House debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024


Help to Buy Bill 2023, Help to Buy (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2023; Second Reading

10:55 am

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

The word 'crisis' is often overused. Everything seems to be a crisis these days. But I tell you what—when it comes to housing in this country, we do have a genuine crisis. From south-west Australia, in the electorate of Forrest as we've just heard about, through to the top of Queensland and to the bottom of Australia down in Hobart in Tasmania, wherever you go and wherever you look, there genuinely is a chronic shortage of accommodation for people. Of course, without safe, reliable accommodation, you can't be healthy. You can't hold down a job. You can't raise a family. People end up in this spiral of disadvantage, and it's very, very hard to get out of. It's all for want of a reliable, safe, affordable roof over their heads.

It's no wonder the average age of death for homeless people in Australia is 44 years of age. I'll say that again, because that's just a staggering figure. The average age of death for homeless Australians is 44 years of age. That's half or less, Deputy Speaker, than what you and I might hope to achieve. It's no wonder there's something like 4,700 people on Tasmania's social housing waiting list, with an average wait time of more than two years for priority 1 applicants. These are staggering figures. This is in a population of about half-a-million people.

It's not just the homeless who are doing it terribly tough these days, of course. Rents right around Australia, especially in Greater Hobart, are high, are getting higher and are unaffordable. In fact, Hobart remains the equal-least-affordable capital city—a title it has held since 2018. To put that in perspective, we have some of the lowest average wages but some of the highest average rents, the result being that we are consistently one of the most unaffordable capital cities in the Commonwealth—and that's for renters. The situation is so bad, I've actually met people holding down a good job while living in their car, because they can't afford the rents that are being demanded. That is completely unacceptable.

Don't get me started about people who have thumping big mortgages and are suffering mortgage stress. In fact, it is judged that over half of the mortgage holders in my electorate of Clark are at risk of mortgage stress; 51.9 per cent in the electorate of Clark are judged to be at risk of mortgage stress. That's half the mortgage holders in my patch. Many of them are going without essentials. They're not going to the doctor. They're not getting their scripts filled. They're not having three good meals a day. They're not providing the opportunities for their children that we might take for granted as highly-paid and, I'm sure, accommodated people in this House.

It raises the question: how on earth could Australia find itself in this position? We are the 12th-biggest economy in the world. We are fabulously wealthy. It's not the shortage of money. In fact, when you look at mean wealth per adult, we are fourth in the world behind only Switzerland, the United States and Hong Kong. When you look at median wealth per adult, we're second in the world. Australians are the second-richest people on the planet when measured by median wealth per adult. And it's not like the government doesn't have enough money. In this financial year, the federal government will spend a forecast $684.1 billion—in other words, more than $684 thousand million. So it's not for lack of money. There's plenty of money in this country; we are a very rich and fortunate people. What's missing, for a start, is a lack of vision.

I do commend the government for the reforms that it is rolling out, including today's bill. I think today's bill is welcome, even though it has shortcomings. But, really, we're just putting bandaids over things and tinkering around the edges. We need more vision. We need more bravery. We need more political will, and we need less political division to see that vision realised.

Sadly, we do need to have a debate, for example, about negative gearing. But, as soon as there's a whiff of a mention of negative gearing, it doesn't become an opportunity in this place for an intelligent debate of ideas; it becomes a political opportunity to score points. I'll have a go at the opposition here. They're the worst offenders here. A debate about negative gearing would be a very worthwhile debate to have—for people to come in here in good faith to debate their point of view, and may the best and strongest point of view win the day and result in policy change. Instead, it's just an opportunity to score points and to drag down whoever's in government. I lament that fact. The country is the poorer for it.

There are so many things that we could be doing if we had that vision, if we had the political strength and if we had a less confrontational parliamentary system. For example, we should be increasing investment in homelessness and crisis accommodation and support services, including in workforce capacity and development. We can afford it; we're the 12th biggest economy in the world. This year, the government is spending two-thirds of a trillion dollars. We can afford it. We can afford to increase investment in homelessness and crisis accommodation and support services.

