House debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024


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

11:37 am

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | Hansard source

I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Help to Buy Bill and the Help to Buy (Consequential Provisions) Bill and to follow the excellent contribution, if I may so, by the member for Wannon. As the member for Wannon articulated, the coalition opposes the Help to Buy Bill. Let's be very clear about what we support and what we oppose. We support effective policy measures to help more Australians buy their own home. We've always supported that and we have a very proud record of implementing effective policy which achieves that very objective. Sadly, the scheme before the House today, contained in this Help to Buy Bill, is not an effective policy. On the contrary, it is poorly targeted, it is badly designed and it is very poor value for taxpayers' money.

I want to be crystal clear: this is not a debate about whether one side of the House or the other more strongly supports all Australians who want to having the opportunity to buy their own home. That is something that on this side of the chamber we very strongly support. The question before the chamber today is whether the particular policy mechanism proposed by the Albanese Labor government, embodied in this bill, is an effective mechanism to achieve that objective or whether, in fact, it is ineffective and it is nothing more than a cynical political gambit from a party that wants to be seen to be doing something, when on any analysis the proposed measure is going to have, at best, an almost inconsequential impact.

Let me lay out the reasons I say—we say—this scheme is poorly targeted, badly designed and poor value for taxpayers' money. It is open to only 10,000 households each financial year. That is why the excellent, extremely effective, extremely experienced shadow minister for housing delivered, when he was the Minister for Housing, effective policy mechanisms which got hundreds of thousands of Australians into their own homes. He speaks with authority and experience on this subject, and he describes this scheme—I think entirely accurately—as a niche program with, in total, some 10,000 households. The maximum upper limit on the number of households who can participate each year is 10,000. For that niche benefit, taxpayers will be on the hook for $5.5 billion. While the Labor party never shows any evidence of recognising this fundamental reality, the amount of money available to the government to spend is finite. It's limited. It's not inexhaustible. That means you need to assess the range of policy options in the menu of possibilities in front of you based upon those which most effectively and efficiently deploy taxpayers' money. This scheme, I'm sorry to say, does not meet that test.

We can look at the experience of the numerous shared-equity schemes which have been in place at the state government level over many years—for example, the New South Wales government's Shared Equity Home Buyer Helper scheme, the Victorian government's Homebuyer Fund, the South Australian government's HomeStart shared equity option and Tasmania's MyHome shared equity option. The simple fact is that, in each of these schemes, there are places remaining. Demand falls short of supply. We do not have a constraint in the supply of places in shared-equity schemes around Australia. Yet, for some mystifying reason, the policy geniuses on the other side of the chamber thought it was a ripper idea to announce yet another shared-equity scheme, notwithstanding the clear market evidence that there isn't a shortage of supply; there's a shortage of demand for places in shared-equity schemes. There are more than enough places already available from the schemes provided by state governments around the country. Yet, for some mysterious reason, the Labor party at the Commonwealth level thought it was a ripper idea to announce another one.

Why would they do that, you might ask? The answer is pretty obvious. They want to be seen to be doing something about the problem of Australians getting access to housing without actually doing anything meaningful or that will make a material difference. There are well-recognised issues with shared-equity schemes, which means that they are a niche policy solution, as the shadow minister for housing has rightly said. Amongst those well-recognised problems is that that they may encourage those for whom homeownership is not necessarily the most suitable housing option to take on undue financial risk. They may divert resources from supporting those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including because of rental stress.

But there's another, more fundamental problem with shared-equity schemes which explains why they are at best a niche solution and why the number of people who have come forward to take up places in the schemes provided by state governments around Australia has fallen short of the number of places available. That problem is this: if you want to own a home, you want to own a home. You don't want to own a home on a shared basis with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing. You don't want them or their representatives to be sitting around the kitchen table when the will is read out to determine who gets to take a share of ownership when you've died. You want to own a home. This has been an aspiration of millions of Australians for decades and decades. Millions of Australians have embarked upon the homeownership journey, and it has benefited them for many reasons throughout their life, including by giving them that sense of security and stability that you have when you own your own home and by giving them greater autonomy because they can make a choice about whether they want to put up some pictures on the wall without having to check with the landlord.

