Thursday, 25 October 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to speak to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. It's a narrow and technical bill which addresses a small part of a huge national problem: housing affordability and homelessness in Australia. The extent of the problem is massive. It is in fact a national disgrace.
We're all conscious of the visible face of homelessness, people sleeping rough out of doors, whether it be in the south, in the cities, in winter, freezing cold, or whether it be where I'm from, in the north of Australia, living rough on the streets or in the long grass. The problem is much deeper than the visible face of homelessness in our cities, as bad as that is. There are many, many thousands of people living in insecure and temporary overcrowded accommodation—hundreds of thousands—in boarding houses, in backyards, in tents and in caravans and sleeping on friends' couches. It's a problem that disproportionately affects women and children. Often they are fleeing violent partners or dangerous households. Women's refuges are often full, having to turn people away. According to the recent State of homelessness in Australia's cities report, one in 20 homeless people may be a veteran. That is part of this national disgrace.
On any night, one in 200 Australians is homeless. That would be a figure that would shock a lot of Australians, and it should. They might be asking themselves: how has this happened? How can it be that, in this lucky country, we've got so many people in such a desperate situation, when we're one of the richest countries in the world? I know that many people, seeing the visible homeless in our streets, are overcome by a sense of hopelessness. They often walk past those homeless people with averted eyes, not wanting to look into the eyes of those without a home, often those who have mental health problems that either resulted in them becoming homeless or have been exacerbated and brought on through their homelessness. I understand that many people go through that thought process of, 'Should I drop $2 into the cup on the pavement?' or, 'What good can $5 do here or there?'
I guess it is an issue where we see very plainly that governments are important. This is an issue where governments have a responsibility to help those in need, to help those who are down on their luck, and Labor takes this responsibility very seriously. One of Labor's great leaders and great prime ministers, Ben Chifley, said:
We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.
Governments can make things better, and governments should make things better. We in Labor believe that we are here to make things better for all Australians.
Housing affordability and homelessness are serious issues, and they're a growing problem. As I've said, homelessness here in Australia is a national disgrace, and it is a problem that's got worse in recent times, during the period of the Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison conservative governments. This is a problem that is getting worse. On census night 2016, nationally, there were 116,427 people homeless, up from 102,439 in 2011. My electorate of Solomon is in the Northern Territory, where the Bureau of Statistics counted 13,734 homeless people in 2016.
Much of the increase in homelessness between 2011 and 2016 was as a result of more people living in severely crowded dwellings. Homelessness is not just because there are not enough houses, of course. But severe overcrowding suggests there is a need for more housing that is affordable to low-income earners.
Labor has announced a range of policies to address the problem. Those opposite don't seem to have too many answers. They don't seem to have too many policies. Homelessness and housing affordability don't seem to be a priority for them. I guess it's difficult to understand the problem while enjoying the view from somewhere in northern Sydney overlooking the harbour, but I encourage those opposite—perhaps we need an envoy for homelessness; perhaps we need someone to go out there into the regions of Australia or even just to go out onto city streets to see how desperate this situation has become.
We're all very familiar with rapidly rising house prices in our largest cities. Million-dollar houses are now commonplace in many of our suburbs, and owning a house has become something of an impossible dream for many of our young people. But what's less obvious is that these rising prices at the top end of the market cascade down to lower-priced houses and apartments for sale and rent. This means that even the cheapest accommodation becomes too expensive for people on low incomes. Housing prices have moderated somewhat in recent months, but lower sale prices will still afford little or no relief to low-income renters.
So to this bill. It has good intentions. As far as it goes, which is not very far, it should be supported. But I do have concerns with it. To summarise: the bill sets up an Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme which would allow deduction of rent from the income support payments and family tax benefit payments of all social housing tenants. The bill requires rent under the National Rental Affordability Scheme to be at least 20 per cent under market-value rent.
