Monday, 24 June 2013
Homelessness Bill 2013, Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Homelessness Bill 2013 and the Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013. The bill's explanatory memorandum states that this bill is aimed at increasing recognition and awareness of people who are homeless or who are at risk of homelessness. The consequential amendments bill repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 to make way for the new legislation and replaces the definition of 'homeless person' which applies in the provisions about including itinerant electors in the electoral rolls to ensure that people who are homelessness can still effectively participate in electoral activities. The bills make some definitional changes and remove references to the superseded Homelessness Funding Mechanism referred to in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994. The bills are otherwise little more than broad statements of principle and aspiration. This is something we are used to seeing from this Labor government—all politics, no policy. These bills do not impact on funding for service provision for homelessness.
The coalition will not oppose the bills, but is concerned that, through this legislation, the Labor government has produced yet another statement of aspiration without any ongoing tangible commitment to reducing homelessness on the ground. Indeed, the bills are a missed opportunity and will not make any difference to the plight of homeless Australians. These bills stem from a recommendation in Labor's white paper on homelessness to enact new legislation to ensure that people who are homeless receive quality support services and adequate support. The introduced bills are the product of the white paper recommendation and inquiry into homelessness legislation in 2009 by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community and Youth and a public consultation process in mid-2012.
I will turn specifically to the Homelessness Bill which, as I mentioned, is an aspirational document only. It is not a funding instrument and, contrary to the objective of the white paper, has no impact on the services and support provided to homeless people. The Homelessness Bill draws attention to the experience of homelessness and voices the goal that all Australians have access to appropriate affordable, safe and sustainable housing. The bill sets out a range of service delivery principles to which the Commonwealth is committed and the strategies seen as necessary to reduce homelessness. In response to stakeholder feedback, the bill widens the definition of homelessness so that people staying in crisis accommodation cannot be ruled out of the definition through any concept of choice. The definition also now includes a reference to safety as a vital element in a person's living circumstances.
Let me turn to the consequential amendments bill. The consequential amendments bill repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994. The Supported Accommodation Assistance Act was primarily a vehicle for providing funding to states and territories to administer the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, which provided crisis and transitional support and accommodation services to the homeless. New funding arrangements—the National Partnership on Homelessness and the National Affordable Housing Specific Purpose Payment—were introduced in 2009 under the Federal Financial Relations Framework, superseding the funding mechanism in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act. The new bills retain the statements of principle about homelessness contained in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act.
The consequential amendments bill also makes a change to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, replacing the definition of 'homeless person' which applies in the provisions about including itinerant electors on the electoral rolls and which currently partly relies on concepts drawn from the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act. The new definition of 'homeless person' will ensure that the itinerant elector provisions will continue to apply despite the repeal of the 1994 act so that people who are homeless can continue to participate in electoral activities in the Australian community.
Aside from making some definitional changes and removing references to the superseded funding mechanism in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, the bill is little more than a broad statement of principle. The definitional changes are important, ensuring that people staying in crisis accommodation are not excluded from the definition of 'homeless' because they have chosen to leave their homes. Indeed, young people escaping violent home life or mothers and their children who have had to leave home for their own safety can hardly be said to have chosen the state of homelessness. But the bill is otherwise simply a statement of high-minded aspiration. For more than 105,000 homeless Australians, and the thousands of dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to support them, these bills will raise the hope and expectation that a Labor government might finally do something tangible to stem the tide of homelessness in Australia, but without actually doing anything. It is disappointing that these bills will make no difference to funding or service provision for homelessness. Homeless Australians do not need any more high-minded aspiration. They need support and they need funding. Labor is offering them neither through these bills. Like the coalition, homeless Australians and stakeholders in the sector will be deeply disappointed by the bills. The coalition will not oppose the bills, but we believe that they are a missed opportunity and will not make any difference to the plight of homeless Australians. Most disappointingly, the bills go no way to addressing Labor's multiple failures on homelessness.
I turn then to this government's record of failure on homelessness. The Rudd-Gillard government has mismanaged homelessness policy right from the start and has made it difficult for the states and territories on the front line to do their job and deliver services to some of our most vulnerable citizens. In 2008, the then Prime Minister, the member for Griffith, Mr Rudd, said that homelessness was a national obscenity and promised to halve the rate of homelessness in Australia by 2020. Sadly, Labor's record has not matched their rhetoric. In fact, under Labor's watch, homelessness has increased. Between 2006 and 2011, ABS census figures show a 17 per cent increase in the number of homeless people in Australia, or an increase of over 15,500 people, from 89,728 in 2006 to 105,237 in 2011. Under Labor, over 17 per cent of Australia's homeless are now under the age of 12, and homeless families represent almost one-third of those receiving support in 2011-12. In most cases, these are single adults with children.
