Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017; Second Reading
As I was saying, this is a government that has utterly refused to act on blatantly unfair, expensive, market-distorting tax concessions. Again and again those opposite back in wealthy property investors over the hundreds of thousands of Australians who just want to be able to buy their own home, and, when backed into a corner, they offer ridiculous suggestions to young Australians, like: 'Go get rich parents,' or, 'Move to the country.' Then, of course, they peddle nonsense about Labor's plan to rein in those expensive tax concessions. They use modelling that does not reflect our policy at all. They say that our policy will drive house prices down. Then they say it will send them sky-high. Sometimes they even say both things in the same interview! But, whatever they're saying, you can be sure they have the best interests of property developers and wealthy investors front of mind.
Labor understands this government has utterly failed low- and middle-income Australians, especially young Australians, when it comes to housing affordability. We have been listening to stakeholders and communities across Australia about what needs to happen. One of the lead organisations in this push has been Compass Housing Services, a non-government, community organisation based in my home city of Newcastle. Compass are world leaders in their field, so much so that they were the only Australian community housing organisation to take part in the global United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. I congratulate Compass and the coalition of housing and social service organisations that have been actively campaigning for a national housing strategy.
Labor understand that we have a deep responsibility to address these issues, should we have the privilege of forming government. We recognise that safe and affordable housing is the foundation for a cohesive, productive and fair society. That's why housing will be a central feature not just of our housing policy but also of our infrastructure policy, our cities policy and our population policies. We've already made some fantastic announcements. If elected, a Labor government would: (1) reform negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions; (2) limit direct borrowing by self-managed superannuation funds; (3) facilitate a COAG process to introduce a uniform vacant property tax across all major cities; (4) increase foreign investment fees and penalties; (5) establish a bond aggregator to increase investment in affordable housing; (6) develop and implement, through the Council of Australian Governments, a national plan to reduce homelessness; and (7) re-establish the National Housing Supply Council and reinstate a minister for housing. Lastly, we would provide an $88 million injection over two years for a new Safe Housing Fund to increase transitional housing options for women and children escaping domestic and family violence, young people exiting out-of-home care and older women on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness. And that is just the beginning. There will be more announcements in this critical policy area as we get closer to next year's election. I can assure you Labor understands that there is no more fundamental obligation for governments than to ensure that everyone has a roof over their head.
I'd like to now consider some of the details of the bill before us today. As I've already mentioned, the bill doesn't go anywhere near doing the things that need to be done to address the dire housing affordability problems. Indeed, the changes that are being proposed are largely technical amendments which have absolutely nothing to do with delivering housing affordability. The first measure in this bill creates the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme, which gives states and territories the option of automatically deducting an amount from social housing tenants' income support payments for rent and utilities. It also allows the inclusion of an amount of money for property damage.
Currently, there is a voluntary scheme in place in which social housing tenants on income support have the option to ask the Department of Human Services to transfer some of their fortnightly pay directly to the housing provider for rent and some bills. It should be noted that the majority of social housing tenants are able to manage their budgets and keep their rent up to date. This is an important point because, in fact, 90 per cent of social housing tenants have absolutely no problems meeting their obligations and the rental collection rate for public and community housing is well over 99 per cent.
Having said that, Labor accepts that in principle there may be a place for automatic rent deduction. We understand there may be situations where such a system would have value—for example, if tenants are being pressured to give up their rent money to support people with drug or alcohol habits somewhere else. We realise there are times when compulsory deductions may make the difference in avoiding homelessness. Indeed, when we were in government we introduced a bill that would allow for the automatic rent deductions in response to recommendations in The road home homelessness white paper. At the time, the Liberals opposed this bill, saying it would 'increase housing stress and financial hardship', and now they've brought to the parliament this bill which is so much harsher.
But there are some important differences between what the Morrison government wants to do and what Labor had proposed in the past. Critically, the Liberals' bill contains none of the safeguards that would protect vulnerable social housing clients. Labor's legislation would only have applied to tenants who had arrears of more than four weeks and only after there had been a reasonable attempt to recover the money. There was also a time limit of 12 months that the scheme would be maintained after the arrears were paid off. Also, tenants needed to be informed before changes were made to the amount of their pay that would be withheld. These are just some of the fundamental differences between Labor's approach and that of the government.
