House debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report

11:01 am

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This inquiry into COVID-19 and its effects on homelessness was requested by Minister Ruston and Assistant Minister Howarth, and it's been a very interesting inquiry, I must say. It's certainly been quite a large one. In fact, this is just the interim report. The committee is yet to reach any conclusions at all, but we have provided this interim report on the basis that parliament and the public should know where we're up to in this inquiry. It is chaired by the member for Fisher, Andrew Wallace, ably assisted by the deputy chair, the member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon. I thank them both for the great deal of work they have done in this area.

It's been made quite clear during the inquiry by a number of agencies that the provision of community housing, is the remit of state governments. An interesting issue that the committee will have to come to grips with is how much further federal governments go in this area, given that we already have a large involvement through the $4.6 billion that is fed annually into the rental assistance scheme. There is another $1.6 billion that goes into the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which includes $125 million for specialist homeless services, $78 million for domestic violence housing services and $118 million for youth homeless prevention. So the Commonwealth is already well involved in this area.

It brings into question—and this is my opinion; it's report's opinion, because, as I said, it hasn't reached conclusions—how we in our Federation deal with mission creep. Over a long period of time, the Commonwealth has increasingly stepped into places where states have been failing and then owns the problem. Then, every year, we see this bun fight about whose responsibility it is. That is just a note of personal caution, not notwithstanding all the facts and submissions we received, which I will move to now.

There is also the Commonwealth facility through the NHFIC, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, which I think is a very important arm of government policy. It allows people providing low-cost social housing to borrow money at basically the Commonwealth rate, with a very small margin. At the moment, given the interest rates of the current environment, this provides access to pretty cheap capital.

During COVID, there's also been an increase in social security payments from the Commonwealth, with the JobSeeker bonus and the JobKeeper program. It was quite clear to the inquiry that that has actually assisted many people who would be the traditional clients of organisations providing low-cost housing. In fact, the evidence would suggest that, while the demand has either remained constant or risen, the extra demand has actually come from a new group of people—those that have had jobs but have been displaced in the workforce and are now surviving on either JobKeeper or JobSeeker. That payment is at a lower rate than they were receiving when they were in the workforce and so that's adding difficulty to running their particular budgets. I think that is an important thing to take note of.

I need to get on to one part of this inquiry that I feel I need to make public. It has been a significant workload. There have been 196 submissions. Some of them run to hundreds of pages. If we had 200 submissions and they were 80 pages each, that would be 16,000 pages for the members of the committee to absorb. That is simply not possible. It just simply can't be done. Even if we didn't have another job—and we all have busy lives and electorates to serve—it couldn't be done. I have spoken to the Clerk about the possibility of putting some parameters in for subsequent submissions, and I hope that members of this place will take it into consideration as we go along. But my view is that, really, if you can't put it into 10 pages, you're not trying. In fact, a submission that involves hundreds of pages is, I think, disrespectful to the committee. It is actually showing no understanding of what the committee should be doing, because, at the end of the day, if any member of the committee went to an inquiry and hadn't read the submission papers that accompanied the witnesses we would not be doing our job, but if there are 600 pages to read in between each day of that inquiry it's simply not possible to do our job. So I'm just foreshadowing that I'm intending to try to put together some guidelines that indicate that it is compulsory to put in an executive summary and that the whole submission should attempt to be no longer than 10 pages. We might debate how long that should be, but I think if we want serious and good-quality consideration of the material put before us it needs to be much more concise.

Having got that off my chest, I'll get back to the inquiry itself. It also appeared to me that that, of the 196 submissions, nearly all of them came from interested parties within the industry. So they have come from NGOs or government agencies. There were a number of personal witnesses that came through that process, accompanied by those agencies—they brought their witnesses along—and I appreciate that. I also thank those people for having the gumption to stand up and do it. But I think it is also an indication that we're getting a very large amount of information from a sector of the community that has a financial interest in this. So I lay that on the table as well.

