Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Statements by Senators


1:30 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are some things that we should all be able to agree upon in this place, and one of those things is that everyone in our society should be able to have somewhere safe to live. It's not good enough that over 100,000 Australians are homeless, and it's not enough, as Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services Mr Howarth said, to just 'put a positive spin on homelessness figures', whatever he meant by that. We may actually have to do something about the issue.

Despite the government's assertions, Australia is in a housing crisis, and it's something that everyone, except, it seems, this government, can all see. In suburbs and towns across Australia there are people sleeping rough. In suburbs and towns across Australia there are people sleeping on friends' couches, crashing with family members or are in crisis accommodation. Across Australia there are people who are choosing whether to turn their heater on or to skip a meal in order to be able to afford to pay their rent. Whether you're on the Left or the Right of the political spectrum, access to housing should be regarded as an absolutely fundamental right.

In my home state of Tasmania, housing is in crisis across all areas and sectors. It has gotten so bad that many people were camping in tents at the Hobart Showground until that option was removed from them in January. The problem with housing in Tasmania is widespread and multifaceted. Anglicare's Social Action and Research Centre outlines the current housing situation in Tasmania by saying:

Over the past seven years:

          These conditions have resulted in:

                So it should be clear to those here that the situation is quite dire.

                Late last year Hobart was named the least affordable capital city in Australia on the Rental Affordability Index. In the 12 months to March, rental prices in the Greater Hobart area were up 9.4 per cent. That's right: Hobart was less affordable than Sydney and Melbourne—cities with millions of people. Part of the reason is a lack of properties to rent. Anglicare's annual rental affordability snapshot shows a 60 per cent reduction in private rental stock over the past seven years. This has, in part, driven rents up considerably, making large parts of Hobart unaffordable. According to the Rental Affordability Index report, areas including Hobart, Sandy Bay, west, south and north Hobart, Kingston and Margate are now unaffordable to the median household, and areas including New Town and Lenah Valley have shifted from 'acceptable' to 'moderately unaffordable'.

                We need leadership from this government, but, unfortunately, it's still lacking. The Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, Mr Howarth, claims that there is no crisis, which just goes to highlight that this government is clearly out of touch on this issue. One hundred and sixteen thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven Australians were counted in the 2016 census as being homeless on census night, up from 95,300 in 2001. Women aged 55 and over was the fastest growing group of homeless Australians between 2011 and 2016, with their numbers increasing by 31 per cent. This figure in the 2016 census included 1,622 in Tasmania, which was a six per cent increase since 2011.

                We need to put these numbers into perspective. The number of homeless Tasmanians is the equivalent of the entire population of a town the size of Ranelagh or Pontville. Most of you probably don't know where Ranelagh or Pontville are, but Senator Brown certainly would because she and I visit those towns fairly frequently. But is this a sign of what we want for Australia? Is this what we want the Australian community to look like?

                As a volunteer for and a patron of a local charity, Kingborough Helping Hands, which operates the Loui's Van service in Kingston, I've seen the devastating impact of homelessness firsthand because homeless people come to use the services of the van. Not only do we supply them with food but also we have blankets and beanies, and hot drinks and all sorts of things for them, just to try to make their life that little bit warmer in the freezing cold winters that we get in Tassie—the utterly, bitterly cold winter nights that we get.

                We've just got to do better. It's not just homelessness that is the problem but also the lack of affordable rental properties and rental stresses and working people being unable to transition from renting to property ownership. These issues are serious, and they're structural in nature. These issues are not solved by the new Minister for Housing, Michael Sukkar, spruiking the property market and telling young people, 'You won't regret it.' Issues with housing affordability don't disappear because the minister wishes them to or says that they don't exist. They require actual policy, because real people are suffering. Business as usual is just not an option.

                In March 2019, there were 3,249 Tasmanians waiting for public housing. The average wait time for public housing in Tassie has blown out past 56 weeks. That's over a year to wait, to gain access to secure, affordable housing. And a year is way too long for anyone to have to wait.

                Hobart also had the strongest growth in house prices in Australia in the 12 months to June, up 2.9 per cent for the year, which further puts the squeeze on housing affordability. Areas such as Brighton and Sorell and Snug and Huonville, which are sort of at the extreme ends of Hobart away from the centre, are becoming popular commuter suburbs for the first home buyers and families who work in the city. So this is putting more strain on our infrastructure as well, and there are quite often—now, daily—traffic jams for those trying to get into the city from any of these areas. And heaven forbid if there's an accident! The other day we had—and this is Hobart—a 15-kilometre traffic jam going into the city from down where Senator Brown and I live, just because there was an accident on the highway. So none of it has been thought out very well—neither the infrastructure nor the housing issues.

                The policies that have constrained wage growth have not helped either, because, as wages have stayed static, penalty rates have been cut and jobs have become less secure. The cost of housing, though, is still going up in Tasmania.

                Things are going from bad to worse. Pay and conditions fought for by the labour movement for 100 years are coming under further attack, as workers and their unions are increasingly targeted. There are those who say that things are the same as they've always been. Well, it wasn't always that hard to rent or buy. And you hear that people aren't trying hard enough. That is simply not true.

                A recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says:

                    To sum up for those opposite, this means that the rates of home ownership amongst young people have crashed and that, for some, they just know that the dream of owning their own home is beyond their reach and they'll never be able to reach it.

                    Is this what Australia really wants? Do we really want to see young families attending auction after auction to watch their dream of owning a home die? Do we want to see single people or young couples attending rental open homes on Saturday morning only to find that 100 people have already gone through the doors and filled in an application before them? For too long the government has thrown its hands in the air, while rentals get more expensive, properties prices get more expensive and waiting lists for public housing grow.

                    When we were in government, Labor introduced the National Rental Affordability Scheme. The objective of the scheme was to increase and maintain the supply of affordable rental dwellings and reduce rental costs for low- and moderate-income households. Labor's original scheme provided for 55,000 new affordable rental dwellings to be built, but in the 2014-15 budget the Abbott government announced that NRAS would be capped at 38,000 dwellings. That decision has been widely criticised by housing sector stakeholders. This short-sighted decision, along with their failure to bridge the funding gap, has severely curtailed the supply of affordable rental housing. (Time expired)