We were so concerned about the impact this would have on vulnerable Australians that we referred the bill to the Senate for an inquiry. The inquiry heard from a number of witnesses that these provisions were unnecessarily broad. Senators were told that rental arrears are much more likely to cause homelessness and more complex issues like mental illness, substance abuse and family violence. The Chairperson of the National Social Security Rights Network, Genevieve Bolton, told the committee:
… we don't think that the proposed bill will meet its stated objectives, and we think it's a disproportionate response. It doesn't address some of the critical causes of homelessness.
On a similar note, Mr Roland Manderson, Deputy Director of Anglicare Australia, explained that the automatic rental deduction scheme has a number of serious flaws and said it would only serve to 'generate other problems for tenants across the board'.
Labor is persuaded by the arguments of stakeholders that there must be safeguards and limitations to the scheme. We want it limited to those in arrears and at risk of homelessness. We want deductions capped and we want a time limit on how long the scheme can apply. We want a provision that requires lessors to let tenants know of any changes to how much will be taken out. We would like to see changes such that only money for rent and utilities is deducted. We also agree there should be a requirement for the lessor to let the tenant know if any change is made to the amount deducted. Some of these issues are covered in the government's amendments, but Labor wants to see all of these protections guaranteed.
I also mentioned earlier that the bill seeks to make changes to the National Rental Affordability Scheme. NRAS, of course, was a fantastic initiative of the former Labor government. It was the first direct supply-side financial incentive scheme for the supply of new affordable rental housing. NRAS has provided 38,000 new homes and was on track to deliver 50,000. Regretfully, it was capped in the coalition's first budget. Labor would have continued and expanded NRAS. The changes in these bills don't do that; in fact, they are largely technical. They give authority for the transfer of an NRAS allocation from one property to another in specific circumstances. They also allow the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to make variations on the conditions attached to the incentive allocations. They allow flexibility on how maximum vacancy periods are prescribed, and they remove ambiguity on how below-market rents are calculated in any one year.
Of course, all of this is just tinkering around the edges and doesn't do anything to lighten the load for vulnerable Australians. Having said that, Labor will support the changes to the NRAS, but, as I mentioned earlier, none of this will help Australians who are being forced to take one or even two or three jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. In short, the legislation before us today does nothing to address the core issue of housing affordability. Like so many times before, this is a missed opportunity by the government. Only Labor will deliver on housing affordability in this country.
I rise today to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill and to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton. The cost of housing is making life hard for so many Australians—young people, low-income families and older women. According to a recent Grattan Institute report, house prices took off in the mid-1990s. Average house prices have increased from around two to three times the average disposable incomes in the eighties and early nineties to about five times the average disposable income more recently. This means median home prices have increased from four to five times the median incomes in the early 1990s to more than seven times the median income today. In Sydney, not far from my electorate on the New South Wales Central Coast, it's more than eight times the median income.
In a wealthy country like Australia, why are one-in-three single women over 60 living in poverty, many at risk of homelessness? Why is a young mother I met at her first appointment with a financial counsellor after leaving a violent relationship struggling to find $460 a week to keep her rental so her three children have a roof over their heads? Why is the grandmother I met in Bateau Bay, while on a surgery waiting list, housing her adult son in her garage because his partner died and he is no longer on the priority housing list? Why are some high-school students in my electorate living in refuges or struggling to get by in the private rental market while trying to finish high school?
If the government were serious about housing affordability and homelessness it would take action to address some of the causes of homelessness, particularly to improve the provision of services for mental health in the regions, to provide more support for women leaving family violence and to make sure that vulnerable Australians at risk of homelessness have safe, affordable housing. Why is it that a single-pensioner household faces spending up to 94 per cent of income on rent? This extreme level of housing stress is exacerbated by other pressures, such as increased healthcare costs, and must be urgently addressed.