Compounding this failure, on 2 May 2013 the Australian National Audit Office released a report which revealed major failings in the government's key homelessness funding deal with the states and the territories, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. According to the audit report, the government is unlikely to achieve its own target of a seven per cent reduction in homelessness by 1 July 2013—weeks away. The government's likely failure to reach its seven per cent target has only been confirmed by a recent COAG Reform Council Report, Homelessness 2011-12: comparing performance across Australia, and by officials from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs at Senate estimates hearings this month. The ANAO report uncovered multiple other problems with the program. Firstly, state and territory governments are not required to report financial information to the Commonwealth under the scheme or the program, meaning the Commonwealth has no way to know if jurisdictions are meeting their financial commitments under the agreement. Secondly, payments to the state and territories are not linked to outcomes, milestones or performance benchmarks. Thirdly, the absence of outcomes based reporting means the government is unable to make meaningful assessments of overall progress within each jurisdiction or nationally and receives very little information on whether the reforms are even working at all. Fourthly, problems with homelessness data used under the program mean the government cannot even measure changes in homelessness levels in Australia over the life of the agreement.
Once you move passed the overblown rhetoric, Labor's commitment to reducing homelessness is not founded on the facts. In 2013-14 federal budget, Labor has not committed any funding beyond next year to homelessness. Instead, this government has allocated $159 million in 2013-14 for a one-year so-called Transitional National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the states and territories. The torturous process of renegotiating the program resulted in continued instability for homelessness service providers and Labor's last-minute, one-year deal to extend funding beyond 1 July 2013 is a bandaid solution that does not provide certainty for those services or the thousands of homeless people who rely upon them. In addition, Labor has negotiated funding arrangements for homelessness so badly that it has made it all but impossible to know if the reforms are working at all. Under Labor, the future of homelessness funding in Australia will remain uncertain beyond mid-2014. This government has allocated nothing in the forward estimates to fund vital homelessness services across the country.
The coalition, as I said, will not oppose this bill, but we do not believe the wordy sentiments it expresses will make any difference to thousands of homeless Australians out in the streets in the towns, the cities and rural areas of Australia. The coalition is committed to supporting the homeless in more than words. We are committed to combatting the many and complex causes of homelessness, supporting homeless Australians with real, practical assistance and preventing even more Australians from falling into homelessness. Unfortunately we cannot wave a magic wand and make homelessness go away. Setting arbitrary targets and making big promises to solve the plight of our under-privileged is not the best approach, because we simply cannot comprehend the complex nature of the issues which they face. These can include domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and economic circumstances such as the sudden loss of a job. A coalition government, if elected, would streamline homelessness services and cut red tape for providers, along with providing a $1.5 billion package for mental health problems.
Before I give the member for Canberra the call, I have a procedural matter to deal with. I understand that it is the wish of the Federation Chamber to debate this order of the day concurrently with the Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013. Is there any objection?
There being no objection I shall allow that course to be followed.
It is a real privilege to talk on this bill this afternoon, and I know, Deputy Speaker, from the work that we have done on the Status of Women caucus committee on this issue that it is an area of great interest to you, as it is to me. It is an area I have become particularly concerned about since my election in 2010 and I am proud of the progress that Labor is making in this area. In January 2008 Labor committed to tackling homelessness in Australia as a matter of national priority. This has been re-affirmed with our commitment to halve homelessness by 2020.
The problem of homelessness is being addressed within Labor's broader Housing Affordability and Social Inclusion agendas and with a particular focus on the prevention of homelessness, improved crisis services and the creation of exit points to secure long-term housing and stop the cycle of homelessness. This bill we are debating today outlines Labor's genuine commitment to tackling homelessness. One of the key initiatives Labor has taken over the past six years has been the development of a white paper on homelessness, The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness. This paper, which was released in December 2008, seeks to provide a national plan of action on homelessness for the years leading up to 2020. One of the commitments made by Labor in the white paper is to implement new legislation to ensure that people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness receive quality services and adequate support to meet their needs. This is the legislation that we are discussing this afternoon.
