Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015



7:32 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I want to make some remarks about a very important issue that is affecting communities right across this nation but particularly communities on the Central Coast. I would like to begin with the insightful words of 17-year-old Tahlia Mathieson, a student from Kincumber High School who has a keen sense of social justice. She won the Lions Youth of the Year Zone 1 Final on the Central Coast just last weekend. In her speech she said:

You're standing at the checkout at Coles, you sponsor a child in Uganda, you hold strong views on the terrorist regimes of ISIS, you watch the ABC to inform yourself of current global situations and you advocate for equality. Tahlia.

She also said:

Yet did you ever think that the person next to you in this slow moving queue was below the international poverty line?

One in every five Australians struggle to finance their basic living requirements. That is approximately 4,626,000 individuals that we fail to recognise as in need.

But not everyone ignores need. Labor certainly sees need and our policies reflect our response to that need. Last week, powerful social agencies including St Vincent de Paul acknowledged problems with homelessness. Indeed, St Vincent de Paul launched their social justice statement on affordable housing and homelessness. International Women's Day is this week, and there have been many speeches and important gatherings here in Parliament House. I absolutely acknowledge, participate in and celebrate International Women's Day. It is a vital day to reset our course and dedication to social justice. But I mourn the lack of progress in women's equity issues such as equal wages and superannuation. Right now, many retired women are living their final years in poverty through a lack of retirement savings. Right now, a woman is being overlooked for a higher position because of her gender. But right now, more tragically, a woman is being assaulted, abused or even killed as a result of domestic violence. That is why, in that context, government policy and the budget choices a government makes matter so much for the community in which we live.

Domestic violence and family violence can happen to anyone. It touches all ages, all cultures, all social and economic backgrounds. Women are much more likely than men to be the subject of domestic violence. Happily, there are strong survivors of family violence. Rosie Batty is one such survivor. I was so proud to meet her this week, and I am amazed at the influence she has had already this year as Australian of the Year. She is brave, generous and she is teaching this nation.

Domestic and family violence is a scourge in this country. It is the driver of many social and economic problems. Among them, most significantly, it is a key driver of homelessness. Not all people will become homeless as a result of domestic and family violence. Like many other contributing factors to homelessness, domestic and family violence is more likely to trigger homelessness when someone has limited economic and social capital available to them.

When a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship she often has nowhere to go. This is particularly true of women with few resources. A lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists for assisted housing mean that many women and their children are forced to choose between abuse at home and life on the streets. Domestic violence is a major factor contributing to the homelessness issues of so many families in this country, particularly for women.

All Australians are affected by the shortage of affordable and available rental housing, but women, particularly those who are reliant on part-time wages or salaries or parenting payment may be more at risk than men

One of the main reasons is related to gender-based economic/financial inequality. On the whole, we sadly know that women earn much less income than men.

On the Central Coast of New South Wales, homelessness is considered by local welfare organisations to be one of the region's serious, burgeoning problems, disguised beneath the idyllic beachside setting. It is guesstimated—because figures for the region are lumped in with statistics for Sydney—about 1,500 people on the Central Coast will not have a place to sleep tonight, and that is from a population of just under 300,000. That estimate includes not only those sleeping rough but also those who get by couch surfing at friends' or relatives' houses and those who sleep in a car or in caravan parks.

Labor believe all Australians deserve ongoing, affordable and safe housing. Our policy settings and our budget reflect those beliefs. We believe that Australians should have a place where they can raise a family, that is a secure base for their working lives and a foundation for interaction with the wider community. It was Labor in 2009 that introduced the $1.1 billion National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the states and territories, with the aim to halve homelessness by 2020.

The Abbott government has shot down that target by gutting the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. The situation on the ground is absolutely desperate. At Lake Macquarie, to the north of the Central Coast, there is now a facility called Our Backyard. It gives men and women, couples and families, who are sleeping in their cars a place to safely park and have access to bathroom, kitchen and laundry amenities. Our Backyard is a sound idea that has responded to a desperate situation—women and their children fleeing an abusive partner who have no money for urgent accommodation and nowhere but the backseat as a bed. They cannot find respite from a dysfunctional environment and they seek this as their equivalent to home.

Let me cite some examples from cases reported by local groups about a problem on the Central Coast. Only one per cent of property in Gosford is actually available for rent. There are pockets of up to 30 per cent youth unemployment on the Central Coast. If these kids are kicked out of home, they are unlikely to be able to pay for the little lodging that is available and chances are they will end up homeless. Women and their children fleeing violent relationships seek emergency accommodation. The local shelter may be full and a mother may not have ready access to money for a motel and, not wanting to return to domestic dysfunction, they join the search for stopgap housing from the limited stocks available.

What has the Abbott government done for these people in this situation? For a start, the Abbott government chose a policy and delivered a budget that cut $44 million worth of funds from the homelessness services across this country. This financial year, this means that the operations that look after homelessness and manage to help people at a time of great need in this very wealthy country that we live in cannot pay staff their wages, and there is nothing left in the till for repairs, improvements or new equipment. Many people are giving their time without payment to assist. Worse still, these vital organisations are currently in absolute limbo, not sure whether they will even be in existence in a matter of weeks when their funding runs out.

The Abbott government has given no indication as to whether NPAH will be renewed or for how long. Labor brought it in with a four-year guarantee. The coalition has only agreed to maintain funding in annual chunks. As recently as last week, there was no response to questions at Senate estimates hearings as to whether the agreement will be continued. There has been no answer from this government—a stony silence. Uncertainty persists, despite an unprecedented letter to the Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison and copied to Prime Minister Abbott from the CEOs of 50 homelessness organisations. They titled their letter, 'You do your budget planning on a four-yearly cycle; please let us do the same'. Among the 50 signatories calling on this government to do the right thing are the Salvation Army, Homelessness Australia, St Vincent de Paul, ACOSS and an array of women's domestic violence support services.

On the Central Coast, the Narara Community Centre in conjunction with the St Vincent de Paul Society supply emergency relief for struggling local families. It has had its annual funding of $120,000 refused and will remain open for an uncertain period of time. Today, when the Prime Minister was asked a question, he had a very short response. For 44 years of service from the Narara Community Centre, they got one sentence and no money commitment from the government. The Prime Minister's entire response was, 'Speaker, my understanding is all these organisations have had their funding confirmed for the rest of this financial year.' Forty four years serving a community and, right now, in the midst of a housing and a homelessness crisis, that is all the Prime Minister of Australia could say to that community. This government is a disgrace. (Time expired)