I'll turn to the actual substance of the bill. What does this bill actually do to address homelessness? This bill imposes an Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme on social housing tenants and makes some changes to the administration of the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Labor referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to ensure it was given proper scrutiny. Labor has listened to the concerns raised by the housing and community sector. We know that the majority of social housing tenants manage their budgets and pay their rent on time. Evidence presented to the inquiry showed that 90 per cent of tenants meet their obligations. However, a form of automatic rent deduction may be appropriate to protect some social housing tenants who are genuinely facing a significant risk of homelessness in particular situations.
Labor will move amendments in the Senate to put safeguards in place to protect tenants and ensure that the scheme does not place them under financial hardship. At the moment, some social housing tenants who are also income support recipients can choose to have the Department of Human Services withhold a portion of their fortnightly payment and pay it directly to their housing provider to cover rent and some bills, like power bills. In this rent deduction scheme, participation is voluntary, and participants can leave the scheme whenever they choose. Around 86 per cent of the approximately 400,000 public and social housing tenants currently use the voluntary rent reduction scheme.
This bill would introduce an Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. Under the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme, everyone who receives an income support payment and/or family tax benefit and lives in either public housing or community housing could have part of their payment withheld by Centrelink and paid directly to the housing provider. Like the voluntary scheme, this amount could cover both rent and some bills, like power bills. It would be up to each state and territory to decide whether they wanted to be part of the automatic rent reduction scheme and, if so, how it would apply. Victoria and the ACT have said they will not participate in an automatic rent reduction scheme.
When Labor was in government, we introduced a Social Security Legislation Amendment (Public Housing Tenants' Support) Bill 2013, which would have introduced an automatic rent reduction scheme. We did this to act on a recommendation from the housing and homelessness white paper The road home. The Liberals opposed the bill. At the time, the shadow minister, the member for Menzies, claimed that it would increase housing stress and financial hardship. Yet they have now introduced a scheme that is much harsher than the one that Labor proposed. Let's look at some of the differences.
The changes in the public housing tenants' support bill would have only applied to tenants who were in rental arrears and at risk of homelessness, once other reasonable recovery action had been taken. The changes in this bill could potentially impact all tenants of public housing and community housing, including age pensioners, disability support pensioners and those with carer payments. Responsible people managing their own affairs and paying their rent for years could be caught up in these changes.
The amount deducted in the public housing tenants' support bill was able to be varied in accordance with changes in rental and utility amounts, provided the tenant was notified. This bill does not require that the tenant be notified of these changes. This bill allows for the deduction to include an amount to compensate landlords for property damage, which could be as a result of domestic and family violence. Labor's bill limited deductions to cover only an amount for rent and utilities, to protect people from being forced to pay for damage caused by others.
Labor has always said that most income support recipients are capable of managing their own finances. In fact, the rental collection rate for public and social housing in the five years to 2015-16 was over 99 per cent. Labor will move amendments in the Senate to ensure automatic deductions only occur when people are in arrears and at risk of homelessness. We will move an amendment to cap the maximum deduction to prevent the scheme forcing people into housing stress and to make sure people have money to meet other needs and pay other bills. Labor will move amendments to require that compulsory deductions can only be made for rent and utilities and not for property damage. As I mentioned earlier, this is to protect people from being held unfairly responsible for other people's actions.
The Labor amendments will also prevent deductions being taken from the discretionary portion of an income managed payment. Labor amendments would require social housing landlords to inform the tenant of any changes in the amount to be deducted from their payment. The amendments will also ensure that, if a tenant's payment is suspended, the accrued rent cannot be deducted when the payment resumes, potentially leaving people with nothing to live on.
Without significant changes to the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme, Labor will not be able to support this part of the bill in the Senate. Labor has concerns about the interactions of the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme with deductions being made from income support payments through Centrepay, particularly payments for household goods under consumer leases with businesses such as Radio Rentals. Consumer leases cost low-income earners up to eight times the retail price of consumer goods. The Senate passed a Labor private senator's bill in the 44th parliament to exclude consumer leases as an eligible service reason for the purposes of Centrepay third-party payment system. While Centrepay is closed to payday lenders, it remains open to consumer leasing businesses which continue to inflict financial hardship on low-income earners. Consumer leases are just as damaging to vulnerable low-income earners as payday loans. Labor therefore remains committed to excluding consumer leasing as an eligible service reason for Centrepay.