Evidence from the 2008 white paper says that, to break the cycle of homelessness, we need to have stable housing options and the maintenance of support services. I have witnessed the transformative qualities that housing can provide and the positive change it makes in people without supported accommodation. The bill we are debating today is about social acceptance. It is about providing an opportunity for people without an acceptable living standard to be considered and acknowledge so that everyone in this nation has a fair go. Furthermore, this bill explores the definition of homelessness, which is particularly important because, as we know, there is no one characterisation of homelessness in Australia. Homelessness in Australia might mean sleeping rough, living in a shelter, sleeping in a car or couch surfing at a friend's place. Homelessness in Australia might be temporary or long term, the result of economic difficulties such as a job loss, the result of mental illness or a means of escaping domestic violence. All of these things are homelessness in one form or another. This bill acknowledges that diversity, and it will enable better and more targeted strategies to create effective outcomes for Australia's homeless.
In Maslow's hierarchy of needs shelter and safety are the essential underpinnings of healthy and productive individuals and, through them, societies. The transformative qualities of a home were beautifully summarised by a constituent of mine whom I met last year when I was shopping at Fyshwick markets. She was behind the counter. She looked at me and said, 'Are you Gai Brodtmann?' I said, 'Yes, I am.' She said, 'I want to thank you.' I said, 'How did I assist?' She said, 'Your office was fantastic in helping me get a home and, as a result, I have been able to get a job and my whole life has turned around.' She was incredibly grateful not just for the fact that she had a home but also because, as a result of that home, she had got a job which she really loved. She had also got a new bloke in her life. I think she was a victim of domestic violence and some pretty unhappy circumstances at home. She had a happy child and her life had been transformed as a result of us helping her to get a social house.
Since being elected, I have had many, many women come to me looking for housing. I remember the first phone call I took when I had just got the keys to my electorate office. I was the only person in the office. There I was, newly sworn in as an MP, with the keys to the office but no-one around, and there was a woman on the phone whose circumstances were particularly tragic. She had been the victim of domestic violence. She had two teenage kids, one of them a boy, and there were some women's refuge issues as a result of that. She was working, and had been sleeping in her car. Her kids, who were going to school, had also been sleeping in the car. To top all of that tragedy off, she was also undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. That was the very first call I received in my electorate office as a new MP, and we did everything in our power to get that woman a home. She now has a home. We see her quite regularly because she works just around the corner. The cancer is in remission and the kids are going really well at school. So, as I said, this housing transforms people's lives.
Since Labor has been in government, we have made a significant investment in homelessness and housing. We have invested almost $5 billion in new funding for support services and programs to assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. We have put in place a $1.5 billion National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, and I understand that this agreement has delivered well over 180 new or expanded homelessness services across the country and supported around 240,000 people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Most importantly, we have invested $5.6 billion in social housing, the single largest investment in social housing in Australia's history. This massive investment is providing 31,000 affordable homes to vulnerable Australians, and hundreds are here in my electorate in Canberra.
As a result of this significant investment that we have made in social housing in Canberra, we have managed to move older Canberrans out of large family homes—they are empty-nesters now and they no longer need a huge family home—and into brand spanking new townhouses which are really close to all the services and infrastructure that they need to support them to shop, to see their friends and to have access to public transport. For many of these Canberrans it is the first time they have moved into a new home. I have been with them at the opening these beautiful new housing developments and seen the joy on their faces at these beautiful new townhouses that are so close to facilities. They are just overwhelmed and overjoyed. This is probably one of my favourite investments of the most significant investments that we have made since we have been in government.
Some states and territories have also used this funding to deliver housing projects specifically for women. Building social housing and, in particular, creating safe and reliable shelters and homes for women can only be done in partnerships with the states and territories. This is an area that I am particularly interested in. Now that we have managed to get these older Canberrans into these fabulous new townhouses as a result of the historic investment in social housing, I am keen for us to focus on looking after social housing for older women. The reason that I am is that I met with the Equality Rights Alliance last year and they showed me a report that they were putting together for their pre-budget submission. The report highlighted what they have dubbed a potential 'tsunami of homelessness' for older women in Australia. And here I want to quote from the ERA's submission:
Housing affordability is an issue that affects ageing women in greater numbers than ageing men. According to the 2011 Census there are 600,828 women in Australia who are single, over 45 years old, have less than median income and do not own their home. By comparison there are 373,794 men in the same situation.
The 2011 ABS Census also shows that among single people over 45 years old, women are much more likely to have less than median income: 62% of women compared to 38% of men. Even when older men are on a low income, they are more likely to be home owners: 38% of single men over 45 years old on less than median income do not own their home compared with 62% of women.
