Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. The bill that is currently before the House is yet another example of why this government is not for Australians living on low incomes. This is a bill that hides punitive, draconian measures targeting the most vulnerable in our community under the guise of housing affordability. This is a bill that's like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is a bill that combines sensible administrative changes to the National Rental Affordability Scheme with an attack on those in our society who are already down and out.
The member for Barton has already highlighted the opposition's support for ensuring landlords are not taking advantage of the National Rental Affordability Scheme. That is not our issue with the bill. In my speech today, I want to highlight the disturbing nature of the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. This is a scheme that targets low-income Australians, demonstrates a disregard for social housing and lays bare a disgraceful ideology around the nature of government assistance.
The bill has been brought to the House by a government that doesn't care about Australians living on low incomes. We know that 99 per cent of social housing tenants are able to pay their rent on time, and are happy to do so. Already, 86 per cent of Australians living in government owned housing participate in voluntary rent deduction schemes. Going after one per cent of tenants who may not be able to pay is cruel and it is petty. This is a government that only cares about economically supporting the top one per cent rather than the bottom one per cent. With no cap on the amount of arrears that might be deducted from each fortnightly welfare payment, who, does the government think, will suffer under these measures? We know that families make up a large proportion of social housing tenants. In putting up legislation like this, have the government considered who they are going to impact by recovering 100 per cent of an individual's Centrelink payments? This will impact not just those on welfare payments but their children and other family members—those who will have done nothing to contribute to the situation of rental arrears but who will suffer greatly should a significant portion of the welfare payments be forcibly quarantined.
This government has been nothing if not consistent in its failure to take meaningful action on Australia's housing crisis. The name of the bill is misleading. This is not a government that is for housing affordability. It's quite the opposite actually. Social housing is an essential component in providing adequate supply of affordable, quality housing to all Australians. This piece of legislation makes clear how little this government values social housing. It views social housing as a handout rather than as an essential piece of economic infrastructure. It views circumstances that may cause tenants to default on their rent as reason for punishment rather than compassion.
Social housing is an important component of tackling housing affordability in this country. Social housing represents opportunity. It is a vital public infrastructure. It is the secure, stable home that all Australians deserve. It also enables those Australians on minimal incomes to access the housing market, relieving cost pressures on the low-cost private rental market.
I grew up in social housing in south-west Sydney. This was in an era when the government actually valued such a commodity. Those opportunities that come when children have secure, stable housing are remarkable, and the reason why I'm here. The value of family, a good education, a consistent roof over your head and adequate nutrition afford children the best possible start in life. The government must look to create these circumstances, which individuals living in social housing need to thrive, because we know that when we give vulnerable Australians the tools they need to succeed in society they are able to thrive. Growing up in a secure and stable home affords children the wealth of opportunities that this country has to offer. Implementing these compulsory rent deductions will create further undue stress upon family environments, which goes against the very principle of social housing itself.
The bill represents ideological whiplash. The minister, in his speech, discussed the benefits of streamlining NRAS delivery. In the same breath, he cited the need to get tough on social housing tenants who default on their rent. This is in spite of the fact that 99 per cent of social housing tenants pay their rent on time each fortnight. Given the minimal amount that the government might hope to recoup, the proposed Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme seems to be just another attempt to look tough at the expense of vulnerable Australians.
The Prime Minister is more than happy to wander around wearing a baseball cap supporting the cause of men than to stand up to those who commit the act of interpersonal violence. However, this week we need to meet in this place to debate a bill that could see uncapped automatic rent deductions for the damage caused as a result of domestic and family violence.
We hold grave concerns on this side of the House about the practical implementation of these measures. It's difficult to imagine ordinary circumstances where social housing tenants would simply fall into rental arrears of their own volition. They're happy to be in social housing; they know what an honour it is to get a place. If a stressful financial system causes individuals and families to fall behind in their rent, acquiring entire welfare payments to recover the debt is likely only to worsen that situation.
When Labor was in government last we introduced the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Public Housing Tenants' Support) Bill 2013. This bill capped the rental reductions in order to allow for a reasonable ability for individuals to manage their other financial affairs. We required this to be communicated to tenants well in advance, and the compulsory deductions only applied to tenants at considerable risk of becoming homeless. In contrast, this bill that I speak on today allows for deductions that are unfair, unexpected and uncapped. Worse still, it includes all those on government benefits, the disability support pension and carer payments—people who are vulnerable and people who are looking after the vulnerable.
The Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme this bill proposes is a disproportionate and draconian response that patronises social housing tenants by suggesting they're unable to manage their own finances. We believe that any form of rental deduction should be applied as a last resort only, and only as a means of preventing homelessness—remembering that we're only talking about one per cent of these tenants. What's more, a Shorten Labor government would take a holistic approach to the issue of homelessness, encompassing all homelessness and housing insecurity, not just the rental arrears of one per cent of the nation's housing tenants.
In conclusion, as I said at the start of my speech, this bill is a strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The government claims it is about housing affordability, and, while the NRAS reforms are badly needed and sensible, it's difficult to see how coming after social housing tenants in tough spots does anything to promote housing affordability. Really, all it will do is make people's lives worse and take away their opportunity to get better. Tying two separate reforms together demonstrates that this government does not care about the integrity of its policy. Labor will support the changes to NRAS, but the bill needs to be split so that we can deal with each component separately. If this were a government truly committed to the housing needs of our vulnerable and low-income Australians, it would allow the NRAS changes and the Compulsory Rent Deduction Scheme to be considered separately. As it stands, it is not right to support this legislation.
I am pleased to speak on this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. What this government bill does is introduce an automatic rent deduction scheme that can be mandatorily applied to all tenants receiving social security or family assistance payments who live in public or community housing. Currently, under the Compulsory Rent Deduction Scheme, social housing tenants are able to request that Centrelink withholds a portion of their income support payment to directly pay their rent and other costs, such as utilities. So there is already a scheme. It's voluntary—people in social housing can ask to have a portion taken—and the scheme is already used by 86 per cent of households in the public and social housing sector.
But this bill goes further than that in that it creates an Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. Under that scheme, state and territories, as well as community housing providers, would be able to request that the secretary withhold a portion of tenants' income support and/or family tax benefit payments and use these funds to directly pay rent and utilities costs on behalf of those tenants. The bill would allow automatic deductions from people in receipt of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment and family tax benefit as well as those relying on Newstart or youth allowance. It would extend across the broad range of people receiving government payments. It would mean that funds could be withheld from tenants without their permission if a state chooses to apply it in this way. States and territories would have the absolute discretion to decide whether the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme would apply in their jurisdiction and the extent to which it is applied.
The government argues that evictions as a result of rental arrears of public household tenants are a cause of homelessness. According to data from the states and territories, in 2013-14 more than 8,900 households living in social housing were more than three weeks in arrears of rent and 2,300 people were evicted from public housing due to rent arrears. But given there are nearly 400,000 households living in public and social housing, that is actually a small number—less than 2.5 per cent—of people who are more than three weeks in arrears. So this is a very big stick, to use the government's language, to use on a circumstance that applies to a very small number of people. As I said, 86 per cent of people in social and public housing are already using a voluntary rent deduction scheme, as of 2015-16. We also know, because of evidence to the inquiry, that 90 per cent of tenants have no problems meeting their rental obligations at all.
The Parliamentary Library has also advised that over the five years from 2011-12 to 2015-16 national rent collection rates have averaged over 99 per cent across public housing, community housing and state owned and managed Indigenous housing. So we have a sector that is working 99 per cent of the time. But for that one per cent, we have a measure that this government wants to introduce that will make it possible for states and territories to make it mandatory for all those tenants—all of the 99 per cent that are managing quite well, as well as the one per cent—to have money taken from their payments without their consent. It's a disproportionate response. It is a very big stick for a problem that involves only a relatively small number of social and public housing tenants.
The Senate inquiry also heard that rental arrears are not a significant cause of homelessness—and we know this. Those of us that have organisations in our communities that work with the homeless will know that it's more likely to be complex issues such as mental illness, substance abuse, family violence and a lack of affordable options that contribute more greatly to homelessness in Australia than social housing rental arrears. I would urge the government to look at the broader causes of homelessness rather than impose such a harsh process on people in social and public housing.
A form of compulsory rent reductions, I have to say, was actually recommended in The road home: a national approach to reducing homelessness white paper, which the former Labor government commissioned. At the time of losing government in 2013, we did actually have a piece of legislation to enable a compulsory rent reduction scheme, known as the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Public Housing Tenants' Support) Bill 2013,which lapsed in the 2013 election. It was quite different to this very harsh, one-size-fits-all approach that the government has. There are a number of critical differences.