Before touching on the National Rental Affordability Scheme, I want to refer back to my community. In this recent report, regional New South Wales remains the least affordable regional area studied in Australia in terms of the rental affordability index, with households facing rents of sometimes upwards of 27 per cent of income. Let me reiterate that rental arrears are not the main cause of social housing evictions and that homelessness in Australia cannot be addressed without addressing issues of mental health, domestic and family violence and lack of affordable housing. A Shorten Labor government will take a whole-of-government approach to the issue of homelessness, to ensure that all causes of homelessness, housing insecurity and housing stress are addressed, not just the rental arrears of a small number of social housing tenants.
The National Rental Affordability Scheme is a Labor program, and Labor will not oppose changes to the scheme that help the achievement of the scheme's objective of increasing and maintaining the supply of affordable rental dwellings and reduced rental costs for low- and moderate-income households. What is of concern is the capping of this scheme by this government.
Labor's original scheme provided for 50,000 new, affordable rental dwellings to be built. Given the strong interest in the scheme, Labor undertook to extend the scheme by a further 35,000 dwellings, to provide a total of 85,000 dwellings. But in the 2014-15 budget the Abbott government announced that the NRAS would be capped at 38,000 dwellings. That decision has been widely criticised by housing sector stakeholders, including the Property Council of Australia, the Housing Industry Association, the Urban Development Institute, Homelessness Australia, National Shelter, Mission Australia, ACOSS, the Federation of Community Housing Associations, Anglicare, the St Vincent de Paul Society and many others. This short-sighted decision, along with the government's failure to bridge the funding gap, has severely curtailed the supply of affordable rental housing. As I mentioned earlier, in regional New South Wales, where my electorate of Dobell is situated, upwards of a third of households are in extreme housing stress, according to the Rental Affordability Index.
Housing policy experts are unanimous that bridging the funding gap is essential to improving housing affordability and securing better housing options for all Australians. Labor will support changes to the NRAS that will encourage approved participants to retain their dwelling in the scheme, which will minimise the loss of dwellings to the scheme. While we support changes contained in the bill to ensure rents for NRAS dwellings are at all times at least 20 per cent below the market rent valuation for the dwellings, Labor believe there needs to be additional flexibility to allow unintentional rent overcharges to be refunded or credited to a tenant in a timely manner. The alternative is for approved participants and investors to face penalties in the form of reduced incentive payments for unintended minor technical breaches of the rental charge provisions which could easily be remedied by a timely refund or credit to the tenant.
Labor therefore welcomes the proposed amendments by the government following the Senate inquiry. The amendments are consistent with recommendations in Labor senators' dissenting report. They include an amendment that will permit the National Rental Affordability Scheme Regulations 2008 to include a power for the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to grant dispensation from the 20-per-cent-at-all-times rule to approved participants where there has been an unintentional overcharging of rent and the tenant has been compensated for the error.
In concluding, I would like to turn once again to my community on the New South Wales Central Coast, which is like many other communities in regional Australia. In my community there is acute housing stress, which is exacerbated by other pressures, including increased healthcare costs and transport. It is of extreme concern to me for communities like mine across Australia. I refer to my time working in mental health units at Wyong Hospital, the public hospital in the community in my electorate of Dobell. I worked in those mental health units for almost 10 years. It was particularly distressing when someone was well and ready to make the transition back into the community. Sometimes the decision of multidisciplinary teams would be that, yes, they would be accepted into a community mental health team, but those community teams were stretched. There wasn't capacity within the teams to be able to meet properly the needs of these people who had faced mental health problems and a mental health crisis and were now moving back into the community.