It was established in the inquiry that the Australian definition of homelessness is very broad by international standards. There is a little bit of to and fro about whether we are the only country that recognises overcrowding as homelessness or not, but, either way, very few countries do. So if you're in Australia and you're in boarding accommodation, for instance, you are classified as homeless. If you are sleeping rough, you are naturally classified as homeless. If you are couch surfing, you are classified as homeless. If you are in overcrowded accommodation—and that may be family accommodation, and there is a criterion for it—you are classified as homeless. I think that probably sets us up for a bit of criticism, but I also think it is very important that we have those facts. In this place we are expected to decide policy, so I think it's very important that we do have that information. So I'm not critical of that standard of assessing homelessness, but I think it needs to be clearly differentiated which group people sit within so that then we can make the appropriate responses in this place when we are designing policy.

Some very successful, non-government organisations came forward who have worked very hard to accumulate a large property selection, if you like, a large range of housing solutions for people, and I congratulate them. They seem to have very good business models. The most successful of them seemed to have stable business models, but they need access to either grants or cheap capital to build extra accommodation. That's where I think the Commonwealth can play a role, particularly through NHFIC. I think the organisation is well designed for that. I come back to the point that I made at the start: it's clearly established that the provision of community housing is a state responsibility, so we also need them to step up to the plate. We're all aware that, over a long period of time, our state governments have sold down what was the traditional community housing stock. That's been by both sides of politics. We need to put some pressure back in that area, if this is seen to be an ongoing issue.

There's an issue that we haven't really got our teeth into yet because, I think, it's unfolding. We saw in the budget the day before yesterday a prediction that the population of Australia is likely to decline by nearly a million people over the next 12 months. I don't think we've ever been through a period like that in Australia. As we know, our economy has been based on population growth. Certainly, our building industry has been underwritten by population growth. What happens over the next 12 months will be quite— (Time expired)

11:11 am

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to give my thanks to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs for their work and for their interim report into homelessness in Australia during this COVID pandemic. The interim report brings together many of the themes and trends that I'm seeing at a local level in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury area, in my electorate of Macquarie. I want to reflect on some of those: firstly, the impact on local services in my community and, secondly, what we do going forward. The report really replicates the things that I'm hearing: services are being stretched; there's been an increase in demand. Mission Australia sums it up well, because they note that not only do communities like mine deal with COVID but the precursor was bushfires. That created a whole other level of need in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury area and put pressure on rental accommodation, and that's with only 40 homes lost in my wider community. Of course, other areas suffered hundreds of housing losses. Those areas in particular will be feeling this. Mission Australia also noted during the inquiry that there was not just the sudden increase in demand for housing services but people sought assistance for utility bills and food, and that is absolutely what we're seeing.

We have fantastic local organisations who are providing assistance. The Winmalee Neighbourhood Centre is now based in my office, using a meeting room one morning a week, on Wednesdays, to be able to facilitate some distribution of vouchers and assistance to pay utility bills. Every single service has seen an increase in uptake. I note the comment by Sacred Heart Mission, who said, 'What we're seeing is people turning up who are not our typical clients. We're seeing people who are on visas or are students or, for whatever reason, are not eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper. People who have fallen through the gaps come to have meals from our programs.' Again, that is the experience that we're having. When I visited Hawkesbury's Helping Hands in South Windsor, there were international students who had travelled really long distances. The facility in South Windsor is not on a railway line or a bus route. Young people who were left bereft of any support by the government were so desperate that they travelled huge distances from other parts of Greater Western Sydney to get basics. They were very modest in what they were taking. I stood there with Linda, from Hawkesbury's Helping Hands, saying, 'Take more. You need a bit more to keep you going.' Services around the electorate are experiencing that, perhaps in different ways. The Salvation Army told the committee that it's difficult to predict when services are going to peak but that we perhaps haven't seen the peak yet, and that is very concerning.

