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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1895

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(10.22 a.m.) —I was surprised that Senator Newman did not address the Senate in moving that the request not be pressed, and perhaps try to mount an argument for this motion.

Senator Bob Collins —It's traditional.

Senator FAULKNER —It is traditional, Senator Collins, in the Senate to actually put a case after the Senate has made a request to the House of Representatives. But on this particular occasion, the minister has not seen fit to do this, which is surprising because I really believe that this is a request that should not have been a difficult one for the government to accede to.

The funds for housing assistance for 1997-98 and 1998-99 are in the forward estimates—or certainly they were in the forward estimates when the Labor government left office—and I must say that I find it difficult to impute other than sinister motives to the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman) and the coalition government for their refusal to comply with this request.

The government—apart from its unwillingness to even debate the matter today in this chamber—has not given any indication that it is prepared to compromise on this matter. It has not said that, for example, it recognises that states and territories need security of funding and so, at this stage, it would be prepared to appropriate funds for another year, but not for another two years. No approach has been made to me or my office. No argument has been mounted in this cham ber today. In fact, we have heard quite the opposite. All we have heard is that the government will not agree to the request. That is why I must say that I at least question the motives of the minister and the coalition in refusing this request.

Yesterday, I put on record my prediction that Senator Short will lose his responsibilities as ministerial representative of the Treasurer (Mr Costello) and the Minister for Finance (Mr Fahey) before the conclusion of this parliament, and I think I am on a winner with that prediction.

Senator Bob Collins —I hope not, Senator Faulkner.

Senator FAULKNER —No-one will take me?

Senator Bob Collins —I'm backing Senator Short.

Senator FAULKNER —How much?

Senator Bob Collins —One hundred per cent. I don't want him to move at all.

Senator FAULKNER —I meant in dollars and cents.

Senator Bob Collins —I want him to stay right where he is, thank you very much.

Senator FAULKNER —I think I am on a winner, Senator Collins, with that prediction, and I will make another prediction: that the total Commonwealth funding for housing assistance provided through the Commonwealth-state housing agreement and through rent assistance will be lower per capita in 1997-98—in terms of the numbers of people assisted and the amounts each person will have to pay in rent—than it will be in 1996-97. There is no doubt that rents will rise.

The minister went to great pains yesterday during question time to point out that she had consulted with many groups over the government's proposed changes to housing. She said:

Their response to our proposals this year has been positive . . .

Of course, the minister failed to tell us what ACOSS has said about these proposals. She did not say that the ACOSS president, Robert Fitzgerald, had expressed alarm over the proposed changes to the Commonwealth-state housing agreement which he said will almost certainly gut public housing and increase housing poverty.

She did not tell us that, in ACOSS's view, the latest proposal seems to rely on the states introducing market rents for public housing without guaranteeing a sufficient level of Commonwealth subsidies to ensure that future public housing tenants are not required to pay higher rents. She did not say that ACOSS has publicly described her government's proposals as a recipe for disaster. She did not tell us that the New South Wales minister for housing, Craig Knowles, predicted on 30 May this year:

Sydney will face a housing crisis with rising rents and increased homelessness under [the] new Federal Government's long term funding proposals.

He described the coalition government's housing plan as `a social and economic disaster' for New South Wales. He said:

Even with an increased subsidy, low income tenants could be paying up to 70 per cent of their income if they want to live in the Sydney region—if they can find a place to rent . . .

She did not tell us that the Premier of South Australia, Dean Brown, has said publicly:

Certainly on present projections we simply wouldn't build some public housing because the federal government in 12 months time is going to provide a rent subsidy for anyone who is in either a public or a private house.

Here are all our fears, and I think the fears of others, that there may be no future growth in public housing stock confirmed.

Dean Brown is making decisions not to proceed with building public housing now, but states and territories will not see the coalition's offer—as if the states and territories have any choice, given the insecurity of funding for housing in the future—until it is set down in a letter from the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to the premiers in August, after the budget is handed down. All this, I might say, is from a minister who today proposes that the Senate not press this request, but puts forward not one word of argument in support of that position.

Let me remind the Committee what I argued in putting the original request a few days ago. I said that Labor recognised that the states and territories would need time to re- configure their housing arrangements to put the reforms announced in Community and Nation in place. The original version of this bill that was introduced by the previous Labor administration made a commitment to provide three years funding for states and territories. It provided them with secure funding while they undertook the planning and change required to implement these significant reforms.

Housing is something that requires long-term planning. It does require forward planning. We need to take account of the longer term. States and territories are effectively being required to undertake the work of reform in one year with no security of funding beyond the financial year we are about to embark upon.

As I said previously in the chamber, the coalition has acknowledged that public housing capital works programs involve long lead times and that the date for the discontinuation of Commonwealth capital grants and detailed transitional arrangements, including carry over of funding, needs to be settled well in advance of the actual switch in Commonwealth funding from capital to recurrent. Those are the coalition's words. The request to appropriate funds for 1997-98 and 1998-99 to give states and territories sufficient security in funding to plan properly for the significant reforms ahead was supported not only by my own colleagues in the opposition but also by the Australian Democrats and Western Australian Green senators. I thank them for their support in that regard.

I said to the minister on Tuesday when we debated this matter that the opposition in the Senate would undertake to deal with the request as soon as possible upon its return from the House of Representatives, which of course is happening, and that effectively we would facilitate in the opposition the early consideration of the request if the Committee saw fit to support my amendment. We have done that.

Today the opposition is faced with a difficult choice. The fact that the government will not agree to the request to appropriate funds for housing assistance in 1997-98 and 1998-99 gives us, on this side of the chamber, very grave cause for concern about the level of Commonwealth commitment to housing assistance in the future. When the budget is handed down I think we will find that there is good reason for that very high level of concern.

Even in these circumstances, even acknowledging these arguments that have been put forward, the opposition—as I said, in a difficult position—has determined that it is not prepared to jeopardise funding for housing assistance for the states and territories for the financial year 1996-97. So the opposition will not be moving today to press this request.

But let me say this: the opposition will be watching the minister and the government very closely over the next few months to ensure that commitments given in this chamber in the committee stage of this bill when it was originally dealt with and in the second reading debate, commitments given in a number of coalition policy statements and other pronouncements by relevant coalition shadow ministers at the time and shadow spokespersons, will all be vigilantly assessed by the opposition. We will watch all those commitments closely.

We will demand nothing less than the government honour the commitments it has made when in opposition and now in government. We will certainly be doing that right through into the lead-up to the budget in August to ensure that a fundamental commitment to housing assistance in this country is maintained.