One of those particular stressors was housing. I recall coming out of a team meeting and a patient review. The social worker gave a phone book to a patient who was about to be discharged and said, 'You now have to find yourself a place to live.' In a competitive rental market in a regional community, how is somebody who is being discharged from a mental health unit in a public hospital meant to secure themselves a place to live, with a phone book and a public phone? This bill is not addressing the cause. It is not looking at how people find themselves homeless and at the things that government can and should do, and this should be done urgently.
There shouldn't be a situation in a wealthy country like Australia where one in four single women over 60 are finding themselves in poverty and at risk of homelessness. There shouldn't be the situation in Australia today where a person being discharged from a mental health unit is given a phone book and told to use a phone on the ward to try to find themselves a place to live. In a wealthy country like Australia, there should be provisions, safety nets and safeguards such that no vulnerable person finds themselves in this extreme housing stress or at risk of homelessness.
I call on the government to urgently act on this and to look at the cause, to look at where housing and homelessness problems stem from and the crisis that exists in Australia today, particularly in regional and remote Australia. The government must act. The government needs to act urgently to properly address this housing and homelessness crisis in Australia today.
Housing in Australia is cooked. It is seriously messed up. If you go back to the 1990s, the average house price was six times an average young person's income. Fast forward about 20 years and the average house price is 12 times the average young person's income. There are over a million households in Australia that are paying more for housing than they can afford. That is why our personal debt and household debt in Australia is going up and up. People just can't afford to buy a house; they are going into huge debt just to make ends meet.
Two hundred and sixty-one people are turned away from homelessness services every day. In my home state of Victoria, where we've got public housing that is in many instances poorly maintained and people are living in conditions that are really substandard, there are 82,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. Why? It's because, over time, governments have lost sight of one basic fact: housing is a human right. Everyone, especially in a wealthy country like Australia, should be able to have a roof over their head and a stable home at a price they can afford. But, instead, what we've done in this country is treat housing like a stock market. We've set up rules, including rules that this parliament has passed, that say that, if you've already got a house and you want to get some additional houses, the government will actually give you a tax break for it. So what that means is we've got people who have already got a house fronting up to auctions to buy another house as an investment property. They can bid and bid the price up and out of reach of a first home buyer because they know that, when they rent it out, if they make a loss they can write it off as a tax loss and then, when they sell the property in a few years time, they can claim a tax break on that. It costs the Australian government and the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars to do this. What is the effect of it? It just keeps putting up prices more and more.
Meanwhile, if you decide, 'I'm just going to give up on the idea of owning my own home; I am just going to rent,' you have the situation at the moment where 97 per cent of rental properties are too expensive for a minimum wage earner. So, if you are working full-time and doing the right thing but you are on the minimum wage, you can almost forget being able to rent a property that might suit you in Australia at the moment.
We are the third least affordable housing market in the world. That should shame us all. We've lost sight of the fact that housing is a human right. If we turned 261 people away from public schools every day because there weren't enough schools, there would be a national outcry. If there were a million households that couldn't afford to go and get health care because the public healthcare system was too expensive, there would be an outcry. It's time that we started thinking about housing the same way that we think about schools and education—namely, that it's a right that everyone has and it's what government is there for. If people, especially young people, can't find an affordable place to rent or buy then that is because we, as government, are failing in exactly the same way we'd be failing if we didn't build enough public schools or public hospitals for everyone. That's the situation we've got at the moment. A big part of the reason we're in that situation is that we just haven't built enough affordable houses for people to either rent or buy.
My electorate, last time I looked at the statistics, has got more public housing dwellings than any other electorate in the country. But most of those were built in the sixties. They're the big tower blocks that you see as you come into Melbourne on CityLink—you can see them when you hit the CityLink sticks. We haven't had a large-scale build of that equivalent size since then, and that is part of the reason that the public housing waiting list keeps blowing out. But it does another thing too. When you don't have a lot of affordable public housing rental at the bottom end of the market, that means more people are competing in the private market, and it helps push prices up.