I want to commend some of the services in my community. There are many, and I won't get to all of them. In particular, I note the efforts of Central Blue Mountains Rotary Club, which noticed and identified a need and collaborated with an existing service, Earth Recovery, in Katoomba to make a difference there. Well done to the Rotarians, who are always willing to step up when they see a need. Equally, the Hawkesbury Community Kitchen has had to expand what it does—and, of course, as the committee identified, it isn't just about additional services; these providers have had to do something different; they've had to have COVID plans. Hawkesbury Community Kitchen has outgrown the space it's in and is desperately looking for another location. In the meantime, though, it's had to close facilities such as showers and washing services. It's had to manage very small rooms and try and provide social distancing yet still provide essential meals for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. That Windsor based organisation, which has been there for decades, underpins the support in that community. Lynda Dries's 'Living Room' in Richmond is another necessary service that is open to members of the local community to pop in, have something to eat and also get food hampers. The Central Villages Anglican Church in Lawson has food hampers going out every week. These are services that have seen the need, and, if they weren't already doing it, have stepped up to do more. What's been a bit disappointing, and what I've heard from some of these services, is the lack of additional support for them. Yes, funding has flowed through to the very big people like Foodbank and the very large providers who distribute things to smaller organisations, but a tiny little bit of money for these organisations goes so far. These are volunteer-run organisations. They do a lot with a little, and I think we could have seen a little bit more for these organisations, which would have made a big difference for them.

The second thing I'd note is that there was a loss of volunteers, and the committee's interim report picked this up. Many of the volunteers in my community are older. They were the people considered to be most at risk. If we're thinking about how we manage the situation going forward and any future pandemics, we do need to think about the reliance of so many local services on volunteers who are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It applies to op-shops. It applies to cooking and serving meals. It applies to those who, in the course of their day, do small things to support those who are homeless in our communities.

Another key issue in the interim report is social housing. I think many of us are disappointed not to have seen a commitment from the government to inject funds into this sector. This report identifies the massive gap there is in social housing. These are not unknown things. Anglicare Australia is quoted as saying:

Ending our affordable housing shortfall would be the most powerful way to tackle the homelessness crisis and boost regional economies.

I couldn't agree more. The shadow minister for housing, Jason Clare, and I visited Wentworth Community Housing, which provides many social housing properties in my electorate. We were in Lapstone last week looking at what could be done with upgrade money. For not much more than $10,000, $20,000 or $25,000 you can transform an ageing, rundown property and make it somewhere where someone's proud to live. Having secure housing changes people's lives and having decent secure housing is absolutely transformational. Twenty-five per cent of Australia's social housing is in need of urgent repairs and maintenance. That's about 100,000 homes. It's not an inconceivable number. Some of the homes have mould, leaking roofs, water damage. Others are just run down and falling apart. I saw kitchens that predate anything that I probably grew up in. There are really old houses that need an update. And the beauty of this, if we're thinking in pandemic context, is not just to give people a better chance at a decent life, to give them a chance to get on top of their health issues, to tackle education, to provide their children stability—aside from those things, which should be enough to make governments want to invest in social housing—but to obviously think about economic stimulus.

The repairs on social housing could start almost immediately. There's a backlog. Within a few months, you could have new housing construction starting. It's just a no-brainer. In much the same way that the absolute genius of the BER during the GFC was that schools were scattered all over the country in little towns and small communities so is social housing, so you could really disburse the stimulus. I think it's a lost opportunity, and I really welcome Labor's commitment to provide an immediate $500 million contribution from the Commonwealth, were we in government, and form the partnership with the states with the expectation that they contribute the same amount in new funding. This would be the real kickstart that many communities need. It would help tradies—from plumbers, chippies, sparkies, plasterers, painters, all the people who could do these small jobs and a series of small jobs. I want to thank David from Wentworth Community Housing, who took us through one of their properties in Lapstone. Stephen McIntyre, the CEO, talked us through the big picture, but David showed us the detail. That's the sort of detail that can change people's lives, so I thank the committee for their report.