We also need to coordinate improved national rental standards which offer renters genuine protections and security of tenure. You can't bring up a family when it's month by month, six months by six months or even 12 months by 12 months. Why can't we look at other countries that have succeeded in this space? For example, look at some of the European countries, where people can have lifetime tenancy, with 20-year leases and 15-year leases. That's the sort of security that families need, and not just families—that everyone needs. Let's say you're an individual on the disability support pension, a client of the NDIS, and you're sitting in a private rental. You can't be worrying about where you'll be next month or in six months or in 12 months. For your health, for your recovery, for your peace of mind and for your mental health, you need to know that you've got a secure roof over your head and it's not something you have to be worried about.

We need to increase income support payments and, in particular, Commonwealth rent assistance. I note that this changes from time to time, but, again, I feel that we're tinkering around the edges. The sort of increase to CRA that is needed is a big increase. Now, my critics might say that that will just encourage landlords to jack up the rents. Of course, it would be a driver, in some areas, for increased rents, but then we loop back to my previous point about improved national rental standards and genuine protections. I know that the ACT has limits on how much rent can increase.

I'll have a go at the government now. The government keeps saying, 'Yes, but this is a matter for the state and territory governments.' Well, be strong; be a government that leads. Get all the premiers and chief ministers into a room and say, 'Right, let's put aside our differences and let's work together to improve the safeguards for renters.' That would, among other things, help to keep a lid on rent increases as a result of Commonwealth rent assistance.

We need meaningful resourcing and decision-making power for the Indigenous community housing organisations. We need targeted incentives to local and state governments to deliver well-planned medium- and high-density social and affordable housing close to where people live, not way out on some greenfield site with poor services and poor public transport. I've left the best one till last, and that is implementing serious progressive tax reform to address systemic housing inequalities which are currently baked in and favour wealthy investors and developers over average Australians.

I know the government got badly burnt at the 2019 election. I get that. I can see why they're gun shy. But let's show some strength. And I can see why the opposition see this as a political opportunity to bang the government on the head if they even mention changes to negative gearing or capital gains tax discounts, for example. But can't we just, for one policy area—we do it on national security most of the time. Why don't we do the same thing on homelessness and say, 'Right, let's bang our heads together and have a think about this.'

Getting rid of negative gearing completely and immediately would of course be highly problematic for people who have made investment decisions in good faith, particularly as they're approaching retirement. But, heavens, can't we come in with reform that perhaps grandfathers investors up until now or perhaps puts caps on it? We can acknowledge that there are a lot of mum-and-dad investors who might have one investment property or two investment properties or whatever, but why can't we cap it and say you can't get negative gearing on 20 houses or 30 houses—in fact, the sorts of numbers of houses that some members in this place and in the Senate have, I would point out. There are ways to design these. But it's got to be something we work together on; otherwise, we're going to be back here next year and the year after.

We're fine. We're fat, dumb and lucky. I reckon everyone in this place has got a roof over their head. Many people in this place own a number of properties. I'm lucky, I'll admit it. My wife and I own a holiday shack down at the bottom of Tasmania. We're the lucky ones. But how about we start governing in the best interests of everyone else, the majority?

During the stage 3 tax cuts debate, I remember seeing a figure. Only about four per cent of Australians earn over $180,000—or taxpayers, I should say. I think that was the figure. Only about two per cent of Tasmanians earn over $180,000. In other words, compared to 98 per cent of Tasmanians, we're rich. We have a moral obligation to work together and not just argue over everything. Even this Help to Buy shared-equity scheme—okay, it's not perfect. Okay, it's only 40,000 properties. Okay, it's on a first come, first served approach. It's far from perfect. But, I tell you what, it's better than nothing.

Why do we have to fight over everything? Why is every idea from this side opposed by that side? Why is every good idea on this side opposed by that side? The losers are our communities that we are sent here to represent, and, when we do argue over everything and we fail to work in a collegiate way, we let our communities down. It's as simple as that.

I'll be supporting the bill. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. If we don't get this bill through the parliament, those 40,000 homes which hopefully will be bought or built will not happen. I take the point from the member for Forrest. Yes, there are lots of questions. Yes, people need to go into this scheme with their eyes wide open. But that doesn't mean we stop it. Maybe we need to amend something; we need to fix it—put in some safeguards. I don't know. But it's no reason to stop it.


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