Firstly, under Labor's proposal the changes in the public housing tenants' support bill would only have applied to tenants who had rental arrears of more than four weeks, and only once other reasonable recovery action had been taken. This included requirements to connect people to financial counselling and other services. In the Labor proposal we had something that only applied to people who were in trouble, rather than this harsh measure that applies to 100 per cent of people, of whom 99 per cent are now doing just fine.
Also under Labor's bill, the deductions in the public housing tenants' support bill were capped. Deductions, under the public housing tenants' support bill, could only apply temporarily, up to 12 months after arrears were addressed to enable a person's circumstances to stabilise. The amount deducted was able to be varied in accordance with changes in rental and utility amounts, provided the tenant was notified. So Labor's proposal provided solutions for people who were in difficulty; the government's approach applies to everybody across the board.
There have been a number of stakeholder concerns, as you'd expect. The majority of stakeholders are strongly opposed to an automatic rent deduction scheme; most argue that compulsory deductions can only be justified in very limited circumstances to prevent imminent homelessness, and with strict oversight. They talk about some of the circumstances in which you find tenants who would be incredibly harshly dealt with under this government's very large stick. Withholding a portion of income for rent decreases the capacity of tenants to respond to emergencies, such as the need to replace an appliance or pay a large bill. Currently, it is common practice for social housing tenants to negotiate with the housing provider to defer a rental payment so they can meet unexpected expenses when they occur. As we all know, many people in social housing are on very, very tight financial constraints and aren't able to respond to those unexpected expenses. There is also concern that those who are named on the lease will shoulder an unfair proportion of costs. For example, as in other households, there are some cases where several adults share the rent. There is no capacity in this process for that to be taken into account.
In their submissions, welfare organisations have recommended that a cap be placed on the amount that the secretary may deduct from a tenant's income support payment to ensure that a minimum residual amount is available to meet the tenant's other needs. The Salvation Army has suggested the cap could be set at 30 per cent of household income. There are a number of different definitions and indicators of housing stress, but most of the definitions are that where households are spending more than 30 per cent of their gross income on housing costs they are in housing stress.
There were several witnesses to the inquiry that raised concerns that the amount deducted could include an amount to cover damage to the rental property. There was a universal condemnation of that. It was of concern that social housing tenants may not have damaged the property themselves and, as a cohort, are less likely to follow up on their rights to review and appeal as a result.
So there are many concerns with this bill as it stands. I would urge the government to consider why they feel the need to apply such a very large stick—again using their language—on people who are already coping quite well with the payment of rent. As the inquiry stated, 99 per cent of social, public and community housing tenants are paying their rent on time. There is a very small number that aren't. We would recommend that the government also look at Labor's proposal back in 2013, which addressed those who were having difficulty but left alone those who were capable of managing their own finances.
Again, this government is very, very good at attacking those who are most vulnerable. It can be very harsh in its approach to people experiencing difficulty. We would urge it to reconsider. There will be a Senate inquiry, and we will be looking very closely at the outcome of that inquiry as we put together our final view on this bill. But, as it stands, it's unreasonably harsh and it targets a broad range of people when perhaps it would be more appropriate if the government provided support mechanisms for those who are experiencing difficulty, rather than apply these harsh measures to the whole sector.
I would also like to make a contribution on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017, and indicate at the outset that I certainly strongly support the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister. This is another example of the government's inaction when it comes to housing affordability. The government love to talk it up—they love to talk about housing affordability—but this is just another example of their inactivity when it comes to dealing with housing affordability. As speaker after speaker on our side have indicated, this bill, really, in terms of community housing, applies to about one per cent of the rental base. But, nevertheless, they actually see this as almost signature legislation for them. I would have thought it would have been far more beneficial for the government to actually address the issue of housing affordability and take a serious view about homelessness in this country.
If this government was serious about homelessness, it would certainly be doing something about mental health, which is one of the main triggers and issues of homelessness. It would also, particularly—as experienced in my own electorate—be doing something about the issues with crisis accommodation, particularly for women fleeing domestic violence. Clearly there are many, many other vulnerable Australians who would be part of this cohort of the one per cent that the government is really applying this legislation to capture.
I'd like to read to the House what Associate Professor Lisa Woods from the Centre for Social Impact says in her submission in terms of the intergenerational effects of the failure to invest in people for whom housing is unaffordable or inadequate. She says: 'We see there is a risk of inequity. A lot of people who are homeless have experienced childhood drama. There are many who are experiencing mental health issues. Many of them are victims of sexual abuse, so there are complex cases. These inequities are deep-rooted.' I think that's right. When it comes to these issues—when you think that 99 per cent of all those in social housing are able to meet their rental responsibilities on time—this is directed to that one per cent.
