Tuesday, 8 August 2023
Matters of Public Importance
A letter has been received from Senator McKim:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Albanese government should listen to the three-quarters of Australians and the 80 housing organisations who want the Federal government to work with state and territories through National Cabinet to implement rent caps nationwide and the 9 in 10 people who want the government to spend more money to directly build affordable housing.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.
We are in the midst of a housing and rental crisis. Over 1,600 Australians are being pushed into homelessness each month as the housing crisis deepens. The question is: is the Albanese government prepared to face this reality and offer the solutions needed to address the scale of the housing crisis?
Support for the government's housing policy has now slid down into single digits. Only eight per cent of Australians think the government is doing a good job on housing—eight per cent! Almost 90 per cent of people think the government should spend more money directly to build affordable housing, and three-quarters want to see rent caps introduced. One would expect that this would be a jolt to a sitting government. One would expect that these numbers would have the Prime Minister jumping into action and offering a housing policy that makes a real difference. But sadly, one would be wrong. We have a Prime Minister more interested in political argy-bargy than in ensuring people have a roof over their heads.
The Greens have been clear about our demands from the start: more direct funding on the table to build public and affordable housing, rent caps and a rent freeze at the national level. People put us here for a reason: to make change, to ensure that we have a fair housing system and that we have a housing plan that makes sure there is a roof over everyone's head. The Greens haven't forgotten why we're here, but it seems that the Labor Party has. The Prime Minister is increasingly isolated in his refusal to amend Labor's flawed housing policy to meet the scale of the crisis. Over 80 housing organisations have called for the federal government to take the lead to end no-grounds evictions, to limit rent increases and to ensure enforcement of tenancy laws.
In just four months, demand for homelessness services has risen by 7.5 per cent. We know people approach homelessness services when they are desperate for a roof over their head, when they simply cannot find anywhere to stay or when they are fleeing violence and abuse. Imagine being turned away at such a vulnerable point in your life because services are overstretched and dealing with unprecedented demand because the government is choosing not to tackle the scale of the investment that we need. People are burdened by exorbitant rents and unlimited rent rises. With no rental caps in place, many families are just one rent rise away from finding themselves homeless.
Labor has completely abandoned renters. People are suffocating under the weight of government's inaction. Here we have a prime minister who won't even admit there's a housing crisis in this country. I would suggest Mr Albanese walk around in his own electorate to understand the scale of the crisis we face. I have spoken to people again and again, when the Greens have been doorknocking on the ground, and they want action. They want more than the inadequate HAFF. They want rent caps and more direct funding into affordable and public housing. The Prime Minister might as well get on radio tomorrow and tell renters: 'You're on your own, folks. You're on your own.' How pathetic! Stop pretending you don't have a choice, Prime Minister. You have a choice. You have the choice to work with the Greens. You have the choice to show some leadership at National Cabinet. The Greens will continue to fight for what is right. This is why people put us here, and we will never forget that.
Time and time again we hear people—especially those in the Greens' corner of this place—proposing economic policies which would actually have the opposite impact to what they intend. The issue at the moment in terms of housing in this country is one of supply. We need more supply of housing. That is the only thing that is going to fix the issue, which Senator Faruqi, I acknowledge, is passionate about. It is the only thing that is going to fix the housing situation in this country at the moment—more supply.
It is basic economics. I keep this book under my seat in this place. It's called Basic Economics. Let me quote from Basic Economics. You don't need to listen to me to tell you what is wrong with rent caps, price controls et cetera. It's been tried across the centuries, and in every single place it has been tried, it has failed—every single time. Every time. Let me quote from page 43 of my trusty handbook, Basic Economics:
Rent control has effects on supply as well as on demand. Nine years after the end of World War II, not a single new apartment building had been built in Melbourne, Australia, because of rent control laws there which made such buildings unprofitable.
