Senate debates

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Ministerial Statements


3:32 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a statement on homelessness.

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for COAG) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The disappointing aspect of this statement is that it is a bit like a glossy paint job over a slightly peeling house. It is trying to highlight some of the positives in the area, but not really going to the heart of many of the issues surrounding homelessness in Australia. Some would say the government has failed in that regard and I would certainly be one of them.

It does not take very long when you look at, for example, the figures on the National Rental Affordability Scheme in the Northern Territory—if that is any indication of a government's capacity for service delivery, then one could be forgiven for being slightly pessimistic about the prospects for those Australians who find themselves homeless for a vast range of reasons and in a vast range of circumstances. Just 16 houses have been built in the Northern Territory out of a proposed 1,186 in round 3 of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, ahead of a deadline, which is 1 July 2012. That is a pretty disappointing situation for those in the Northern Territory seeking affordable housing. While that aspect of the government's housing policy is not specifically directed at the homeless—the minister does indeed refer to affordable housing in his statement—I am concerned and the coalition is concerned that the problems in this area will certainly have a trickle-down effect on the broader housing market. It is already enormously challenging in the Northern Territory, as I am sure senators know. Low-income renters who find themselves unable to get access to affordable housing end up being pushed into marginal accommodation—they end up in caravan parks, they end up in their cars and many resort to sleeping rough.

The government began its first term in 2007 with what we saw as soaring rhetoric and really high hopes for homelessness policy, but the results are really what matter in this case. The very comprehensive white paper on homelessness, which was released in 2008, came with a promise that we would be in a position to measure progress by 2013. That is not all that far away; it is just over six months away. Looking at the latest budget figures, there is not a lot there for housing and for homelessness in particular to give us any confidence that we will be able to do that.

There is nothing committed in the budget to the renewal of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness after it expires at the end of the next financial year or, as far as we can identify, any homelessness money elsewhere to make up for that funding stream finishing. We have asked questions about the status of that and about the status of negotiations. You are looking at about 180 services across this area, and really they will want answers as to whether they will still exist as well when that funding stream expires.

If you look at the government's claims of committing almost $5 billion to homelessness since 2008 and if you take a very close look at the allocations, they tell a slightly different story to that very broad claim. Three billion of that money went in stimulus funding, in remote Indigenous housing, in social housing funding and in mental health funding. They are all, I am sure, regarded as worthy programs by the government, but they are not actually specific or direct homelessness programs in the way in which one might hope when they were claimed as funding for homelessness. It sometimes seems that the government haphazardly counts any housing measures as homelessness programs, which pushes up those figures. I am struck by the clear demonstration of the government's focus on 'the big issues' when the minister complains about the opposition not including the word 'homelessness' in the title of the shadow minister for housing. He spent some time on this recently. I find that quite remarkable, when we are talking about a government that has had three ministers for homelessness in the last seven months. Of course, the current health minister was the minister for housing, with no mention of homelessness in her title. So I suppose one should not look too closely at those facts, to keep this minister happy. It could in fact draw me to comment that the current federal Minister for Housing and Minister for Homelessness is also the Minister for Small Business, but that would be following his lead, and I do not intend to do that.

The important fact in this area is that it is estimated that there are over 105,000 Australians who are homeless every night in this country. The figures for 2008-09 showed that 61.5 per cent of people who sought crisis accommodation had to be turned away. That is 330 people, including 125 children, per day. Our estimates also show that 20 per cent of Australia's homeless were in homelessness services at any one time.

This is a massive issue in this country and it does not actually matter whether you are in a city, in a regional area, in a rural area or in a remote area—it affects every part of this nation. The lack of affordable housing and the housing shortage of 228,000, according to the latest National Housing Supply Council report, is also pushing families out of the private rental market and into marginal accommodation and endless public housing waiting lists. You only have to look at the front pages of local papers to see that. In fact I saw it myself today on the front page of a newspaper in Penrith. The front-page story is of a well-known local gentleman with a quite serious disability not being able to find housing that is affordable and will suit his needs.

We regard homelessness—and I know the government has referred to this over time as well—as much more than being a matter of putting a roof over one's head, because domestic violence or family breakdown accounts for around a third of Australia's homeless. Homelessness is often the last step and the most desperate step of a very tortured journey for many Australians. One suspects that, for a range of reasons, there will always be homeless people amongst us, and it is our response which is a very crucial test of our compassion as a society. Those who are unfortunate enough to be homeless do need more than a bed for the night and a meal. They also need a pathway out of their challenges. So, while it is a crucial issue, we obviously believe it is equally important to address the root causes to help prevent struggling families and individuals from becoming homeless in the first place. We have to tackle Australia's structural housing shortage, which results in fewer houses being available for those who need them, and higher prices, which lock out those on low incomes and government support.

We went to the last election with a serious homelessness policy based on taking very practical action and offering incentives for the states and territories to achieve tangible results and to help service providers to direct their efforts into helping the homeless and not filling out forms day after day. We are building on that policy in the homelessness area and we will continue with our overarching theme of addressing homelessness by improving housing affordability. We will pursue a number of practical steps. We will establish a homeless coordination unit to operate as a one-stop shop for service providers, with application and reporting requirements to apply once rather than be duplicated across each agency. We will set incentive based targets for the states and territories to offer homelessness services, ensuring those targets are achieved. We will link our homelessness plans to the wider causes of homelessness, including justice issues, mental health, law enforcement, substance abuse and family breakdown. We will provide incentives to develop partnerships with private and non-profit sectors to develop new facilities for homelessness services.

I think one of the first things that I ever did when I became involved in formal party politics a long time before I came here was to experience an almost visceral response to the report by Commissioner Brian Burdekin of the Human Rights Commission on youth homelessness in Australia. I was probably the federal president of the Young Liberal movement or something like that. It struck me at the time that, when you looked around at my university or at families that I knew, somewhere in those groups of people there were numbers of homeless people who you might not even know about. I was very young. I was very naive, I suspect, at the time. I am certainly not so young and I would hope I would still have some naivete, but you never know.

Since that time the thought has stayed with me that in a country like ours no person deserves to be homeless. It is an intractable problem but in my view not an insoluble problem. I think the services that do a lot, often with quite little in terms of support and funding, are to be commended for their work. I have met young people from the Canberra area just recently at a display in the Great Hall who had had their lives changed by a local homelessness service run by some very good Australians. I was very proud to have the opportunity to meet on that occasion those young women. This is a very important area of social policy and one I will continue to call the government to account for.

Question agreed to.