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Thursday, 1 March 2018
Page: 2437


Mr HILL (Bruce) (10:05): You might remember the lead-up to the 2017 budget last year when the newspapers were trumpeting that housing was going to be the centrepiece of the budget, that the Treasurer was going to stun us with initiatives and that we were going to finally deal with the housing crisis that is enveloping the nation. That went on for a week or two until obviously something happened in the cabinet and they had one of their little scrag fights and they realised that they actually weren't prepared to do any serious reform to deal with the demand side of the equation—which, as we know, is the key issue within the federal government's province. And then there was nothing. Well, actually, not nothing; there was a series of tiny little measures which really won't do very much at all to address the problem—it certainly wasn't a budget centrepiece—and this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017, is one of those.

I think the government's political strategy, or parliamentary strategy—or maybe both—seems to be that, if you scatter around the Notice Paper enough teeny-tiny bills with 'housing' in the title, maybe people will think that you're doing something about housing. This is one of those bills. You can tell what they really want to talk about, and what they just hope will kind of disappear and not get remarked upon by the number of speakers listed. So we've had in the last half-hour the circus of having no government speakers and then we were served up one honourable muppet to read out some stuff that the minister's office has given them.

Mr Frydenberg: Deputy Speaker, that was unparliamentary.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Maybe frivolous.

Mr Frydenberg: To call a colleague a muppet is unparliamentary.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: That word has been used before, and I actually questioned it myself and the Speaker let that through. So I will follow the Speaker's ruling, and the member for Bruce will continue.

Mr Frydenberg: Okay; I will check that.

Mr HILL: It is not unparliamentary to call someone a muppet when you get up and read stuff that you clearly don't understand. But that follows on from the member for Gilmore's fine contribution in the Federation Chamber when she told us all that it's an outrage that universities have a surplus and that's why we need to cut their funding. It obviously escaped her at that time that the point of a surplus for a university is to use it to build capital. So we're not going to get any new stuff at universities—but, anyway, that's another digression.

This bill seeks to legislate bits of the proposed new national housing agreement. It combines the previous NAHA and the NPA. It's a mix of housing-related funding and a little bit for homelessness. The payment of the dollars is to be in accordance with the primary agreement. That sounds fine, except that it's not actually going to do anything to address the housing crisis in Australia. We are still a nation that is amongst the least affordable in the entire world to buy or rent a house in our major capital cities. You only need to talk to any young people trying to get into the housing market—I was out at university O-weeks in the last couple of weeks—to know that young people despair at their prospects of ever breaking into the housing market.

It was only a few decades ago that you used to need about four to five times average weekly earnings to buy a medium house. That's been a fairly constant feature. But over the last couple of decades we've seen that blow out, in Melbourne and Sydney in particular, where you need 10 to 11 times average weekly earnings to have a crack at getting into the housing market. Nothing that the government are doing is addressing those fundamental issues. They're fiddling around the edges. They have had three policies. We had the 'get rich parents' policy of the Prime Minister. Then we had the Treasurer's policy of 'get a well-paying job'. And then we had the former Deputy Prime Minister's policy of 'get rich mates'. That will get you a house in Armidale, apparently. None of that is going to deal with the fact that we have 195,000 people on the social housing waiting list across Australia.

We have a homelessness crisis. There were 288,000 people who presented in 2017 to homelessness services across the country. We are seeing a growing crisis with older women in particular. As the Grattan Institute said in relation to this bill, 'You would need an electron microscope to discern any possible impact that this bill may actually have.' So let's be clear: all the government are doing is reorganising a bunch of agreements with states and territories, with no new funding, into a bunch of different agreements. That's it. It's administrative change; it's not policy and it's not actually dealing with the housing crisis. They are reorganising the administrative agreements.

No single level of government in this country can deal with housing alone. They can't. The federal government controls a range of the levers, particularly in relation to demand: the tax settings, migration settings and so on. The state governments have primary responsibility for supply—that is, making sure enough new houses are built to meet demand. Local governments have a key role in that, particularly with planning and development approvals and so on. You would think that, if you recognised the reality of our system of government, you'd sit down with the states and territories in a cooperative fashion and work this out.

Instead, with this government we have no minister for housing. There is no minister for housing whatsoever. You can't find one. There's not a single minister sitting on that side or in the Senate with 'housing' in their title. They have no strategy and no plan. We heard the previous speaker try to explain to us that this bill requires the states, in return for any money, to have a strategy and a plan. That's okay, except that it's one-sided. There's no requirement on the Commonwealth to have a strategy or a plan for housing, but they're going to turn up and say to the states, 'You've got to have a strategy and a plan,' when all the big levers sit with the Commonwealth, as we know.

We also heard the member for Bass remind us that this bill was introduced on 25 October, two days before the government even sat down with the states and territories to try to negotiate some changes. I think the government are making a reasonable point. We should always expect the best value for taxpayer dollars—there's no disagreement there—but, if there are issues—as COAG identified—with the previous performance framework under the Rudd government's agreements, then sit down, work it out and improve them. Instead, you're putting all your effort into reorganising the agreements, scrapping some and putting others in place. It doesn't actually deal with the problem.

Reading the Senate inquiry transcript and the report is instructive. It's another example of how completely out of touch and loony the Turnbull government are when it comes to policy development. They're in another universe. Treasury officers celebrated 'the spirit of cooperation and constructiveness' surrounding their negotiation with the states regarding the bill, yet the states themselves are extremely unsupportive of the bill. In fact, the state treasurers have now actually given up and set up a board of treasurers that doesn't include the Commonwealth Treasurer to come up with a housing plan. They haven't even got the Commonwealth at the table. I'd hate to see what the government thinks is a hostile environment.