After their mid-60s, few women have incomes that are substantially above the Age Pension rate. Most people over 65 years do not live in care-based accommodation. In fact, 95% live at home. For a growing number of ageing women, this leaves the private rental market as their only option.
I have seen the faces of these women in my mobile offices, particularly when I do mobile offices during lunch breaks on weekdays. I have had women coming up to me and explaining to me that they are on an average income, they are still in the rental market, they are about 60 years of age, they only have a basic amount of super and they are absolutely petrified about what their future holds.
In March this year I talked about this ERA submission—as well as my concerns and my own experiences of women coming to my electorate office and my mobile office and meeting them out in the community—in an International Women's Day speech. I raised this issue, and I had women coming up to me afterwards in tears, saying, 'You have just described my situation. I am frightened for my future. What can I do about it?' I have had a number of women coming, again, in tears to the electorate office since that International Women's Day speech, highlighting these ERA figures and absolutely devastated and fearful for their futures.
According to Homelessness Australia, just over 40 per cent of the estimated homeless population are women. The census figures from 2006 reveal that women make up 40 per cent of the primary homeless people, or those people sleeping rough, and 48 per cent of the secondary homeless—that is, people staying with family or friends. These figures highlight the enormity of the problem and the challenge for us as policy makers to find solutions that enhance society and reduce the rate of homelessness within Australia and give people those fundamental building blocks to be able to succeed.
Having lived abroad, I appreciate the gift of living in a nation where the freedom to seek quality of life and the freedom to vote is valued. I think a particularly notable element of this bill is on the importance of preserving the freedom to vote. I welcome that initiative in this bill.
I am very passionately of the view that community is about helping underprivileged Australians stay off the streets. I was honoured to be the ambassador for Youth Homelessness Matters Day 2013.1am very concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of young people, women and anyone experiencing homelessness. This day was focused on young people, especially in my electorate. Forty-four thousand Australians under the age of 26 are homeless. The majority of them are just entering adulthood, a crucial time for anyone looking to build a career, gain stability and get on their own two feet.
I was reading through the St Vincent de Paul Society report on housing stress in Canberra and Goulburn, which was released late last year. It is a very stark assessment of the problem. There are some very moving stories of people's experiences here in the national capital. The St Vincent De Paul's report reveals cases of families of six or more living in two-bedroom units. There are cases of whole families living in cars, like the woman I described earlier. The sad fact is that a planned city like Canberra still has homelessness but unfortunately it goes unnoticed. We know that demand for access to government housing exceeds supply and the waiting times for priority and high needs housing is lengthy. On average, Canberrans are among the healthiest, best educated and most prosperous in Australia—but not those who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. What makes homelessness such a critical issue here in Canberra is our climate. Those who are not in stable housing or do not have access to affordable heating suffer seriously in winter. Being homeless anywhere in Australia is tough, but being homeless in a place that gets so cold in winter is particularly tough.
Reconnect Services is helping some of Canberra's most vulnerable young people to not only get their lives back on track but avoid or move out of homelessness. The ACT government is continuing to fund Reconnect ACT. I applaud them for doing that. Their activities include counselling, group work, mediation and practical support for young people and their families,
In closing, I would like to commend the work that has been done by COAG on this issue. In March this year, the multimillion dollar agreement with the states and territories ensured the continued provision of vital homelessness services. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness enables service providers to have the certainty they need to continue to offer critical support to some of the most vulnerable Australians. I would like to thank Corporal Coomara Munro from the Australian Air Force who wrote this speech while interning in my office under the Defence program. This bill gives voice to the homeless. It puts us on track to providing long-term certainty and hope for underprivileged Australians. I commend it to the House.
It is undeniable that homelessness is a growing problem in this country. On any given night, more than 105,000 Australians are homeless. That is one in every 200 people. According to the last census, 6,813 of these people were sleeping on the streets. Many thousands more were forced to couch surf, live in severely overcrowded housing or live in places like caravan parks or boarding houses that lack personal space and security. More than a quarter of our homeless population are children under the age of 18. On census night, almost 18,000 children under 12 were counted as homeless and 402 were sleeping rough.