11:21 am

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll pick up where my colleague left off. This is a lost opportunity—this report and the budget. A trillion dollars of debt we're hurtling towards now, as the Morrison recession takes hold, but the government still has no meaningful plan with all that money to deal with homelessness or the social housing deficit.

This is an important topic, but this is not an important report. Let's be very clear. There's an ongoing national crisis of homelessness. On any given night there are 116,000 Australians defined as homeless. COVID-19 has complicated this. We're seeing new groups emerge in housing stress. And this is personal for me, given the people I represent. Of every electorate in the state of Victoria, my electorate has the highest rate of homelessness outside the Melbourne CBD. On census night alone, in 2016, there were 1,800 people homeless. You can see people sleeping rough in all parts of my electorate. This is an electorate covering the most socioeconomically disadvantaged part of Melbourne. This shameful government gave not one election commitment—not one; not one dollar—for the people I represent, some of the poorest people in this country. Not one dollar! Of course, down the road, they were pork-barrelling like you wouldn't believe on every portfolio. Hundreds of millions of dollars were sprayed around, with nothing to deal with homelessness for the most disadvantaged people in the community and, indeed, the country. Nothing! There are people sleeping in carparks, but I suppose, under this government, they define that as having a roof over your head.

In the chamber yesterday I was sitting there and I heard this report being tabled. I had an ear out, because I've got an interest in the topic. I've had a lot to do with housing and homelessness policy in many former lives—as a mayor of a council 20 years ago and as a senior public servant in Victoria with many portfolios looking at housing issues—so I had an ear out. I thought, I can't actually believe what I'm hearing. The government's tabling a report that they have worked on into homelessness amidst this national crisis with no recommendations! Literally nothing! There's not a single idea they're prepared to put forward and recommend to the parliament or the government that they should adopt.

I thought I'm interested in this, so I had a look through the report this morning. It's ridiculous! It is like a mixture of Google, stuff that's already well-known, basic statistics that we all get in briefs, stuff that any member of parliament should be basically literate on after 12 months in this place, stuff which has been in every housing and homelessness report you'd guess for the last 15 to 20 years—and I've read a lot of them—and a summary of submissions. I don't know why this report was done except perhaps to show some little pretence of momentum, like they're doing something, but they couldn't even pretend to have a single idea. They had nothing to say. The groups most at risk are outlined in the report. There's nothing new here. AHURI publishes this stuff all the time. They're cries that have fallen on deaf ears for seven years with this government.

They didn't even have a housing minister under Abbott and Turnbull—didn't have a housing minister, didn't have a housing plan. They abolished the remnants of the sensible stuff that the Rudd and Gillard governments had left. They abolished the land-supply monitoring. They abolished a whole range of things which had been there. But the report says—stuff which everyone should know, but it's worth repeating—the groups most at risk of homelessness include the middle-aged, especially men; Indigenous and culturally or linguistically diverse communities, which includes many of the people I represent; people who've experienced domestic or family violence or physical, sexual or emotional abuse; people with mental health issues or substance abuse issues, people exiting prison, foster care or the military, people with previous experience of homelessness—as a clear indicator of future homelessness, often correlated with those previous factors; and those with low education or unemployment. We know that older single women have emerged as the fastest-growing cohort of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness. That stuff is well known. As the Anglicare submission quoted by the member for Macquarie said, the most powerful thing that the government can do is deal with the social housing crisis. To quote Warwick Capper: maybe they'd get that. It's not rocket science, government. Deal with the social housing crisis. Build some houses so the homeless people have somewhere to live! How's that for an idea? But they can't get it together to put that as a recommendation in their report, despite all of the evidence.

