Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:40 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Minister for Social Services (Senator Fifield) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to homelessness.

I went back and a double-checked—the word 'housing' does not appear in the title of Minister Andrews. In the same way that we do not have a minister for science, we do not have a minister for housing. I want to get that very clearly on the record. The answer from Senator Fifield was profoundly disappointing, and this issue affects dozens and dozens of services. These are people on the front line who are providing homelessness and emergency support services either to the in excess of 10,000 people sleeping on the streets and in doorways and parks in this country or to those 100,000-odd Australians—it is difficult to know the exact number—who are suffering from different forms of homelessness and who are at risk, living in extremely precarious circumstances. Senator Fifield, again I give you a certain amount of latitude because you are here representing another minister, and it is not your portfolio—

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Please address your remarks through the chair, Senator Ludlam.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Through you, Mr Deputy President, the funding was not terminated at all. Senator Fifield, you were quite critical of the former government for simply suspending and rolling over the funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, but the government has now effectively ceased all negotiations. The Abbott government has abolished all of the expert bodies who were formerly providing it with advice on housing affordability and homelessness. The COAG body—where housing ministers were getting together to try to hash out an agreement, because these are complex issues and they take years to negotiate—no longer exists; there is no longer a forum for these discussions to occur. My state colleague the Hon. Lynn MacLaren MLC, in the Western Australian Parliament, put a question to the state government on 11 December last year about the number of organisations in Western Australia that are going to hit the wall—they are organisations that are providing support services for homeless people today who are going to be shedding staff and closing their doors this month. It is absolutely extraordinary. All that Senator Fifield could do was mumble about how expensive it is to provide services for people.

The Centre for Social Impact Studies out of the University of Western Australia and AHURI are two of the few organisations—thankfully independent—who still exist to do research and advocacy in this area. AHURI released a report last December that looked at the degree to which investment in homelessness programs has the potential to make significant cost savings for the taxpayer. Through you, Mr Deputy President, I do not buy your argument, Senator Fifield, that it is a waste of money for taxpayers to be spending money on homelessness. It is extraordinary.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I didn't say that.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

You put to the chamber that you were broke and that you could not afford it, and that is what I am pushing back on now. Even if that is your only metric, the study found that governments save on average $3,685 per client in non-homelessness costs in the first year after people receive support. The investment in putting shelter around people, the housing-first approach, saves taxpayers money. That is obviously an important metric and it is something that the federal government should be concerned about—getting the best out of a tight budget. The fact is that the government does not appear to realise that this investment in providing support services up-front which prevent people from dying—people die in winters and they die of heat stress in summer, if they are homeless—can save us money.

This affects organisations like the Albany Halfway House Association, which houses support workers in the Great Southern region. It affects Anglicare WA, which runs Foyer Oxford in Leederville; it affects the WA Division of the Red Cross Society, which runs the Kalgoorlie Aboriginal Visitors Accommodation facility out in the Goldfields and it affects the Private Rental Tenancy Support Service Initiative in north-west metro

These are crucial front-line services that are going to the wall because nothing is happening.

What the state government told my colleague, Ms McLaren, a couple of months ago was that these talks have ceased because the Commonwealth is no longer at the table. So I am not taking a shot at the Western Australian state government, who actually do have some quite innovative policies on housing affordability. The Commonwealth government, just as Senator Fifield appears to be about to do, has left the building, and that is totally inappropriate. Just for the Hansard, Senator Fifield has not left the room; he is taking advice.

Foundation Housing Limited; Pilbara Community Legal Service, who have a domestic violence outreach initiative; and St Bartholomew's House Incorporated, which Senator Siewert and I were very fortunate to tour during the election campaign last year, are where people are going to lose their jobs, and people will lose these emergency support services. It is not good enough for the Australian government to cry poor when the rational thing to do is fund these services. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.