The statistics belie some very horrific personal stories. Recently I was at a forum put on by the North Melbourne housing and homelessness action group where I met Spike, who had been living and sleeping rough through very long period of time and who is now spending his time advocating on the causes of homelessness. He explained that the health effects, just to take one aspect of it, are very significant. If you find yourself without a regular address, you find yourself less likely to come into regular contact with health services. If you do that, you are more likely to have problems such as dental problems. Spike explained that that in turn becomes a self-fulfilling circle: if you do not have teeth or you have bad teeth, you are less likely to get a job; if you are less likely to get a job, you are more likely to remain homeless.
There are other services in my electorate such as HomeGround. When I visited HomeGround, I came to understand the pressures that they were under. I met someone there who had been made redundant, who had been living on Newstart and who had then been homeless for a while. They found a home as a result of the work of HomeGround. That home, in the electorate of Melbourne, was one room in a rooming house in the suburb of Fitzroy and near to where this person had connections, and it set him back $180. When your Newstart payment is in the order of $240 and you are in a rooming house which you are sharing with others, you do not have the capacity to buy up in advance the right food and then cook it, because you are sharing fridges and sharing space with other people. So you end up eating bad food on the $60 a week that you have got left, or you skip it and eat nothing at all.
The need for affordable and appropriate accommodation is incredibly clear—and it has been clear for many years. Back in 2008, we had a very worthy pledge to halve homelessness. We had a white paper on homelessness. We were promised, amongst other things, a legislative response, for which we have been waiting some years. In that time, the pressure, certainly on services for people who deal with homelessness, has been increasing massively. We are at the point now where, on an average day in this country, 59 per cent of the people who are seeking to be newly accommodated by these services are turned away; the figure for couples with children is 74 per cent. The overwhelming reason for this situation is the lack of appropriate accommodation.
Let us think about that: on any given day, three quarters of the couples with children who find themselves homeless or who are at risk of homelessness and who front up to a service and ask for accommodation are turned away. In my office, we deal with a number of the consequences of that every day. In the electorate of Melbourne, there is more public housing than in any other electorate in the country, and the public housing waiting lists are huge. Even in public housing, there are people who are couch-surfing, who have been homeless for seven or eight years and who still have not been provided with appropriate accommodation. Not a day goes by when one of my staff members or I do not approach a housing service or a state government minister to seek appropriate accommodation for someone.
In the face of all those statistics and compelling stories, we have 250,000 Australian households on social housing waiting lists around the country, which is around half a million people. We have only 4,500 homeless people given priority access to public housing. There was a great deal of hope that finally the legislation, which was an overdue response to the white paper, might take us forward. Instead, we have a bill that expresses what are worthy sentiments but that is essentially a press release with a parliament of Australia bill cover on the front of it. The worthy sentiments do not bring with them one extra dollar for homeless services. This bill does not bring with it one new house or flat for someone who is seeking support. It will not relieve the pressure one jot on those who are homeless, who are at risk of homelessness or who are looking after those people who are at risk of homelessness. As one reads through the bill, yes, you find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with the very important and worthy sentiments in it. You keep waiting for the punchline where the bill will say that it is going to do something, and you turn to the last page and find that the bill says that not only is it not going to do something but something even more than that. It says in section 14:
(1) This Act does not, by its terms or operation, create or give rise to 4 any rights (whether substantive or procedural), or obligations, thatare legally enforceable in judicial or other proceedings.
It is a bill that is not legally binding. Why? What is the point of that if it is not backed up with a comprehensive response to the massive and growing problem of homelessness and housing affordability in this country? If you wanted a definition of Clayton's legislation, it is this—it is the bill you have when you are not having a bill—because it confers absolutely no legal rights or protections for this country's most vulnerable people and the ones who are most at risk.
Perhaps the reason we are seeing this bill brought on now at five minutes to midnight in this parliament is that last week was Homelessness Week and the Greens responded to that not with a bill that does nothing, but with a plan of action. The Greens have been concerned about homelessness and housing affordability for some time, and so last week we announced a homelessness action plan that would provide an emergency package to build 7,000 new homes by 2020—enough to house every person currently sleeping without adequate shelter. It is something that the government promised to do many years ago. We would include a 50 per cent target of fast-build, modular or pre-fabricated housing which will be significantly faster and more affordable to build. There are some great Australian factories that would be able to manufacture that modular and pre-fabricated housing. We would double the current funding for specialist homelessness services in Australia. In an environment where we know that, as I said before, 59 per cent of people are turned away on an average day when they turn up for help and three quarters of couples with children, we need that doubling in homelessness services.