One thing we could do is invest in a 1960s-scale build of new public housing, which would help drive rents down, put more roofs over people's heads and go some way towards making Australia a place where housing is treated as a human right. We could build rent-controlled homes. We could introduce a system of rent control and rent capping. We have a situation at the moment where you're in a rental property, and you think, 'This is good; at least I can afford this,' and then you come to the end of the lease and up goes the rent for pretty much no reason at all. We could pass laws to cap it so that landlords could only increase rent to, say, CPI. That's something we could do that would go a long way to making housing more affordable. We could enshrine the ability for renters to have long-term leases. But, especially if we get rid of those unfair tax breaks I was talking about before, we'll actually save money for the Commonwealth budget to spend on other services and we will help make housing more affordable.
We have got to do other things too, of course, like stop the pit of insecure work that so many young people are falling into, where a bank manager won't even consider writing you a mortgage because your work has been casual or short-term contracts, through no fault of your own—it's potentially been like that for several years. We can lift the minimum wage, because we have the appalling situation in Australia at the moment, where one in four people who are living in poverty are actually working full-time. Australia has become a place where doing the right thing is no longer enough. It should shame us that you can work full-time in Australia and still be in poverty. That is the case for one in four people who are in poverty.
If we embarked on a large-scale build of public housing, if we got rid of the unfair tax breaks that favour people who have already got a home to the detriment of people who don't and if we passed laws that capped rent and gave people more security, we might start making housing a human right again. We would also need to give more money back to those housing services that are looking after those people and that are, at the moment, turning 261 people away every day. They wouldn't have to any more if we took some of the money that's currently going to the very wealthy in negative gearing tax breaks and instead put it into those services. The money is there. If we had the courage to stand up and say, 'Let's get rid of those unfair tax breaks for the very wealthy that favour people who have got two, three or four houses and that lock out young people,' then we could fund all of these things. We don't have to go around looking for extra money; let's just take the money that we're currently throwing away on lining the pockets of the wealthy and use that to make sure that housing is a human right. Those things, sadly, aren't included in this bill. This government is taking a very narrow focus to what counts as housing affordability.
I want to place on the record here an indication of the position that we're going to take when this bill comes to the Senate, where Senator Rachel Siewert will tackle this issue more broadly. We do have concerns—opposition, in fact—with respect to schedules 1 and 2 of the bill. The government's proposed amendments go some way to ameliorating that, but, even then, we have concerns with the amendment that provides that a tenant's agreement with the lessor that authorises the lessor to make a request under the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme is not required to be in written form, for example. There are a number of other detailed concerns that we have with the bill, as well as some principal concerns with schedules 1 and 2. That won't stop us seeing this bill progress through this place, but those certainly are amendments that we will be pressing when the matter comes to the Senate.
At the end of the day, we need a bit of a mind shift in this country. I hope, going into the next federal election, we can start to make housing a human rights issue. In our election campaigns, I hope we can start expecting our political parties to talk about housing the way we talk about public schools, the way that we talk about public hospitals. There's not a person in this country that either isn't locked out of the housing market themselves or has kids who are now only able to get into housing if they have significant help. And many parents just can't provide that, because they're not in a position to be able to do it. It is reaching crisis point. And the solution cannot be for Australians to keep getting further and further into debt, because our debt-to-income ratio is now getting to the two-to-one point, and it is at crisis point. People are just borrowing and borrowing and borrowing to try to stay alive because wages are flatlining, if not going backwards.
If we want to avoid the calamity in this country of locking young people out of ever having a stable and affordable home, we've got to start treating housing as a human right. We've got to stand up and wind in some of those tax breaks. We've got to invest in public housing at a scale that we haven't done since the 1960s. If we did all of that, Australia wouldn't just be a wealthy country; it would be a country where we looked after everyone, no matter how much money they earned. It would be a country where we say that having an affordable roof over your head is something that we take seriously. At the moment the government's not doing that.
We'll try to fix up this bill, but I fear that what we are really going to need is a change of government. We need a new government that will put affordable housing on a pedestal—not just tinker at the edges, but put it on a pedestal. If we can play some role in that, either here in the House or in the Senate, to make sure the next government treats housing as a human right, then we will go some way to making sure Australia remains an equal society and that egalitarianism in Australia is not put at risk.