Of course, there is also the fact that purchasing home, as most of us do—very few of us are in a position to buy a home outright—is a means of enforced saving and a means of building wealth throughout your life. It is particularly important when you get to your retirement years that you own a home. That is one reason why the policy objective of having as many people as possible owning their own homes is very important. It's important for a range of reasons, but certainly one of those is that more people owning their own homes in their retirement years means that more people will be able to enjoy a retirement in which they are not continually anxious about their housing options and about paying for those housing options. That is a fundamental philosophical reason why the relevance and the applicability of shared-equity schemes is always going to be at best a niche policy response.

On top of that fundamental design or philosophical issue are a whole range of important questions of detail in relation to the operation of this particular scheme that have not been adequately answered by the government, which leads one to suspect that they haven't yet worked out the answers. What, for example, are the eligibility criteria to participate under the scheme? What happens if you, as the co-owner of a home with the Australian government, spend money on making improvements to your home? What if you spend money on making necessary repairs to a leaky roof? Do you then send an invoice to the government so that they pay 50 per cent of the cost? What happens if you spend $50,000 on a kitchen or a bathroom renovation? Do you send an invoice to the Commonwealth government for 50 per cent of the cost of that? That will contribute to the increased value of the home when it's ultimately sold. As the details of this scheme, such as they are, suggest, the Commonwealth will then be entitled to 50 per cent of the gain in the value of the home—the price that you sell it at compared to the price it was bought at. But if some of that gain comes because you, the homeowner, have spent $50,000 on a bathroom or a kitchen renovation, how is that to be equitably worked out?

The answers to those questions remain, it must be said, an enduring mystery. What about the income test that applies for eligibility under this scheme? We know from what the government has said that your income must be below $90,000 if you are an individual or below $120,000 if you are a couple to be eligible to participate in the scheme. What happens if you've bought a home under this scheme with the Commonwealth government as your co-owner on an income of $80,000 and then a couple of years down the track your income increases—you get a pay rise or perhaps you change jobs—and suddenly you're earning $95,000. That's very good news, but it won't be good news if the fact of having increased your income means that the Commonwealth government then says to you: 'Right, you're out. You're no longer meeting the eligibility requirements of this scheme, so pack your stuff and get out of the house. It's got to be sold.' Again, we don't know the answers to these questions.

What are your reporting obligations if you participate in one of these shared-equity schemes? What happens if housing prices fall? It does happen sometimes. More often than not over the past 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, house prices have risen, but from time to time they fall. That's in the nature of markets. What will happen if housing prices fall and if you, as the owner or co-owner, are behind on your mortgage payments? Will the government step in as the co-owner and say: 'We're at financial risk here. We insist that the home be sold'? You're out on the street. And the sale price that you realise is less than you paid to get into the house. All of these are perfectly foreseeable scenarios, but it is very hard to know what the answers to these questions are, because the government's been extremely vague.

One of the other undistinguished features of this government's poor administration of this area of policy is that Australians were promised—Australians were told at the last election—that this Help to Buy scheme would be in place by 1 January 2023. It does not take much intellectual effort to work out that that deadline has been hopelessly missed. We're already almost a year and two months past that deadline. But, of course, there's another factor here—although the Labor Party didn't make this plain to Australians when they announced this policy—which is that, because of the way it's designed, the state and territory governments each need to pass their own legislation to allow the scheme to operate.

Members of this House should not think that, once this legislation passes the federal parliament, this government has delivered on its promise. On the contrary, there's more work to be done. We are already more than halfway through the term of the Albanese Labor government, and this is but one of many areas where it is hopelessly behind time and where what it is actually delivering falls vastly short of the soaring rhetoric of its promises. Members might well ask, 'What's the urgency in getting this done and why has the government moved to guillotine this evening so that the bill has to be passed?' It might very well be because they're pretty embarrassed about the fact that, as of 1 March, we're going to tip over from one year and two months to one year and three months, and they want to try and at least get the legislation through.

But I say to Australians: do not think that, once this legislation is through, there's going to be a miraculous change in the availability of housing, because there's more that needs to be done. It's a niche scheme at best, and poorly targeted, badly designed, poor value for taxpayers' money, and politics over policy substance. The coalition opposes this bill.


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