We have had it costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office and it is eminently affordable, especially if we were to have the courage to raise the money this country needs to fund the services Australians expect. That would involve having a proper mining tax, and we hear today that Australia's banks are the most profitable in the world—and under Labor they have become the most profitable in the world—and the return to the community is nowhere near what it is in other countries. In other countries in Europe and the United States, they are saying, 'Well, look, we as governments stand behind you big banks and allow you to make these massive profits, we want a fair return.' A similar levy here in Australia would bring in $11 billion over four years. If we had the courage to stand up to the big miners or to the big banks or if we had the courage to just raise revenue in this country to the same proportion of GDP as it was under former Prime Minister John Howard, we would have an extra $20 billion to spend. That would mean that instead of having legislation that creates no legal rights or obligations and does not have one dollar attached to it, we could instead afford to fund initiatives like the Greens' proposal to solve Australia's homelessness by 2020. It would actually put some meat on the bones and put some money into building some housing and providing support for homelessness services.
If we are serious about addressing homelessness, I will tell you about two other things that would help. One is to raise NewStart above the poverty line. It has now been almost five years under this government where there has been a strong campaign from the sector and from people who say that we need to life NewStart above the poverty line, because it is far too low. We have had nothing but small increases that amount to only a couple of dollars a day. We need a minimum increase of $50 a week in NewStart—again it is something that is fully affordable if we had the courage to raise the revenue we need to fund the services Australians expect to create a more caring society. The second thing that I would do to address homelessness I would not kick single parents off their payments and put them on NewStart, because one of the most distressing things we have learnt is that since the start of this year is that housing services and welfare agencies are reporting a spike in the number of single parents with children who are seeking their services.
We told the parliament at the time the bill was going through—and people did not listen but it has been borne out to be the fact—that the people who were hit hardest by the government's decision to save a bit of money to help get back to surplus, a goal which they have now abandoned, were the ones who were already working. Kicking single parents off their welfare payments and onto the dole was apparently meant to help get them back into work but we learnt that the ones who were hit hardest were the ones who were already working the most because under the single parent payment you could earn and keep more of your income than you can under Newstart. Not only was it a drop in the actual payment but it was a drop in how much you could remain in the workforce. This was in face of the fact that single parents were already the group that had the highest proportion of people in work.
If you have met and spoken to single parents, you understand why. It is because they are predominantly women, many of whom have had experience of family violence and what they are trying to do is to provide the best life for their kids and for themselves as they possibly can. They are the group of people amongst all other welfare recipients who want to work and who are trying the hardest to juggle. They do not have spare cash to afford child care. They cannot necessarily have someone else at the end of a phone or in their house who can look after the kids and so they are juggling these things. Yet the decision that was made by the government has meant $140 a week in lost income for some of them. That is a lot of money when you are the only income earner in your family. As a result, more and more of them are presenting to services saying, 'We are now at risk of losing our house and we need the support of charity.'
If you were serious about addressing that, you would not be putting more people into a situation where they are at risk of homelessness by attacking those who are already doing it hardest. Let us get single parents back on the benefits and allow them to earn more and keep more of it as they used to be able to. Let us lift Newstart and the poverty line and let us have a debate in this country about how much we are prepared to raise the money to then fund these kinds of services because it is not that expensive—$233 million per annum to build prefabricated homes to house every rough sleeper by 2020. That is $500 million for the specialist homelessness services and signing a new national partnership on homelessness is $275 million. These are all eminently affordable and all costed. Let us do more than pass legislation that is not even legally binding. Let us make a real difference to Australia's homeless.
I rise to speak on the Homelessness Bill 2013 and Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013. The bills are aimed at increasing recognition and awareness of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. These bills are a missed opportunity because they are simply aspirational bills without any concurrent funding or reforms to improve homelessness in Australia. In their current form these bills will not make any difference to the plight of homeless Australians. As the member for Melbourne said, they are bills you have when you are not really having bills.
The coalition will not oppose the bills, but I am concerned that through this legislation the Labor government has produced yet another statement of principles without any ongoing tangible commitment to preventing or reducing homelessness on the ground. These two bills make minor amendments which are primarily administrative in nature. As the explanatory memorandum states, the bill draws national attention to the experience of homelessness and voices the aspiration that all Australians have access to appropriate, affordable, safe and sustainable housing. It sets out a range of service delivery principles to which the Commonwealth is committed and the strategies seen as necessary to reduce homelessness.
The Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994, makes some definitional changes and removes references to the superseded homelessness funding mechanism referred to in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994. This program was primarily a vehicle for providing funding to states and territories to administer the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, which gave crisis and transitional support and accommodation services to the homeless. New funding arrangements were introduced in 2009, namely the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and the national affordable housing specific purpose payment. It also replaces a definition of 'homeless person', which applies in the provisions regarding the inclusion of itinerant electors on the electoral roll, to ensure that people who are homeless can still effectively participate in electoral activities.
The bills stem from a recommendation in Labor's white paper on homelessness to enact new legislation to ensure that people who are homeless receive quality services and adequate support. Their introduction follows a very lengthy journey through this parliament, including the white paper; an inquiry into homelessness legislation in 2009 by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family Community, Housing and Youth; and a public consultation process in mid-2012. These bills respond to some of the concerns raised throughout the committee and public consultation process.
The definition of 'homelessness' has been widened so that people staying in crisis accommodation cannot be ruled out of the definition through any concept of choice. The definition also now includes a reference to safety as a vital element in a person's living circumstances. Stakeholders believe that these definitional changes are important, ensuring as they do that people staying in crisis accommodation are not excluded from the definition of 'homeless' because they have chosen to leave their homes. Young people escaping a violent home life and mothers and their children who have had to leave home for their own safety can hardly be said to have chosen a life of homelessness. Otherwise, the bills are simply a statement of high-level aspiration for the more than 105,000 homeless Australians and the thousands of dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to support them. These bills will raise the hope and expectation that this Labor government might finally do something tangible to stem the tide of homelessness in Australia.
As we approach the final days of the 43rd Parliament, it is clear that this government wants to pass these bills to seem to be doing something without making any difference to funding or service provision for homelessness. Homeless Australians do not need more esoteric aspiration. They need support and they need funding. Labor is offering neither through these bills. If we look at the track record of the Rudd-Gillard governments, it is clear that they have mismanaged their homelessness policy. In 2008, Kevin Rudd said that homelessness was a 'national obscenity' and promised to halve the rate of homelessness in Australia by 2020. In fact, under Labor's watch, homelessness has only increased.
Between 2006 and 2011, ABS census figures show a 17 per cent increase in the number of homeless people in Australia, or an increase of over 15,500 people, from 89,728 in 2006 to 105,237 in 2011. Under Labor, more than 17 per cent of Australia's homeless are now under the age of 12, and homeless families represent almost one-third of those receiving support in 2011-12. In most cases, these are single adults with children.
On 2 May 2013, the Australian National Audit Office, the ANAO, released a report which revealed major failings in the government's key homelessness funding deal with the states and territories, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, or NPAH. According to the report, the government is unlikely to achieve its own target of a seven per cent reduction in homelessness by 1 July 2013. The government's likely failure to reach its seven per cent target has also been confirmed by a recent COAG Reform Council report, Homelessness 2011–2012: comparing performance across Australia, and by officials from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs at Senate estimates hearings this month.
The Labor government has simply increased reporting compliance without knowing whether federal funding has resulted in a commensurate increase in the ability of states and territories to deliver front-line services to some of our most vulnerable citizens. This was revealed by the ANAO, which detailed multiple problems with the NPAH. Firstly, state and territory governments are not required to report financial information to the Commonwealth under the NPAH, meaning the Commonwealth has no way to know if jurisdictions are meeting their financial commitments under the agreement. Secondly, payments to the states and territories are not linked to outcomes, milestones or performance benchmarks. Thirdly, the absence of outcomes based reporting means the government is unable to make meaningful assessments of overall progress within each jurisdiction, or nationally, and receives very little information on whether the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness reforms are even working at all. Lastly, problems with homelessness data used under the NPAH mean the government cannot even measure changes in homelessness levels in Australia over the life of the agreement.
Once you move past the overblown rhetoric, Labor's lack of commitment to reducing homelessness in real terms is revealed by the facts. In the 2013-14 federal budget, Labor has not committed any funding beyond next year to homelessness. Instead, this government has allocated $159 million in 2013-14 for a one-year so-called Transitional National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the states and territories. The process of re-negotiating the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness resulted in continued instability for homelessness service providers and Labor's last-minute one-year deal to extend funding beyond 1 July 2013 is a short-term band-aid solution that does not provide certainty for these services and the thousands of homeless people who rely on them. Under Labor, the future of homelessness funding in Australia will remain uncertain. Beyond 2014, this government has allocated nothing in the forward estimates to fund vital homelessness services across the country. Even if this Labor government had provided meaningful funds for homelessness, the way they negotiated the funding arrangements for homelessness means it is all but impossible to know whether the NPAH reforms are working at all.
