Thursday, 8 October 2020
Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report
This inquiry into COVID-19 and its effects on homelessness was requested by Minister Ruston and Assistant Minister Howarth, and it's been a very interesting inquiry, I must say. It's certainly been quite a large one. In fact, this is just the interim report. The committee is yet to reach any conclusions at all, but we have provided this interim report on the basis that parliament and the public should know where we're up to in this inquiry. It is chaired by the member for Fisher, Andrew Wallace, ably assisted by the deputy chair, the member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon. I thank them both for the great deal of work they have done in this area.
It's been made quite clear during the inquiry by a number of agencies that the provision of community housing, is the remit of state governments. An interesting issue that the committee will have to come to grips with is how much further federal governments go in this area, given that we already have a large involvement through the $4.6 billion that is fed annually into the rental assistance scheme. There is another $1.6 billion that goes into the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which includes $125 million for specialist homeless services, $78 million for domestic violence housing services and $118 million for youth homeless prevention. So the Commonwealth is already well involved in this area.
It brings into question—and this is my opinion; it's report's opinion, because, as I said, it hasn't reached conclusions—how we in our Federation deal with mission creep. Over a long period of time, the Commonwealth has increasingly stepped into places where states have been failing and then owns the problem. Then, every year, we see this bun fight about whose responsibility it is. That is just a note of personal caution, not notwithstanding all the facts and submissions we received, which I will move to now.
There is also the Commonwealth facility through the NHFIC, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, which I think is a very important arm of government policy. It allows people providing low-cost social housing to borrow money at basically the Commonwealth rate, with a very small margin. At the moment, given the interest rates of the current environment, this provides access to pretty cheap capital.
During COVID, there's also been an increase in social security payments from the Commonwealth, with the JobSeeker bonus and the JobKeeper program. It was quite clear to the inquiry that that has actually assisted many people who would be the traditional clients of organisations providing low-cost housing. In fact, the evidence would suggest that, while the demand has either remained constant or risen, the extra demand has actually come from a new group of people—those that have had jobs but have been displaced in the workforce and are now surviving on either JobKeeper or JobSeeker. That payment is at a lower rate than they were receiving when they were in the workforce and so that's adding difficulty to running their particular budgets. I think that is an important thing to take note of.
I need to get on to one part of this inquiry that I feel I need to make public. It has been a significant workload. There have been 196 submissions. Some of them run to hundreds of pages. If we had 200 submissions and they were 80 pages each, that would be 16,000 pages for the members of the committee to absorb. That is simply not possible. It just simply can't be done. Even if we didn't have another job—and we all have busy lives and electorates to serve—it couldn't be done. I have spoken to the Clerk about the possibility of putting some parameters in for subsequent submissions, and I hope that members of this place will take it into consideration as we go along. But my view is that, really, if you can't put it into 10 pages, you're not trying. In fact, a submission that involves hundreds of pages is, I think, disrespectful to the committee. It is actually showing no understanding of what the committee should be doing, because, at the end of the day, if any member of the committee went to an inquiry and hadn't read the submission papers that accompanied the witnesses we would not be doing our job, but if there are 600 pages to read in between each day of that inquiry it's simply not possible to do our job. So I'm just foreshadowing that I'm intending to try to put together some guidelines that indicate that it is compulsory to put in an executive summary and that the whole submission should attempt to be no longer than 10 pages. We might debate how long that should be, but I think if we want serious and good-quality consideration of the material put before us it needs to be much more concise.
Having got that off my chest, I'll get back to the inquiry itself. It also appeared to me that that, of the 196 submissions, nearly all of them came from interested parties within the industry. So they have come from NGOs or government agencies. There were a number of personal witnesses that came through that process, accompanied by those agencies—they brought their witnesses along—and I appreciate that. I also thank those people for having the gumption to stand up and do it. But I think it is also an indication that we're getting a very large amount of information from a sector of the community that has a financial interest in this. So I lay that on the table as well.
It was established in the inquiry that the Australian definition of homelessness is very broad by international standards. There is a little bit of to and fro about whether we are the only country that recognises overcrowding as homelessness or not, but, either way, very few countries do. So if you're in Australia and you're in boarding accommodation, for instance, you are classified as homeless. If you are sleeping rough, you are naturally classified as homeless. If you are couch surfing, you are classified as homeless. If you are in overcrowded accommodation—and that may be family accommodation, and there is a criterion for it—you are classified as homeless. I think that probably sets us up for a bit of criticism, but I also think it is very important that we have those facts. In this place we are expected to decide policy, so I think it's very important that we do have that information. So I'm not critical of that standard of assessing homelessness, but I think it needs to be clearly differentiated which group people sit within so that then we can make the appropriate responses in this place when we are designing policy.
Some very successful, non-government organisations came forward who have worked very hard to accumulate a large property selection, if you like, a large range of housing solutions for people, and I congratulate them. They seem to have very good business models. The most successful of them seemed to have stable business models, but they need access to either grants or cheap capital to build extra accommodation. That's where I think the Commonwealth can play a role, particularly through NHFIC. I think the organisation is well designed for that. I come back to the point that I made at the start: it's clearly established that the provision of community housing is a state responsibility, so we also need them to step up to the plate. We're all aware that, over a long period of time, our state governments have sold down what was the traditional community housing stock. That's been by both sides of politics. We need to put some pressure back in that area, if this is seen to be an ongoing issue.
There's an issue that we haven't really got our teeth into yet because, I think, it's unfolding. We saw in the budget the day before yesterday a prediction that the population of Australia is likely to decline by nearly a million people over the next 12 months. I don't think we've ever been through a period like that in Australia. As we know, our economy has been based on population growth. Certainly, our building industry has been underwritten by population growth. What happens over the next 12 months will be quite— (Time expired)