In the time that remains, I want to say some pretty clear and simple things about the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. It's not impressive in itself. I don't think there's much evidence that it's going to do anything to address homelessness or help people at risk of homelessness in this country. It points to the glaring absence of policy and program action by the government in this space. We know that homelessness is a pressing issue in Australia. Despite the government spending a lot of time talking about how great the economy is, there are a lot of people who are not experiencing that, and that has got worse for people who are experiencing homelessness or facing circumstances of insecure housing.
Earlier this year, Homelessness Australia pointed out that there are 195,000 Australian households waiting for social housing, there's a shortfall of nearly half a million affordable homes across Australia, and each year 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services for help. So there is a desperate need for action on this front, and yet the government bowls up with this bill that really is fundamentally punitive. It will make the ability to apply mandatory rental deductions available to state and territory jurisdictions, even though there's no real evidence that that will achieve anything.
In material from the Parliamentary Library, which the Senate inquiry considered, it said that for the five years from 2011-12 to 2015-16 national rent collection rates averaged over 99 per cent across public housing, community housing, and state owned and managed Indigenous housing. Eighty-six per cent of all households that currently live in public and social housing are already making use of voluntary rent deductions. There's no great gap to be addressed in terms of the use of rent deductions where it's appropriate; there's no revenue problem as far as the return of rents from public, community and social housing; and rental arrears in themselves are not a significant cause of homelessness. All the evidence to the Senate inquiry and all the evidence that we've seen from sectoral stakeholders in recent times shows that the causes of homelessness are things like mental illness, substance abuse, family violence and so on. So, there's already a mechanism in place for people to opt in to rental deductions if that's going to help them stay in housing, and there's no evidence to suggest that mandatorily making that the case is really going to deliver any significant change.
What would, of course, deliver some significant change is increased funding to address all of those things I mentioned before. I mean, 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services each year. Last year, 66,000 people were turned away from homelessness support services, and yet earlier this year, when the government came along with what I termed at the time the 'N-HAHA', the national housing and homelessness agreement bill, it really just maintained the status quo as far as the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness are concerned. There was no growth funding to support social housing growth, nor was there any growth funding when it comes to the services that actually support people facing homelessness. More than that, in terms of its wreckage and relentlessly negative agenda, the government that will come to be known for the things that it damaged and got rid of, will be known in this space for getting rid of the Housing Help for Seniors pilot, for defunding homelessness and community housing peak bodies and for abolishing the National Housing Supply Council. That's the record of this government. And it turns up here, late in 2018, in the face of that aching need and the gross inadequacy of the Commonwealth when it comes to meaningful action to deal with homelessness and provide better services and more affordable housing, and instead proposes something that's more punitive: to mandatorily extract rent from people when they have the opportunity to opt in to that if they like. There's no evidence to suggest that, if it's imposed upon them, it's going to do anything meaningful to help them in their circumstances.
That's why Labor has flagged a series of amendments that would mean that you would only even contemplate the mandatory application of rent deductions when you had already ensured there were proper counselling and financial services considerations. You'd only do it after there was a substantial period of rental appears; you would cap the amount that could be deducted; and you would ensure that it would only apply to rental arrears and arrears in relation to utilities, and not to property damage, because there is evidence that, if you go down that path, you will cause harm and damage to people who are already disadvantaged. I make the point—and my colleagues would know—that it's passing strange that you'd even look at something like this when you've got no appetite for dealing with consumer leasers and no appetite for dealing with payday lending. If you really wanted to look at people who are in difficult financial circumstances, the last thing you'd go and do is just whack on this additional punitive measure when you're doing nothing to address the causes of homelessness, you're doing nothing to address an increase in social housing stock and you're not looking to get out the shonks and the predators in payday lending and commercial leases.
I finish by saying that, on the day that the Minister for Women was trumpeting the statement that's supposed to look to provide financial security for women, they have withdrawn funding under the Women's Safety Package, which supports family and domestic violence programs in Western Australia. They might start by focusing on those practical things rather than the production of glossy pamphlets.