South Hobart, North Hobart, Kingston, Margate and Sorell are all judged as being unaffordable according to the latest Rental Affordability Index.
I'm not having a go at any one state government, any one council or any one party here in this place. When you take a step back and look at the situation holistically, you can see there has been a failure of public policy right across this country—at the federal level, at the state level, at the local government level—for many years. This is a housing accessibility and affordability crisis in this country that has been coming for many years, and no party, no level of government, is beyond sin. However, just as it's been the federal government, the state governments and the local governments that have caused this problem, it is similarly within the power of the federal government, state governments, territory governments and local governments to fix the problem. But fixing the problem needs to start with a genuine national housing strategy. We need to take a step back and we need to look at how we can possibly combine public policy, the use of resources and the expenditure of money at the federal level, at the state and territory level and at the local government level to ensure that every person in this country has their fundamental right to a safe and comfortable roof over their head met. It's only when we take the politics out of this and we work collegiately in places like this—work collegiately between Canberra and the state and territory capitals, and local government—that we can really pull together a genuine national housing strategy.
I'll give you a few ideas about the sorts of things that a national housing strategy might include. For a start, we need more crisis accommodation, because the people most in need of a roof over their head are those in crisis—people who, through no fault of their own, are literally sleeping in the bush, under bridges, in someone's garage, under their house, in their laundry. We need much more investment in crisis accommodation. I make the point again: measured by per capita national wealth, we are the second-richest people on the planet. Surely in a country as rich as ours, we shouldn't have over a hundred thousand homeless people, and many of them in abject poverty and in crisis. Surely we can afford to put a roof over their head. And we need more public housing and other social housing. Again, we can afford it. It's madness that in a place as small as Tasmania, in a country as rich as ours, we have over 3½ thousand families and people waiting for public housing and that the waiting time for priority applicants is over 60 weeks. That is unforgivable. And we need more supported accommodation for people with specific needs. We talk a lot about mental health in this place, although not nearly enough. We should be talking more about supported accommodation for people with specific needs. That's the way to start addressing things like the mental health crisis in this country—and for other people who have special needs. And we need to regulate Airbnb. I'm not anti Airbnb, but when you see a place like Hobart, where so many long-term rentals are being turned into short-term holiday accommodation, you start to understand why there are not long-term rentals available for Australians who need it. Airbnb needs to be returned to its original purpose of making spare rooms available.
We do need to reform negative gearing and capital gains tax. It's regrettable that this issue has become a political football for the government and the opposition to just kick backwards and forwards. Why don't we put our heads together and say, 'Well, how can we genuinely reform such measures to make accommodation in this country more affordable and more accessible?' The states, particularly my home state of Tasmania, need to consider rent-to-buy public housing, which used to be the case around this country and is still the case in other countries. This is where particularly disadvantaged people on low incomes who, when they're paying that rent, are actually paying off that house, with a reasonable hope that one day they will own that property and turn that family's fortunes around.
What about a 30 per cent increase in Commonwealth rent assistance—$20 a week? Just imagine what that would do for housing affordability and accessibility for disadvantaged and low-income people in this country? It would really start to turn it around. It would be a modest cost to the budget. The budget this year is about half a trillion dollars. We can afford to double our submarine fleet. We can afford our people in this place to be on $200,000 a year for sitting on the backbench and doing bugger all. Yet it's so hard to get $20 a week extra for people who most need it.
The Commonwealth could abolish Tasmania's Commonwealth housing debt, because half of the money that comes to Tasmania for public housing goes straight back to Canberra in interest payments. The Gillard government, when it needed the support of South Australia for the Gonski reforms, was happy to waive the debt then, because it was politically expedient, but won't waive the debt now for a state like Tasmania, which would benefit mightily by the Commonwealth axing that debt.
There are so many other things we could do, such as greater restrictions on foreign investment. I note that in 2015-16 foreigners bought over $40 million of residential property in Hobart. In 2016-17, foreigners bought over $20 million of residential property in Hobart. No wonder the price is going up. No wonder there is no property for local people to buy or to rent; it's because of forces like that.
There are other innovative measures. I had an email just in the last several weeks from a constituent who said, 'What about not-for-profit funds where people could invest their spare money and then those funds could buy low-cost housing for people to rent, to make housing more affordable?' There are 1,001 ways that we could make property much more affordable and accessible for people in this country, but none of it will start until we get a national housing strategy to pull it all together.