That's in our own country. Did you know after World War II we had rent control in Melbourne, and for nine years not a single new residential apartment block was built in Melbourne—for nine years, until they got rid of rent control? That's Australia, but the same thing has happened all over the world. They had rent control in Egypt in 1960, and this is what an Egyptian woman who lived through that era said in 2006 about rent control:
The end result was that people stopped investing in apartment buildings—
who would have thought!—
and a huge shortage in rentals and housing forced many Egyptians to live in horrible conditions …
That's Egypt. Let's go to California.
Let's go to California, Senator McKim:
After rent control was instituted in Santa Monica, California in 1979, building permits declined to less than one-tenth of what they were just five years earlier.
People didn't build buildings. Why? Because they couldn't get the return on investment. Let's go to England and Wales:
Under rent control in England and Wales, for example, privately-built rental housing fell from being 61 percent of all housing in 1947 to being just 14 percent by 1977.
That was the impact of rent controls in England and Wales. It goes on and on and on.
Let's go to Toronto, Canada—
Senator McKim, let's go to Canada:
Within three years after rent control was imposed in Toronto in 1976, 23 percent of all rental units in owner-occupied dwellings were withdrawn from the housing market.
Nearly a quarter of all buildings were withdrawn from the housing market in Canada in 1976 after they introduced rental control. We're actually seeing a manifestation of that in Australia at the moment. Many landlords are taking their houses or apartments out of the market because of interference with their ability to control their own properties. That's happening here today. That's the impact of overregulation in this space.
What happens when you do the opposite? What happens when you get rid of rent control laws? We've got an example of that too.
In Massachusetts, a statewide ban on local rent control laws in 1994 led to the construction of new apartment buildings in some formerly rent-controlled Massachusetts cities for the first time in 25 years.
They got rid of rent control laws in Massachusetts, and for the first time in 25 years new supply came online. That's what happened in Massachusetts.
This has been tried all over the world. It has never worked anywhere in the world. It is basic economics. The only way to solve the housing issue at the moment is to bring in more supply. That is the only way that the issue is going to be fixed. It is basic supply and demand. It is basic economics. That is the way the world works. There are those who may wish for it to be otherwise, but that is the way the market works. I say to those who are proposing it—with, I recognise, the best of intentions—the reality is the consequences of your policies don't necessarily reflect your intentions. This could in fact hurt the very people who you're seeking to help.
Here we go again: another day, another political opportunity for the Greens political party to come into this chamber and grandstand about homelessness and housing insecurity. I have to say, I concur with my colleague Senator Scarr: what the Greens are suggesting will just not work. It is just the Greens trying to grandstand. That's what they've done, and to top it all off they've joined with the Liberals and the Nationals and Pauline Hanson and everyone from the Right in relation to stopping and not voting for our housing future fund. For those people out there in our communities who are homeless and who are looking for social and affordable housing, what they need is our legislation supported so we that can commence the build of the homes that are actually going to deal with homelessness.
This political stunt of crying poor in relation to trying to tell the states what to do, knowing full well that the federal government has no power over the states in terms of trying to put a cap on rents. It doesn't work. It won't work. As usual, the Greens want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and they won't support the housing future fund. They would rather just make their own political statements and use it on their social media.
We, as a government, have been listening to the experts, the stakeholders on the ground and those on the social housing waiting list. We are listening to them, and that's why it will be the Albanese Labor government that wants to get on with this job of implementing solutions around housing that actually will work. The Greens believe that they can somehow force voodoo economics on states without their permission—a sign of their voodoo politics. If it is not voodoo politics, it is about trying to create Utopia, which is not real and can't be delivered. They never have to deliver on any policy, let alone on housing.
We hear the bleating from the corner, but they could actually do something about housing. They could actually achieve some outcomes for people who are homeless. For women and children who are fleeing domestic violence, they could actually do something about providing those desperately needed homes. But what do they do? They want to play politics, they want to join with the Right—the Nationals, the Liberals and the Pauline Hansons of the world—instead of ensuring that there are houses being built.