On many occasions I've spoken in this place about how I have the very distinct honour of representing what is the most multicultural community in the whole of Australia. It's very colourful; it's very vibrant. We certainly revel in its diversity. But, regrettably, it's not a rich community. As a matter of fact, I disproportionately have, it's probably fair to say, the lion's share of immigrants and, particularly, refugees who come to this country. The bulk of them feature in my area in south-west Sydney, particularly in the local government area of Fairfield.
It is also worthwhile noting that the average household income in my electorate is a tad over $60,000 per annum. That's not the average income; that's the average household income. As I say, mine is not a rich community and, therefore, housing affordability and social housing are very, very big and material issues for the people I have the honour of representing. As such, the issue of housing affordability is something that my office deals with regularly. I am indebted to the great work that is done by the various community housing organisations I have working in Western Sydney, particularly Hume housing and St George Community Housing. There is also the housing provided by the Gandangara local land council, as I have a large Aboriginal population based around Liverpool. These organisations do a great job, together with various other government funded agencies, in trying to accommodate the essential needs of people—and that is putting a roof over families' heads.
One other organisation I would like to mention—and I spoke a fair bit about it yesterday—is the Bonnie Support Services. Yesterday we spoke in this place about White Ribbon Day and violence against women. Bonnie Support Services is an extraordinary organisation that does an incredible job in providing not only support services and counselling to victims of domestic violence; it also provides crisis accommodation to those victims. So it is something which is just so fundamental in my community when bearing in mind that more than 50 per cent of all assaults reported to police in my community are domestic violence related. I would like to read to you what Tracy Phillips, the executive officer of Bonnie Support Services, particularly advised me. She said that:
… there is a clear lack of crisis and transitional housing for women and children, with individuals having to be referred to other organisations on a daily basis, due to their lack of capacity.
These are not figures that are just plucked out. These are things which are happening. I would imagine, in terms of domestic violence, my electorate doesn't stand alone in that. This is something that affects everybody. But I certainly know the impact it has in my community.
Instead of taking steps to rectify housing affordability in this regard, the government are fixated on this automatic rent deduction for social housing tenants and making changes to the administration of the national rental administration scheme. As I said from the outset, this is not a serious attempt to deal with housing affordability. It's just another tick-and-flick process that we've come to expect from this government. They have probably picked the most marginalised community to have a go at. That is what this does. It is clear from the outset.
We will support modest amendments to the National Rental Affordability Scheme, particularly in schedule 3 of the bill, which actually brings the scheme back in line with what our targets were when Labor formally introduced them. However, we still, as I say, hold great reservations about schedule 1 and schedule 2, which impose a mandatory automatic rental reduction scheme.
In trying to dig through this I sought the advice of the Parliamentary Library, a great asset we have in this place in terms of research capability. That advice shows that 86 per cent of public and social housing tenants voluntarily use the Rental Deduction Scheme. The Parliamentary Library also was able to indicate that, in terms of the rental collection rate, 99 per cent of all social housing or public housing tenants are able to pay their rent on time. Hence we get back to the one-percenters. This time we're not talking about the bikies, who those opposite like to talk about. The one-percenters in this case are the most vulnerable in our community, those who are, perhaps, age pensioners, people on a disability support pension or carer payment or people on family tax benefit—not to forget those on Newstart and youth allowance.
This may not be a big thing for those opposite, who have more-affluent electorates than the one I have the honour to represent. I've said my electorate's not rich, but it's certainly not uncommon for members, whether they're on my side or the other side, to have pockets of disadvantage. Perhaps my pockets, in areas of Western Sydney, are just a bit larger. These are matters that really go to the heart and soul of a community. Through this bill we are going to marginalise those least likely to be able to assist themselves without support—those who are suffering from mental health issues, those who are suffering from domestic violence, as I've mentioned, and the many, many age and disability support pensioners that my community supports.
The Senate inquiry into the bill heard overwhelming evidence that rental arrears is not the main cause for evictions from social housing and that homelessness in Australia cannot be tackled without assessing the issues of mental health, domestic violence and the lack of affordable housing. The Joint Committee on Human Rights noted that this bill appears to disproportionately negatively impact women, people with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I think that captures much of what I said earlier about the way I see this being applied in my electorate to those at the sharp end of this Liberal government legislation. A Labor government will tackle the holistic aspects of homelessness and ensure that the causes of homelessness and housing insecurity are addressed—not just issues around rental arrears but the underpinning issues—so that we can help people effectively break these bonds which link them to disadvantage.
