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Thursday, 16 October 2008
Page: 9465

Mr BIDGOOD (12:04 PM) —I rise to speak to the National Rental Affordability Scheme Bill 2008 and associated legislation. This bill will provide new principal legislation relating to the Australian government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme. The object of the bill is to increase the supply of affordable rental dwellings and reduce rental costs for low- and moderate-income households. The scheme encourages large-scale investment in affordable rental housing by offering an incentive to providers of new dwellings on the condition that they are rented to low- and moderate-income households at 20 per cent below market rates. That has to be a major incentive to people aspiring to own their own home for the very first time. I think that is just a fantastic thing that this government has done. It is a pragmatic approach to a problem of supply. We are addressing this problem head-on, and it is something that has not been addressed head-on for the last 12 years in any serious, concrete fashion.

The incentive comprises a Commonwealth contribution of $6,000 per dwelling per year and a state or territory contribution in the form of direct financial support or in-kind contribution to the value of $2,000 per dwelling per year. This must be a great incentive to people wanting to own their own home. The incentive can be in the form of a refundable tax offset or payment. The incentive will be provided each year for 10 years to complying participants and will be indexed in line with the rental component of the consumer price index. That is a very important feature. It is locked in and tied in to the consumer price index so that it does not lose value over time.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme is a key part of the government’s $2.2 billion affordable housing package. This is real policy in action. It is pragmatic, well worked out and well researched with all sides and all key stakeholders. This is a really pragmatic approach to a very real need for a rental affordability scheme. This will help people save for their first home, lower housing infrastructure costs and build new homes for the homeless. I do not believe there would be one Australian across this nation who would not say that that is a noble cause of government. Let us face it: surely the game plan for all members of this House, on both sides of politics, would be to home the homeless. There can be no higher calling for government than for the citizens of this nation to have a roof over their heads, one that is affordable and within their means, and to have the ability to pay for it. This scheme delivers on one of the government’s key 2007 election commitments and a COAG agreement from May this year.

The bill provides for the establishment of the National Rental Affordability Scheme by regulations. It is desirable for most of the administrative detail of the scheme to be in the regulations rather than in the bill. This provides the flexibility required to address changing circumstances and conditions in the rental market, including determining market rent, tenant eligibility criteria and acceptable periods of vacancy.

The Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the minister and I are committed to this agenda, because we have heard firsthand from the families, singles and pensioners who are struggling to buy or rent a home and from the young Australians who are giving up on homeownership. It is just not affordable for them; it is beyond their means. We as government are putting out a hand and saying, ‘Hey; we’re giving you a hand-up. We’re not giving you a handout; we’re giving you a hand-up.’ That is the role of government: to help people, to lift people up, to improve people’s lives. This is a pragmatic way of doing it, and there can be no greater calling of any government than to do that.

We have heard this firsthand and from the grassroots in my community when the Community Cabinet was held in Mackay earlier this year. The cabinet understand firsthand the real issues affecting everyday working families in my electorate and, through laws such as this one and others like the first home owners account scheme, are delivering for the people of Dawson who are doing it tough. I remind members that Mackay was severely affected during the floods of February 2008. I know people personally who are only just beginning to go back to their own homes. The dislocation is beyond belief—it truly is—and we have not even begun to measure the psychological trauma of not being in your own home for so many months, from February through to October. It really is a tragic thing to be homeless or to be in a home or accommodation which is not yours, not of your choosing and not of your design. It is a terrible place to be; it is a terrible dislocation. There are over 8,000 homes that were affected in Mackay during the floods. Housing, affordable housing and affordable rentals are very important issues in my electorate of Dawson.

It should also be pointed out that in my electorate of Dawson there is less than one per cent rental availability. Rents are commonly in the region of $350 a week for a basic, standard, wood-built Queenslander with three beds. That is tough for an average family on an average income, but there is nowhere else to go. So, while there are many in Mackay who are paid well for the difficult work they do and can afford to rent and purchase homes, there are many on minimum wages and many pensioners who are unfortunately left behind. That is the sad fact and the reality of what is going on in the seat of Dawson, particularly in the city of Mackay.

We on this side of the House understand that we all need a roof over our heads, a place to call home, and the result of a booming economy and skills shortage is that there exist stresses in housing affordability which make life tough for many renters. Low- and moderate-income earners in Dawson pay a lot in rent to house themselves and their families. Vacancy rates in Dawson are at critically low levels, and rents are increasing faster than other everyday living costs. Australians who in the past would have rented as a stepping stone to buying their own home are now finding it much tougher to do that. It is virtually impossible. There is no ability to save. All disposable income is being paid out on the very high rents due to the lack of supply of rental and new stock being built. Increasing the supply of affordable rental properties is a major priority.