The coalition will not oppose this legislation but we do not believe the worthy sentiments it expresses will make any difference to homeless Australians on the ground. The coalition is committed to supporting the homeless with more than fine words. We are committed to combating the many and complex causes of homelessness, supporting homeless Australians with real practical assistance and preventing even more Australians from falling into homelessness. Unfortunately, we cannot wave a magic wand and house all the homeless. Setting arbitrary targets and making promises to solve the plight of our underprivileged is not the best approach, because we simply cannot comprehend the complex nature of the issues they face. These can include domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and adverse economic circumstances such as sudden job loss.
A coalition government, if elected, would streamline homelessness services and cut red tape for providers, along with a $1.5 billion package for mental health. Providing real support for mental health services will be an important preventive step to supported at-risk Australians. The coalition will not oppose the bills. However, setting out aspirational goals in the last days of this parliament is simply too little, too late for a government which has not been serious about making any difference to the plight of homeless Australians.
This package of bills is aimed at increasing recognition and awareness of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This government has made homelessness a national priority. Our white paper The road home outlines how we intend to reduce homelessness through a program that will require sustained effort by governments, business and the broader community. We have set clear targets to halve the rate of homelessness by 2020 and to provide supported accommodation for all rough sleepers who need it. We are progressing these targets through a significant boost in spending, new agreements with the states and territories and an overhaul of the existing legislative framework. Already we have seen progress, including through early intervention to prevent homelessness.
The homelessness legislative framework was the subject of a comprehensive inquiry during 2009 by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth. The committee's report Housing the homelesshas been vital in shaping this legislation being debated today. With the exception of the legislative right to housing, which is outside current government policy—and, in practice, would be significantly dependent on the actions of states and territory governments, which are responsible for housing—the committee's recommendations have been incorporated into the Homelessness Bill 2013 to the best extent possible. The bill complements a broader reform process to reduce homelessness, incorporating substantial co-investment with states and territories to expand and implement a range of practical measures to support and improve outcomes for Australians facing homelessness. The bill underpins the need to sustain this effort into the future.
The Homelessness Bill 2013 draws national attention to the experience of homelessness and voices the aspiration that all Australians have access to appropriate, affordable, safe and sustainable housing. This ensures consistency with the objective of the National Affordable Housing Agreement between the Commonwealth, the states and territories and local government. This ensures consistency with the objective of the National Affordable Housing Agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories and local government. The bill acknowledges the direct relationship between addressing homelessness and social inclusion. It sets out a range of service delivery principles to which the Commonwealth is committed and the strategies we see as necessary to reduce homelessness. The bill also confirms the Commonwealth's commitment to cooperation and consultation in reducing homelessness and promotes the human rights of people facing homelessness. This legislation has been strengthened through a two-month public exposure period in mid-2012. We express our gratitude to those many people who lodged written submissions on the exposure draft of the bill.
The new legislation will replace the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act of 1994 which set out important principles and guided the Commonwealth's response to homelessness in Australia for many years. The 1994 act was primarily a vehicle for providing funding to states and territories to implement the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program. However, new arrangements were introduced in 2009 under the Federal Financial Relations Framework, superseding the funding mechanism under the 1994 act. This current funding framework for Commonwealth, state and territory efforts to reduce homelessness with funding provided through Commonwealth-state mechanisms such as the National Partnership on Homelessness and the National Affordable Housing specific purpose payment will continue.
The Homelessness Bill 2013 is therefore complementary to the comprehensive funding arrangements already in place and is not a funding instrument in itself. Accordingly, the Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013 repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 to make way for the new legislation. It also makes a consequential amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918 to make sure existing provisions that encourage civic participation and voting by people experiencing homelessness will continue to apply. The Homelessness Bill 2013 is just one part of a bigger policy program of support to people who are homeless or at risk of it. The issue of service quality is also being pursued by working with states and territories to develop a non-legislative Homelessness National Quality Framework. The framework will be the primary strategy for the white paper's goal of ensuring quality services.
The welfare and safety of our fellow Australians matter a great deal. There can be no more worthy cause than doing all that we can to help reduce homelessness. This new legislation is a clear statement of our commitment and our values in this vital policy agenda and underlines and complements the substantial practical measures already in place.
Question agreed to.
Bills read a second time.
Ordered that these bills be reported to the House without amendment.