The first question that comes to mind about these provisions is: why are they necessary? In his second reading speech, the then Minister for Social Services, Mr Porter, said:
This bill will implement an Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme to help reduce homelessness for social housing tenants who are in serious rental arrears that could, and in many cases does, lead to eviction or housing abandonment.
I'm not entirely convinced by this argument. When the bill was scrutinised in the Senate committee, Labor senators supported the intention of the bill to prevent homelessness, but thought the provisions were too broad, that there should be a cap on deductions and that the relationship of this bill to other forms of income management should be clarified.
Is it in fact the case that rental arrears are a significant cause of homelessness? We know that some 90 per cent of public and social housing tenants have no problems paying their rent. Almost all of those use current voluntary rent deduction schemes. While nonpayment of rent can be an issue, and is a problem for state and territory housing authorities, eviction and homelessness are often caused by more complex problems, as I've mentioned, such as mental illness, substance abuse, family violence and a lack of affordable alternative housing.
I'm also concerned that a compulsory scheme, as proposed in this bill, will take away options and decision-making power from tenants. Often they have to make day-to-day or week-to-week decisions about pressing financial matters—for example, the fridge has died, the car rego is due or, for us in the Top End, there's been the disaster of your air-conditioner going on the blink in the build-up. But if a proportion of their income has been compulsorily committed, they have less flexibility to meet other pressing expenses. Currently, tenants can negotiate with their housing provider to defer a rental payment to meet other unexpected expenses. Taking decisions like this out of their hands makes it harder for them to take responsibility for their actions and learn how to manage their finances. If tenants are subject to other forms of income management or cashless debit cards, they may be left with only a very small portion of their income to spend at their own discretion.
I am aware that, during the Rudd-Gillard governments, there was legislation introduced for a compulsory rental deduction scheme in 2013, but that bill lapsed at the 2013 election. I'm also aware that some of the states, including some Labor states, support this legislation. Victoria and the ACT oppose it. I have firsthand experience of housing affordability and homelessness from my time with the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Northern Territory. In the Northern Territory, we have significant homelessness problems. One of the things I was pleased that we could do in that time—and I still continue to work with Vinnies in a voluntary way—was establish some social housing in Coconut Grove so that we could assist particularly young families—women and children, in particular—in their time of need.
Charities such as Vinnies today continue to visit people living in very difficult circumstances, making sure that they can continue to provide support to those people and hopefully prevent them from falling into homelessness as well as support the homeless on the streets with soup vans and the like. Charities, including Vinnies, who do great work helping people who are either, as I said, homeless or at the risk of homelessness is important. It is a good way for people to contribute and to do something themselves. But I believe it's the role of government to help those who are in need or are homeless.
That's why Labor as the alternative government have developed and published our national plan to reduce homelessness. As the opposition, our role is to oppose the government, hold it to account and expose its short-comings, of which there are many. Importantly, we also put ourselves forward to the citizens of Australia as the alternative government with policies to address the issues now facing all Australians. Homelessness is clearly a national problem. It's a national disgrace, and a Shorten Labor government will implement a national plan to reduce homelessness in cooperation with the states and territories. This will be a long-term plan, as it needs to be, and it will address homelessness and the issues that contribute to it—mental health, trauma and substance abuse, as I've mentioned.
There is a massive gap in housing policy. A Labor government will provide national leadership on housing affordability and reducing homelessness. Labor took to the 2016 election a policy to halve homelessness by 2025. The particular focus for our homelessness policy will be to support women and children escaping family violence being forced out of their homes and into homelessness. Part of that will be providing $88 million for a safe housing fund to provide transitional housing for women and children escaping that family violence, for young people leaving out-of-home care and for older women on low incomes at risk of homelessness. So Labor has a clear plan for housing affordability, and some of the other contributions have talked about that.
In the time remaining, I just want to say that this bill will not solve the problem of homelessness in Australia. The only way we will be able to take effective action against homelessness and make housing more affordable is to elect a Shorten Labor government at the next election, because we know that this national disgrace of homelessness in the lucky country must end.