Honourable senators interjecting—
There are interjections from my Green colleague from Tasmania. It is just amazing that he can sit in this chamber knowing how many Tasmanians are homeless and the issues that can happen when you support this legislation. We have already invested an extra $2 billion into housing. The Jacqui Lambie Network could see the writing on the wall. They jumped on board. They're putting Tasmanians' interests ahead of their own interests, unlike the Greens, who, again, like to get into bed with the Liberals and do their dirty deeds instead of voting for legislation that is actually going to achieve something—that is actually going to achieve outcomes for people who are homeless and living on our streets. In every town and city across this nation there are more and more homeless people. It's not just about the homeless individuals; it is actually about the families who are raising their children living in tents in Tasmania in the middle of the winter. It's about those families who are living in cars in a very insecure environment. The very least that we should be able to do is provide housing for our most vulnerable people in this country.
We want to get on with the job. So I say to the Greens, I say to the Pauline Hanson, I say to the Nationals and I say to the Liberals: get out of the way and support legislation that is going to achieve the outcomes that are so desperately needed. We always know that there's more that can be done, but, instead of getting on board, getting this first tranche through, getting those 30,000 houses built across the country—then, if they still don't believe that enough has been done, we can build on that. But, as usual, the Greens act like little children: if they can't get what they want, they don't want to do it. They stamp their feet and say: 'If you're not going to play the game my way, we don't want to play at all. I'm going to take my bat and ball and go home.' Enough is enough. I am talking about real people that need our support.
The Greens talk about rent freezes and it sounds great. But what do you reckon happens when you suddenly can't make as much money renting your house out? Airbnb. That's what happens. That's what happened in Tasmania. Every rental property gets turned into an Airbnb and, instead of your rent freezing, you get kicked out. Tourists from Sydney will pay $500 to spend a weekend there instead of a family paying $500 a week to live there. The Greens are asking for rent freezes, but what they will get is towns where you can't afford to live because there's no place for you to live. The price of rent won't go down until we have more places to rent. That's supply. How do we increase supply? We build more homes. It's that simple. You don't get more homes by voting against more homes. You get more homes by voting in favour of the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill. We don't want freezes. We don't want caps. We don't want Airbnbs. We want homes.
I am glad to be speaking on this matter of public importance because I agree with the essence of what Senator McKim is saying: housing is a really urgent and important issue. During Homelessness Week this week, we should all be doing our part to fight for the solutions. We should also be listening to the experts in this space. We should deliver housing for Australians, who are depending on us to get the job done. However, where we differ is that if I think an issue is important—as we all know housing is for Australians—then I want to take action. That's not by sending out another email to bolster support or by ranting and raving and posting another video on social media. When I think an issue is important, I take real action and so do the Albanese Labor government and our Labor senators, like any responsible elected representative should.
As a relatively new senator, marking just over a year in this place, I am still getting used to the antics of other people here. The behaviour of the Greens when it came to housing was shocking to me at first, but now as it drags on still it becomes more and more disappointing. To spell it out, the Greens are a party that have teamed up with the Liberals and Nationals to shut down our plan to deliver housing for vulnerable Australians. It's a big shame—yes, I know. It's a party that refused to listen to the calls from housing organisations, pleading for them to listen to sense and pass the fund.
Now that same party is using the words of those organisations to call for action on housing to try and claim this government isn't serious about housing. When talking with some of my colleagues about this issue, one person kindly referred to this behaviour as 'selective'. Well, I think it's just rank hypocrisy. They have done the numbers, cold and political, and they think there is still political value in withholding support. They know they can come in here and spin the narrative to position themselves as the savours of a crisis they are actively making worse. It's not good enough, and everyone in this place should hold themselves to a high standard.
Labor knows people across Australia are struggling to pay the rent. We know there are valid concerns, and we are acting to address them. The Albanese government is delivering the first substantial increase in Commonwealth rent assistance in over 30 years, Senator McKim. We are improving tax arrangements to encourage the delivery of new built-to-rent homes. The National Housing and Homelessness Ministerial Council has been tasked with developing a proposal to strengthen renters' rights and to report back on options to improve tenancy laws. We have launched the submission and consultation phase of the National Housing and Homelessness Plan, which will be a 10-year strategy that outlines a shared national vision to inform future housing and homelessness policy.