Right now in this country there are more than 190,000 Australians who are applicants waiting for a social housing spot. It is projected that over the next 20 years there's going to be a shortage of 433,000 social housing units. We have stock crumbling across the country. And the federal government has a role to play. It is simply not good enough for the government muppets to get up, one after the other, and say: 'Oh, it's a state and territory issue.' Yes, absolutely, for housing and homelessness, the lead level of government is the states and territories. Let's concede that. But let's also acknowledge that every level of government has a critical role to play. We do now have a minister for housing, I'll give them that. This Prime Minister, trillion-dollar-debt man, has at least got a minister for housing. But that's the minister for housing; he's not the minister for private housing. He is the minister for housing. That means having a proper, meaningful look—not a token few dollars so you can pretend you're doing something—and actually making a meaningful contribution to dealing with the problem.

With all this stimulus, there's an incredibly strong case on economic stimulus grounds and in terms of job creation. And, in terms of actually dealing with a critical social problem, being homelessness, there's an overwhelming case to invest some of this money into job creation schemes that will actually build homes—public assets. The Rudd-Gillard government invested, I think, $5.6 billion during the GFC, which we're told and the facts suggest was a smaller crisis than the current one. Why can't this government get it together to invest in an enduring public asset? We've had for weeks, months now, the Prime Minister touting the HomeBuilder scheme, which no-one had got a single dollar from. He stood up in question time and told us about it, day after day: 'We've got a HomeBuilder scheme. It's going to be great. We're going to create jobs, houses.' It is a bathroom renovation scheme. It was available for people on relatively high incomes who already had a renovation in the pipeline. This was going to be the recovery, apparently. There's an overwhelming case to invest in social housing.

I absolutely take the point that the states and territories could do more, and I've been an advocate for that. I think, to their credit, the Victorian government has done more than just about any other state and territory government in stepping up to this. Twenty years ago, when I was the mayor of a council, we took what I thought was a brave decision to devolve about 450 or 500 houses that the council owned into a trust model. We got a lot of criticism for that. We were told we were selling out and selling public housing. We put it in a trust, and it's worked brilliantly. That community housing association has grown and has been able to use that asset base to leverage as a balance sheet and attract Commonwealth and state funding. That's a good model. There are things that levels of government can do in collaboration and cooperation.

To be frank, as I said: this is an important topic but not an important report. It doesn't need members of parliament to sit around and pontificate for months and years to try and figure out what to do. It needs political will and political leadership. The solutions have been in report after report after report. It needs leadership from the government—from the government, not from the opposition. We'll do what we can. We'll feed you ideas. But you actually have to behave like a government and pick the ideas up and decide to invest. You have a minister for housing, not a minister for private housing. The government actually has to front up to the problem in a meaningful way—not give half a billion or a billion and say, 'That's the full solution.'

We announced a very sensible policy, I think, yesterday to invest $500 million immediately, calling on the government to match this. Take it up. It's developed and costed. It's a good idea to invest that money immediately and create jobs for tradies and workers all over the country in renovating, improving and repairs. But that's not enough. We know we need to do more to address the shortage.

So I call on the government: please, get over your ideological obsessions and hatred of the words 'public', 'social' and 'community'. Public housing, social housing and community housing have a role to play. If you think about those cohorts, the people most at risk of homelessness—people with mental illness, people who have experienced abuse, people coming out of foster care, prison or the defence forces, people with low education, people who have experienced homelessness before and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities—think about them as human beings, people with lives. The truth is that the answer for them is not going to be found in the private rental market. We need adequate social, community and public housing to provide for those cohorts of the population. It's simply not good enough for the government to say, 'It's not our problem.' The Prime Minister is great on announcements—there were lots of announcements in the budget—but short on delivery. It's about time we actually had some political will and some decency.

Government Member:

A government member interjecting

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know the member for Bennelong is a decent person. I know you often advocate for positions which are not popular with your government. It needs leadership from members like you to have the quiet conversations and to have them loudly and say, 'Hey, we can invest in social housing.' We have record-low interest rates. We could have an enduring public asset instead of the government's obsession with its housing renovation scheme, or bathroom renovation scheme, which is really just random private enrichment for anyone who just happened to have a renovation in the pipeline. Members opposite know it. Shame on you.