We've got to actually listen to real people. There is no doubt some whiz-bang person, whether a consultant or otherwise, within the department thought, 'This is a good way that the government can retrieve a bit of revenue. It sounds really good out there in the public domain. We're going to get tough on social welfare. We're going to get tough on those who use and rely on social housing.' But, realistically, this is not what a government should be doing. A government should not have as its central aspect a signature policy that demeans the most vulnerable in the community, but that's what's occurring with this legislation. We'll be moving amendments to ensure there are appropriate safeguards to protect tenants and ensure the scheme does not place them in undue financial hardship. We see ourselves as the alternative government, and as the alternative government we have a responsibility to help lift people out of social welfare dependency. We need to help people to be able to raise a family. We need to be able to help people overcome issues of mental health. All these things go to what this bill strikes down.
I don't know what credible research the government want to pin this on. They're not going to make an arm or a leg that's going to affect the fiscal outlook of the country. This is not going to change the fact that they're going to rush to bring down the budget a month early next year so they can work out where they're going to throw the cash before the next election. Clearly they're not going to throw anything to assist people at the margins and the people that this bill is designed to negatively impact.
This is legislation that is retrograde for the parliament. It's certainly retrograde for anyone who wants to hold their head up and say they're a parliamentarian representing a community.
Professor Richard Holden, a professor of economics at the University of New South Wales, referring to the last budget, said that the biggest disappointment
… of all was the absence of any measure whatsoever to address negative gearing and CGT exemptions for rental properties.
This mob opposite want to fudge around and say they're doing something about housing affordability, so they just pick on the most marginal but don't do anything about the root cause of issues affecting housing affordability or, in particular, in this instance, homelessness. This is something that they should hang their heads in shame about. We have a real privilege in this place to do things for the benefit of the community. This is a piece of legislation that does the opposite.
I rise to also contribute to the debate on this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill. It will come as no surprise to anyone that this legislation has absolutely nothing to do with housing affordability, despite what the government might have named it. The bill before us today is a continuation of this government's policy of inaction and complete reckless disregard when it comes to housing policy. It does nothing to address the single greatest issue facing lower- and middle-income Australians—that is, rent is too expensive and purchase is simply out of the question for too many.
Not a single affordable home will be built or designed as a result of this legislation. Not a single young Australian will find it easier to compete against investors to buy their first home. Not a single person will see a reduction to their sky-high rents. Worse, Labor is very concerned that some of these provisions may only serve to drive already vulnerable social housing tenants deeper into poverty. Housing affordability remains a diabolical problem for millions of Australians.
While there is some correction underway in Sydney and Melbourne, there are many parts of the country where housing prices have risen more than 50 per cent in recent years while wages are barely keeping up with inflation. This is inflicting real pain. In fact, ACOSS's 2018 Poverty in Australia report showed that three million Australians are living in poverty, largely as a result of housing costs. Meanwhile, the National Debt Helpline is on track to receive a record number of calls this year, particularly from older Australians who are struggling to meet their mortgage or rent payments. Older women are especially vulnerable, with a 31 per cent spike in homelessness in this cohort between the 2011 and 2016 census. This is absolutely appalling and totally unacceptable.
If there is one area that demonstrates how out of touch, how heartless and how utterly beholden this Liberal government is to vested interests, it is housing policy. Regardless of who has been the Prime Minister, this Liberal government has consistently ignored the dire plight of millions of Australians struggling to pay their rent or get a foothold in the housing market. Housing affordability remains a national crisis that is driving people deeper and deeper into despair, and yet this government has spent the last five years doing nothing. It has failed to invest in affordable housing. It has abolished the position of housing minister. It has shut down the National Housing Supply Council. It discontinued the National Rental Affordability Scheme and it has doubled down on the absurd situation we have in Australia where property investors get more subsidies to buy their fifth, sixth or seventh property than young Australians get to buy their first home.
Not only that but the Australian taxpayer is footing the bill for these tax concessions, to the tune of more than $10 billion a year. This is more than we are spending on universities or child care. But this government has utterly refused to act on these blatantly unfair, expensive and market-distorting tax concessions. Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.