The solution to this problem many Australians are facing is supply. Yes, it's supply. That is the expert advice from the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council, and increasing supply is what the Albanese Labor government is committed to. We have already delivered a $2 billion social housing accelerator to the states to deliver new social housing rental homes across the country. This Labor government is committed to delivering affordable housing. That's why we have reintroduced the Housing Australia Future Fund. The $10 billion fund will increase the supply of new social and affordable homes. That's 30,000 of them in the first five years, with 4,000 of them reserved for women and children leaving family or domestic violence or older women experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
I say to the Greens: if you think you're as green as you claim to be and if you're really concerned about housing and supporting renters, then support the Housing Australia Future Fund, because, honestly, Australians are sick and tired of having to wait and watch you play these political games rather than coming to the table and agreeing to support this important fund.
Yesterday the Prime Minister suggested that he would have no trouble convincing National Cabinet to create a public holiday should the Matildas make the World Cup finals. He said:
I'll be clearly putting the argument and I reckon they'll fold like tents. They will go one after the other.
'Fold like tents'—let's talk about tents. There are an ever-increasing number of people sleeping in tents currently—and in cars—and the problem is getting worse and worse. In my home town of Meanjin, or Brisbane, rents have skyrocketed. They're up by 23 per cent on what they were a year ago. My office has received countless calls and emails from people seeking housing support, all reporting that they are one of the 82 per cent of people that the Everybody's home report says are in rental stress, just one rent rise away from sleeping in a tent. Women are choosing to stay in violent and controlling relationships rather than fleeing into homelessness. They don't want their children spending cold winter nights in a tent, so they stay.
Well, the Greens stand with the 90 per cent of people polled who want the government to spend more money to directly build affordable housing like we saw with the $2 billion Social Housing Accelerator. Let's see that every year—a direct build of housing. You've shown it can be done, so do it every year. We also stand with the 75 per cent of people who are calling for a national rent freeze and stronger renters' rights, coordinated through National Cabinet. Yet, on this matter of national importance, in the middle of an unprecedented rental crisis, the Prime Minister is saying that it's outside his power, that it would break the Federation, to negotiate with the states for a rent freeze. Public holidays are easily done, but a rent freeze—oh no, he can't do that. It is not good enough. Seventy-five per cent of people want a rent freeze. Eighty housing organisations are begging for it. It's time for the Prime Minister to get the job done.
Rent is certainly an issue for Queenslanders. Listening across regional Queensland in recent weeks, what I heard most about rent controls was how much damage they do. A rent cap damages before it's introduced. The Greens announced they're pursuing rent caps, and landlords all over the country are now furiously putting up rents ready for the freeze. New homes are being let at higher rents for the same reason. Lease terms are being shortened so landlords will not be trapped in a lease that causes them a financial loss. A short lease gives them a chance to churn tenants or sell the property untenanted.
The Greens will now characterise all of this as greed, because, in the finest traditions of communism, the Greens need to feed the people an enemy of the state to hate. So the Greens spun their Karl Marx chocolate wheel, and it landed on 'landlords'. In just starting this campaign, the Greens have made things worse. If Senator McKim wants to help, the best thing he can do is to join One Nation's campaign to reduce rents. Reduce our crazy high immigration rate to reduce demand and drop rents. Remove green and red tape from home construction materials and build our way to lower rents and higher homeownership. (Time expired)
When the Prime Minister was asked about the Greens' very straightforward request that he incentivise rent caps through National Cabinet, he said, 'That's something that can't be done.' But when he was asked about a national public holiday should the Matildas win the World Cup—and I sincerely hope they do—he said he'd get onto it next Wednesday:
It'd be a pretty brave Australian state leader, wouldn't it, who said no to that.