11:31 am

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a real pleasure to rise and speak on this topic. I want to thank the committee for the Shelter in the storm—COVID-19 and homelessness interim report and for the inquiry that they've done, the evidence they took and their interest as a committee in homelessness. As the Morrison government's Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, it's something that I have taken a keen interest in since being sworn in. Over the last 12 months I have met with some 300 stakeholders around the country, and I want to thank all of them for the work that they do. It's very, very much appreciated.

In the face of this crisis, Australia's strong community services continue to help vulnerable Australians experiencing homelessness. Again, thank you. Communities are rallying, helping neighbours and making sure that we reach out to someone in need who may be doing it tough. If I were to ask you, 'What does homelessness look like in 2020,' what would you say? I suspect that many Australians—in fact, many members of parliament—wouldn't know what homelessness looks like in Australia. It's not just rough sleeping. Ninety per cent of homeless people in Australia actually do have a roof over their head. Having a safe and secure home to isolate in and reduce the spread of COVID-19 was crucial for all of us. There have been heartening responses and modest gains in moving people from the streets into hotels—thousands of people experiencing homelessness during the height of the crisis, possibly as many as 10,000 people.

It also showed us that more can be done, and I as the assistant minister continue to put party politics aside and try to work across all levels of government in a bipartisan way to have supports in place for all experiences of homelessness. At this stage, I want to particularly thank the housing ministers from the six states and the two territories, all of which I believe I have a good relationship with. I want to thank them for the work that they have done helping in particular rough sleepers and people couch surfing into hotels during this crisis. I want to particularly thank the states—New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania—that did head leasing after the hotels had been exhausted. They've moved people into private rentals—in some cases for two years. They are providing a housing-first approach, making sure that wraparound services are available in those states to help people with their mental health needs, to help people with their addictions and to help people get back to work and back on their feet.

Through the work of states like South Australia we have put a name on homelessness, listening to the lived experiences and providing supports to help the individual situation that person is facing. Tackling homelessness is more than just putting a roof over someone's head, because a home is more than just walls and a roof. A home is about a space of your own, having a sense of security and stability. The Morrison government's $60 million Safe Places, which was announced last week in Adelaide by Senator Ruston and myself, has delivered—or will deliver, I should say, as construction will now start—40 successful projects to construct, repurpose, renovate or purchase new buildings to deliver nearly 700 new safe places, in particular for women and children.

We have had two people speak this morning from the Labor side. The member for Solomon is about to speak next. The member for Macquarie spoke. Both of those electorates have received grants from Safe Places. In Darwin, in the member for Solomon's area, there's $4 million of that $60 million going into Darwin to help women and children escaping DV. The great thing about that program is that we have managed to not just have the $60 million federal funding; we have also secured $40 million worth of land or additional funds from the not-for-profit sector. That's not state government money; that's the not-for-profit sector putting in funds to make that a $100 million contribution. That's fantastic. In my own electorate of Petrie I would like to acknowledge and circle Chameleon Housing, who Minister Ruston and I visited last week, for the work that they do; the Breakfast Club, who do a lot; and SANDBAG in the nearby electorate for helping homeless people in particular with food relief and other resources that they need. I want to thank the residents of Petrie, schools and other community groups. Particularly with Chameleon Housing, I know down in Pelican Park in my electorate there have been people rough sleeping there, and they've helped people get housed. Projects across remote and regional communities as well received 51 per cent of the funding through Safe Places. So we're not just investing in capital cities but right around the country.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has provided $257 billion in direct economic support to cushion the blow and strengthen the recovery. The 2020-21 budget commits a further $98 billion, including $25 billion in direct COVID-19 response measures and $74 billion in new job creation measures. States have announced—and this is important—a combined new spend on refurbished and upgraded social housing dwellings of at least $2.1 billion. I want to say thank you to those states and territories.