The states also suggest that the broadened scope of the legislation threatens to spread a limited amount of funding across too many expenses, which threatens crucial services on top of the uncertainty that's already making the non-government organisations so uneasy in the first place. The Liberal Party says that the bill will:

…promote better outcomes for the Commonwealth's housing and homelessness funding … without jeopardising the funding of crucial services …

That's what the minister told us in his second reading speech. But if you actually talk to the non-government organisations—the community organisations all around the country who every hour of every day are actually dealing with the homelessness crisis—they say that all this bill will do is create obstacles. It doesn't create any solutions. It amounts to 'moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic'. It represents 'a progressive, protracted diminution of effort'. When you look at the funding outlook under these new agreements, the Commonwealth is going to be putting less effort into homelessness, despite the growing crisis.

I commend the Andrews Labor government, who have at least recognised that they can't wait around for the Commonwealth to come up with a grown-up plan, to get a minister or to get a strategy. They announced in mid-January—it was a fantastic kick-off-the-year announcement in Victoria—$45 million of new money for dealing with the homelessness and rough-sleeping crisis, which includes parts of my electorate down in Dandenong in particular.

The Liberals say that their bill will secure improved outcomes. All the experts who work in the field—not the geniuses who occupy the government benches over there—say that the entire bill is premature in the absence of an urgently needed national strategy. There's no strategic vision. It's fine to introduce bills and rearrange administrative agreements, but you still don't have a plan or a strategy to deal with the housing crisis or 'the tsunami of Australians facing homelessness or insecure housing'. Again, the government's perception of reality contrasts with that of the people across the nation who are actually at the coalface trying to deal with the homelessness crisis.

It's also at odds with the interests of everyday Australians who simply want to return to a time when their children and grandchildren had some hope—just some hope—of getting into the housing market without having rich parents to give them a hundred grand or two hundred grand for a deposit. That is the key point. It's one-sided. There's no coherent strategy. They're ignoring the advice of experts. Indeed, on capital gains tax or negative gearing, as we've now learnt in the last few months, they're ignoring the advice of their own Treasury, which said, 'You really need to look at the reform of tax concessions.' They are fiddling around the edges, making some payments conditional, restructuring some payments, but not actually doing anything to formulate a Commonwealth strategy.

It's an illustration of a theme that many of us have touched on before: the distinction between being in government—and being in government in here means you sit on the opposite side of the chamber, you get to be the ministers, and you get the great privilege and responsibility of having the Public Service to work with and to advise you in making decisions—and actually governing, which means you need to look at problems and make decisions. Governing, to my mind anyway, means you develop a strategy to deal with a problem. For this government, being in government apparently just means that, like a bunch of demented bureaucrats who happen to have been elected, you rearrange the administrative agreements.

The government has also totally ignored the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, which said the federal government has to do more to work with the states in the spirit of Australian federalism. Yet the government tabled this bill without even talking to them. The Productivity Commission also recommended that the government—and this is important—not seek 'reform through control of payments'. In fact, out of all the policy options identified, that's the least effective and the least preferred one. Yet here we are debating a bill where that's all they're doing.

The bill will achieve nothing. It's a drop in the ocean, and I note the Grattan Institute's comment about needing an electron microscope to be able to see any impact this bill will actually have on house prices, on homelessness and on the crisis in social housing across the country. We're always being lectured by those opposite on how we apparently don't know anything about economics, so I would also make the point that it's about the basic laws of economics: supply and demand. We were told that the budget had an initiative about supply. The Commonwealth government was going to release Defence land to help boost supply. The centrepiece of this was the Maribyrnong Defence land in Melbourne. The only problem with that is that it was announced about 12 years ago, so it's not a new initiative at all. Of course, the reason it hasn't happened is that the land is covered with explosives and contamination. If fully developed, at a really incredible density you might get 10,000 houses—it will probably be more like 6,000—which goes almost no meaningful way to addressing the supply issues which we're told need to be addressed in metropolitan areas, despite the fact the Victorian government has the nation's leading supply and demand forecasting by way of the Urban Development Program, where every two years they sit down with developers and councils to identify all the development sites across Melbourne. It's entirely unclear what this bill is actually going to do that's not already being done, at least in my home state of Victoria.

Finally, there are the tax concessions. You can't credibly get up now to talk about housing policy in this country without reminding the government that nothing serious will happen until they accept the fact that the levers the Commonwealth have in relation to demand go to the tax settings. We exist in a country now where, as a high-income earner—and we're well paid in here; apparently, the government thought it was not well enough, so we were the priority to get a tax cut in this budget, which says a lot about their own priorities and predilections—the most rational thing to do on a Saturday morning when you have a bit of spare cash in your pocket is to walk down the street to an auction and bid up the cost of an existing house, because you'll get a great big tax kick. On the other hand, of course, a first home buyer, a young person trying to get into the market, gets nothing. With the tax settings in this country, it's easier now to buy your 13th property than it is to have a crack at getting your first one, and that has to change.

It's a pretty fair and simple proposition. Overwhelmingly, tens of billions of dollars of tax expenditures in negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions go to the people who have the most. They go to the top income earners, the people who already have the most wealth and capital. Of course, your ordinary everyday Australian simply does not benefit from that. You may wonder why this is. Let's be honest. Let's be clear. When you strip back all the fine words and all the nonsensical dot points that they send the odd backbencher in to read out—cannon fodder that they are—the Liberal Party is the party of wealth and capital. That has always been its historic purpose; that is its purpose today. Those who already have wealth and capital will do well out of this government. They will get tax cuts. They will get enormous tax concessions. Multinational companies will get a tax cut. Yet nothing meaningful is being done to address the needs of everyday Australians who don't already have wealth and capital and who are simply trying to get by, get a pay rise and maybe get a tax cut—but they're not the priority under this government.