What a staggering juxtaposition that is, and it shows how unwilling Labor is to actually do something meaningful to help renters in this country. When there's a sporting bandwagon the Prime Minister wants to jump on, you'd better get out of his way, but, when people renting are being thrown onto the streets through no fault of their own, because they can't afford the rent in this era of skyrocketing rents, suddenly, 'Nothing can be done, it's too hard, not my problem,' says the Prime Minister. Well, Mr Albanese might as well have said, 'I don't hold a hose, mate.'
Here are the facts: the Australian Labor Party is addicted to giving public subsidies to landlords and property speculators. Negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount are costing the budget $39 billion a year, 78 times what Labor is proposing to spend on its housing fund. By standing up to Labor, the Greens have already forced an extra $2 billion out of this government to spend on affordable housing. We stand with the 90 per cent of people polled recently who want Labor to spend more on public housing, and we stand with the 75 per cent—plus the 80 housing organisations—who want rent caps in this country now.
Our nation is in crisis. Cost of living is out of control—rents, mortgages and the rest. We all know that. It's breaking budgets. Families are hurting, and there is no relief in sight. Australians are suffering not because of a new phenomenon but because of a persistent and toxic cocktail of bad policy at federal, state and local levels. All levels are responsible. The obsession with cash handouts and adding layer upon layer of bureaucracy and red tape has led us to this crisis. It's basic economics. Nowhere in the world, nowhere in history, have price caps produced the desired outcome. The answer is not price controls. The answer is increasing supply by reducing bureaucratic and financial barriers to housing supply. The answer is entrepreneurship, the free movement of capital and, most importantly, government getting out of the way of the free market.
I'm chairing the Senate's inquiry into the worsening rental crisis. As of today, we have received 10,734 submissions using the simplified submission forms to that inquiry. That tells you everything you need to know about how severe the rental crisis is and how people are concerned about it—over 10,000 submissions in just a couple of weeks. We also know, from opinion polling today, how people think the federal government are going with affordable housing. Do you know that two-thirds of the people surveyed think that the government's performance on affordable housing is below average or poor? Only seven per cent think it's excellent or above average. We are in a rental crisis. People are suffering. People are homeless. People are living in tents. People are living in cars. People are living with their babies in tents and cars. We know what needs to be done. We need to have a significant increase in the amount of housing stock, actually spend the billions of dollars a year—at least $2½ billion every year—to increase our stock of affordable houses, public and social housing, and we need to make unlimited rent increases illegal. We need caps on rents. We need freezes on rents so that people can afford to stay in the homes that they are living in, not be turfed out in the face of the biggest rental increases that we have seen in 35 years. It can be done. The Prime Minister got action on energy caps. The Prime Minister can bring the states and territories together and act to put rental caps in place. Come on, Anthony Albanese, listen to the people, listen to the community who are concerned about rents and act.
Just this week the Prime Minister said, 'I have a National Cabinet meeting on next Wednesday, with all the premiers and chief ministers.' Apparently he was going to use this meeting to ensure they're all on the same page with something the community is crying out for, and, in the Prime Minister's words, when he puts the pressure on, 'They'll fold like tents.' If you guessed it was doing something about the rental crisis, though, you would be wrong. It's not about the cost of living either or interest rates or even the climate crisis. What's the Prime Minister showing national leadership on? It's about fighting for a new public holiday for the Matildas. We've long argued that more public holidays are good things for workers, and I think we all agree in this place that the Matildas' efforts at the World Cup so far have been extraordinary. But why does the Prime Minister's force of conviction, this resolve to bring the premiers on stage and get them to fold like tents, only apply to a sports team and not to the rental crisis that millions are currently facing across Australia?
This morning I was briefed by Everybody's Home, who told me that four in five renters they surveyed were in housing stress. That's millions and millions of people across this country. And they, like us, are looking to the Albanese government to do something more than crow about a sporting victory—as inspiring as that is. They're looking to the Prime Minister to use leadership, to drag the premiers and the territory leaders across the line and to finally use his power and the authority of the Prime Minister's office to deliver for renters.