I have working closely with the states, as I said before. Boarding houses—I'll come to the census stats in a minute—at the last census made up 17,503 people homeless in Australia. One of the things I was able to do, working in a bipartisan way, was to do a joint letter with the Queensland housing minister. We have written to over 300 boarding houses in Queensland and said, 'Thank you for what you're doing, but you may not realise that there are a whole lot of people that are considered homeless in your boarding houses. If you were able to give people better tenure, at least three months tenure, rather than a week-by-week arrangement where they can be kicked out of the house week by week, and if you're able to improve the boarding house so there's more security outside their own room, that would have a big impact on those people's lives and would actually move people from homelessness to housed.'

I'll just quickly talk about the census stats, which I think are important. The previous speaker touched on them. There were 116,000 people homeless at the last census in 2016. The next census will be in 2021. The previous speaker spoke about the stimulus measures which the Rudd-Gillard government provided during the GFC. They were great, and I'm sure the sector appreciates that. But what they didn't mention is that there was still a 14.11 per cent increase in homelessness from the 2006 census to the 2011 census. I think part of the reason is that many members, and even previous social services ministers, haven't drilled down into those homelessness stats. Out of the 116,000, only 8,200 were actually rough sleepers. We want every one of those 8,200 people housed. Fifty-one thousand people were living in severely overcrowded conditions. Some 21,235 people were in supported accommodation—and I think the ABS could do a better job reporting on supported accommodation. The way it works at the moment with states and the federal government is that, whenever we do supported accommodation, if people aren't there for three months, you're just continually adding to the homelessness numbers. You could have a brand new house with ensuites and privacy, but if they don't get a lease for at least three months then they're considered homeless, and I think that's unacceptable going forward. Governments of all persuasions should invest more in supported accommodation. There were also the couch surfers, of course, and I want to thank the Reconnect providers around the country.

I want to quickly touch on a few things: I want to thank the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness—I think they've got a great model around better statistics that could be supported; life skills online—if we could help educate people to have a better understanding of key life issues before they enter homelessness, that would be helpful; private sector homes—we can't discount the private sector, given that they provide 90 per cent of the housing in this country; we need incentives to help people, particularly with low rents, to improve their housing for tenants—that's important; and state governments could also do a lot more around recycling their assets, because out of the $1.6 billion that we put in each year a lot of that is spent on maintenance. We also spend an additional $5 billion on Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

I thank the members for their report and all members that have spoken today. I look forward to working with them.

11:41 am

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to acknowledge the Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, the member for Petrie, and acknowledge the announcement last week that included $4 million for safe places for DV in my electorate in Darwin. DV is a scourge, and we need safe places for the victims to be safe and cared for.

Homelessness is a threat. It's a human health issue. As you well know, Deputy Speaker Gillespie, it's a social determinant of health. It's also a threat to human dignity and human happiness and wellbeing. It is a threat and, except in a small number of cases, it is not a choice. In the Northern Territory alone, the problem is grave and worsening. An NT government report indicates that 8,000 to 12,000 additional dwellings are required across the territory by 2025. We have 12 times the national average rate of homelessness. This is compounded by the risk factor that over half of all Territorians rent, which is more than any other Australian state or territory. Outright ownership is at 15 per cent, which is approximately half of the national rate of 31 per cent. Thirty per cent of all Territorians are also Aboriginal, compared to four per cent nationally. Nationally, severe overcrowding is at 21.8 per 10,000 people. For the NT, the rate is an astronomically high 483 per 10,000 people. In the NT—I don't need to remind members of this House—we have chronic overcrowding as well as homelessness, which the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says contribute to ill-health effects like eye infections, skin conditions, gastroenteritis, respiratory infections and an exacerbation of family violence and mental health issues. I know that you understand these social determinants of health very well, Deputy Speaker. We understand homelessness in the Territory. We understand the urgency of this growing national scourge. We understand it because we see it every day in the Northern Territory. It's a massive issue for us.

