Thursday, 8 October 2020
Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report
I'll pick up where my colleague left off. This is a lost opportunity—this report and the budget. A trillion dollars of debt we're hurtling towards now, as the Morrison recession takes hold, but the government still has no meaningful plan with all that money to deal with homelessness or the social housing deficit.
This is an important topic, but this is not an important report. Let's be very clear. There's an ongoing national crisis of homelessness. On any given night there are 116,000 Australians defined as homeless. COVID-19 has complicated this. We're seeing new groups emerge in housing stress. And this is personal for me, given the people I represent. Of every electorate in the state of Victoria, my electorate has the highest rate of homelessness outside the Melbourne CBD. On census night alone, in 2016, there were 1,800 people homeless. You can see people sleeping rough in all parts of my electorate. This is an electorate covering the most socioeconomically disadvantaged part of Melbourne. This shameful government gave not one election commitment—not one; not one dollar—for the people I represent, some of the poorest people in this country. Not one dollar! Of course, down the road, they were pork-barrelling like you wouldn't believe on every portfolio. Hundreds of millions of dollars were sprayed around, with nothing to deal with homelessness for the most disadvantaged people in the community and, indeed, the country. Nothing! There are people sleeping in carparks, but I suppose, under this government, they define that as having a roof over your head.
In the chamber yesterday I was sitting there and I heard this report being tabled. I had an ear out, because I've got an interest in the topic. I've had a lot to do with housing and homelessness policy in many former lives—as a mayor of a council 20 years ago and as a senior public servant in Victoria with many portfolios looking at housing issues—so I had an ear out. I thought, I can't actually believe what I'm hearing. The government's tabling a report that they have worked on into homelessness amidst this national crisis with no recommendations! Literally nothing! There's not a single idea they're prepared to put forward and recommend to the parliament or the government that they should adopt.
I thought I'm interested in this, so I had a look through the report this morning. It's ridiculous! It is like a mixture of Google, stuff that's already well-known, basic statistics that we all get in briefs, stuff that any member of parliament should be basically literate on after 12 months in this place, stuff which has been in every housing and homelessness report you'd guess for the last 15 to 20 years—and I've read a lot of them—and a summary of submissions. I don't know why this report was done except perhaps to show some little pretence of momentum, like they're doing something, but they couldn't even pretend to have a single idea. They had nothing to say. The groups most at risk are outlined in the report. There's nothing new here. AHURI publishes this stuff all the time. They're cries that have fallen on deaf ears for seven years with this government.
They didn't even have a housing minister under Abbott and Turnbull—didn't have a housing minister, didn't have a housing plan. They abolished the remnants of the sensible stuff that the Rudd and Gillard governments had left. They abolished the land-supply monitoring. They abolished a whole range of things which had been there. But the report says—stuff which everyone should know, but it's worth repeating—the groups most at risk of homelessness include the middle-aged, especially men; Indigenous and culturally or linguistically diverse communities, which includes many of the people I represent; people who've experienced domestic or family violence or physical, sexual or emotional abuse; people with mental health issues or substance abuse issues, people exiting prison, foster care or the military, people with previous experience of homelessness—as a clear indicator of future homelessness, often correlated with those previous factors; and those with low education or unemployment. We know that older single women have emerged as the fastest-growing cohort of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness. That stuff is well known. As the Anglicare submission quoted by the member for Macquarie said, the most powerful thing that the government can do is deal with the social housing crisis. To quote Warwick Capper: maybe they'd get that. It's not rocket science, government. Deal with the social housing crisis. Build some houses so the homeless people have somewhere to live! How's that for an idea? But they can't get it together to put that as a recommendation in their report, despite all of the evidence.
Right now in this country there are more than 190,000 Australians who are applicants waiting for a social housing spot. It is projected that over the next 20 years there's going to be a shortage of 433,000 social housing units. We have stock crumbling across the country. And the federal government has a role to play. It is simply not good enough for the government muppets to get up, one after the other, and say: 'Oh, it's a state and territory issue.' Yes, absolutely, for housing and homelessness, the lead level of government is the states and territories. Let's concede that. But let's also acknowledge that every level of government has a critical role to play. We do now have a minister for housing, I'll give them that. This Prime Minister, trillion-dollar-debt man, has at least got a minister for housing. But that's the minister for housing; he's not the minister for private housing. He is the minister for housing. That means having a proper, meaningful look—not a token few dollars so you can pretend you're doing something—and actually making a meaningful contribution to dealing with the problem.
With all this stimulus, there's an incredibly strong case on economic stimulus grounds and in terms of job creation. And, in terms of actually dealing with a critical social problem, being homelessness, there's an overwhelming case to invest some of this money into job creation schemes that will actually build homes—public assets. The Rudd-Gillard government invested, I think, $5.6 billion during the GFC, which we're told and the facts suggest was a smaller crisis than the current one. Why can't this government get it together to invest in an enduring public asset? We've had for weeks, months now, the Prime Minister touting the HomeBuilder scheme, which no-one had got a single dollar from. He stood up in question time and told us about it, day after day: 'We've got a HomeBuilder scheme. It's going to be great. We're going to create jobs, houses.' It is a bathroom renovation scheme. It was available for people on relatively high incomes who already had a renovation in the pipeline. This was going to be the recovery, apparently. There's an overwhelming case to invest in social housing.
I absolutely take the point that the states and territories could do more, and I've been an advocate for that. I think, to their credit, the Victorian government has done more than just about any other state and territory government in stepping up to this. Twenty years ago, when I was the mayor of a council, we took what I thought was a brave decision to devolve about 450 or 500 houses that the council owned into a trust model. We got a lot of criticism for that. We were told we were selling out and selling public housing. We put it in a trust, and it's worked brilliantly. That community housing association has grown and has been able to use that asset base to leverage as a balance sheet and attract Commonwealth and state funding. That's a good model. There are things that levels of government can do in collaboration and cooperation.
To be frank, as I said: this is an important topic but not an important report. It doesn't need members of parliament to sit around and pontificate for months and years to try and figure out what to do. It needs political will and political leadership. The solutions have been in report after report after report. It needs leadership from the government—from the government, not from the opposition. We'll do what we can. We'll feed you ideas. But you actually have to behave like a government and pick the ideas up and decide to invest. You have a minister for housing, not a minister for private housing. The government actually has to front up to the problem in a meaningful way—not give half a billion or a billion and say, 'That's the full solution.'
We announced a very sensible policy, I think, yesterday to invest $500 million immediately, calling on the government to match this. Take it up. It's developed and costed. It's a good idea to invest that money immediately and create jobs for tradies and workers all over the country in renovating, improving and repairs. But that's not enough. We know we need to do more to address the shortage.
So I call on the government: please, get over your ideological obsessions and hatred of the words 'public', 'social' and 'community'. Public housing, social housing and community housing have a role to play. If you think about those cohorts, the people most at risk of homelessness—people with mental illness, people who have experienced abuse, people coming out of foster care, prison or the defence forces, people with low education, people who have experienced homelessness before and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities—think about them as human beings, people with lives. The truth is that the answer for them is not going to be found in the private rental market. We need adequate social, community and public housing to provide for those cohorts of the population. It's simply not good enough for the government to say, 'It's not our problem.' The Prime Minister is great on announcements—there were lots of announcements in the budget—but short on delivery. It's about time we actually had some political will and some decency.