Why? Consider the statistics. Today the average house costs 7½ times the average annual wage, compared to four times in 1996—a major difference and a major contributor. The typical home buyer now spends a third of their income on housing costs, almost double the proportion they were spending in 1996. Rental vacancy rates are now below two per cent in most capital cities around Australia, with some cities, such as Mackay, below one per cent. Households in the bottom 20 per cent of earners that are lucky enough to achieve home ownership are spending two-thirds of their income to pay for the privilege. That is very hard for the battlers. These are the people that this government stands up for, these are the people that this government cares about, and these are the battlers who this Rudd Labor government has made clear and decisive action for in these policies. That is why the pragmatism of what we have here today must go forward to help these very needy people. It is urgent and it is essential that this bill goes through as quickly as possible.

In many suburbs in my electorate, while it does fluctuate from suburb to suburb and town to town, rents are some of Queensland’s highest. It is not unusual for a rental for a basic three-bedroom, brick-built home to be advertised from $400 per week. A basic, unfurnished two-bedroom flat is over $300. This is amazing. We are talking very basic accommodation here with the real prices being paid possibly higher than this. I cannot stress enough how tough it is to rent in the seat of Dawson, particularly in the city of Mackay. It is so hard for people to get their own basic accommodation. We have had reports in the Daily Mercury in Mackay over the last year or two of people so at wits end, with nowhere to go and nowhere to rent, that they have been living in their cars. That is atrocious: people living like Third World citizens in a First World town in a First World country—in an economy which is booming.

What did the previous government over the last 12 years do to stimulate house building that was affordable, to create a stock of affordable, rental accommodation? Very little, because we are having to address these problems head-on. I am pleased and proud to be a part of this Rudd Labor government which has instituted a housing minister. Why? Because over the previous 12 years there was no housing minister. That shows you the priority the other side of politics put on this. They did not even have a minister to analyse and focus on the needs of the homeless in our community. That is appalling and it is an indictment on the history of the last 12 years of government.

But we are addressing this with progressive and pragmatic measures. We have a fantastic Minister for Housing in Tanya Pilbersek. I held a housing forum with key community stakeholders in Mackay. She came along and listened to reports from community housing groups that people who had lived in cities like Mackay all their lives had to leave town. Why? Because they just could not afford to live there any longer. They could not afford to live in the town of their birth any longer because they simply could no longer afford to pay the rent.

Housing stability is important to families and important to the economy. The National Rental Affordability Scheme will provide incentives for investors to focus on building more affordable housing, which is a good thing; but even better, it will provide to tenants rents with a 20 per cent saving on market rental rates. This is good news for the people of Dawson, good news for the city of Mackay and good news for the towns of Proserpine, Airlie Beach, Bowen, Ayr and Southern Townsville. It is good news that we have policies which are going to reduce the average rent, down 20 per cent below the market rental rates.

It is important that a broad range of participants should be involved in this scheme, and the legislation enables that. Tenant eligibility requirements are broad, with more than 1.5 million Australian households now eligible to rent dwellings under the scheme—1.5 million are now empowered by this government. This is good news for Australian people who are doing it tough, good news for the battlers who are finding it hard to pay affordable rent—1.5 million Australian households are now eligible. That is fantastic.

The Queensland government, under Premier Anna Bligh, has demonstrated its commitment to this important new initiative by providing a $2,000 contribution to the national rental incentives and by matching the Commonwealth’s rate of indexation. This is excellent. The government expects new partnerships to emerge between institutional investors, property developers and community housing agencies in the rollout of this scheme.

The government’s resolve to pass this bill is clear. The question is whether the opposition will pass this bill or those on the other side will disallow the legislation to pass in the other place. I wonder which way the wind will blow for the opposition—and often their decisions are blowing in the wind. The Australian people are sick and tired of an opposition intent on blocking key budget measures and key election commitments made by the Rudd Labor government, using their numbers in the Senate to harm and hinder the Australian economy and our budget, let alone the will of the Australian people, for the sake of a headline, a sound bite or something on the nightly news. Opposition for opposition’s sake is despicable.

We have seen selfish acts of self-interest from honourable members of the Liberal and National parties of late, smug opportunism and simply making policy on the run on anything from denying low-income earners a tax break to keeping Medicare dental patients in limbo. I hope for the sake of working families in my electorate of Dawson that those on the other side will join with the government and provide certainty in relation to providing incentives to build affordable rental houses in Dawson. The scheme will have a positive impact in Dawson, where incentives support building of affordable rental housing. It is an election commitment we are delivering. It is good news for Dawson, it is good news for the people of Australia, and I commend the bills to the House.