Whilst the assistant minister's funding for safe houses for DV victims is welcome and very important, we've just seen the federal government bring down a trillion-dollar budget and yet no commitment to build the social housing that we, for example, need in the Territory when 8,000 to 12,000 additional dwellings will be needed in just a matter of years. Rather than increasing the Commonwealth and building homes for vulnerable Australians, the government, those opposite, seem to be more intent on giving money to existing property owners to undertake very expensive renovations to their homes. I ask those opposite to reflect on that: wealthy Australians make their homes more valuable and have a grant process, whereas vulnerable Territorians and other vulnerable Australians are not given any social housing. The priorities are un-Australian.

I commend to the House to the assistant minister the Northern Territory Housing Strategy 2020 to 2025. It's called A home for all Territorians. It's more than an announcement. It's actually a plan, but it's backed by resources. I'm not asking the federal government to deliver more tired talking points—'wilted word salads' and stale announcements—about homelessness. What we want to actually see is real funds delivered to not only provide a house, a home, for Australians but also stimulate the economy by providing the construction. Australia wanted to see that in the budget but was let down. As the assistant minister himself mentioned, we did good things after the GFC in terms of stimulating the economy and funding community housing, social housing, affordable housing, and I see the benefits of that every day in my electorate. Labor prioritises it and backs it with funds. That's how we'll beat the scourge of homelessness. That's how we'll provide homes for more Australians.

It is disappointing, but, as the assistant minister said, we could work together as one, and that's good, if he's working with the states and territories, but he's got to convince the powers that be: the Treasurer, Inner City Melbourne; the Prime Minister, Sydney. You've got to convince them that there is a problem with homelessness around the country and that they need to put real funds behind it. We all know that it could drive work. We're going to have a lot of unemployed Australians for many months to come, and we know that it would drive work to fund repairs to social and community housing. We suggest an immediate contribution of at least half a billion dollars, in partnership with the states, and that investment would be a win-win situation. It would be a win for Australians without a home or those who are couch surfing, those who are in insecure housing, but it would also be a win for the construction industry and for the economy more broadly.

Ahead of the next election, Labor will bring forward a comprehensive plan for the repair and construction of social housing. Australians can be sure of that. We don't back away from the responsibility for this national crisis. We don't say, like the Prime Minister might, 'I don't build the house, mate. I don't hold the hose, mate. When the country's on fire, I don't hold a hose, mate. I don't hold a hose or build houses. I don't fly the planes to get Australians who are stranded overseas home.' Yes, Prime Minister, we know you don't do any of those things, but it is within your power to fund those things, to bring Australians back from overseas, and to get a roof over the head of Australians who are homeless and on the street. That is within your power. And, when the country is burning, it's within your power to stand up and lead, to be a leader. That's what Australians want. We're in a pandemic. There is a lot of need in our community. What we've seen is priorities that are set in ways that are confounding. They are confounding if you're over the age of 35 and you are unemployed. You might have a mortgage to pay. You might have kids. You might need child care. It's confounding for you. You pay taxes. You're going to be on $40 a day looking after your family come Christmastime.

And what about those stranded Australians overseas? I digress, but I digress for a reason. I'm really worried about this Sydney-centric Liberal coalition government that doesn't understand what places like the Northern Territory need in terms of social housing and proper health services. We in the Northern Territory are not second-class citizens, and it's about time that those around Sydney Harbour—I point at Sydney in particular but I also point at the Treasurer and his priorities, which see people in Melbourne, in his electorate, get to work four minutes earlier, at the cost of 260-something million dollars, when you've got people in the Northern Territory living under tin. More funding for social housing, more care about Territorians, more care about Australians that are vulnerable—let's see it, Prime Minister.

Debate adjourned.