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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 2111


Mr WEBSTER(8.11) —The Defence Housing Authority Bill represents the Government's recognition that the housing crisis facing service personnel and their families can be ignored by it only at the risk of totally alienating service members from the Government. In part, it is a political act by a government losing electoral support amongst key groups in the electorate-in this case, the defence sector. It represents an initial concession by Cabinet to the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) after four years of deferring action which I believe the Minister, to his credit, has been demanding. No doubt the resignation rate in the Services and the decline in morale to an almost dangerous level have finally persuaded those in the Cabinet with some concern for the future security of this country. The Opposition believes that the Bill is a necessary but insufficient move by the Government to tackle the crisis in defence housing. The Opposition's disappointment and the general direction necessary to supplement this legislation are expressed in the amendment moved earlier by the honourable member for Hume (Mr Fife).

I want, first, to provide the background to the Bill. I want to describe, especially for honourable members who do not have significant service representation in their electorate and also for the fellow citizens of service personnel and their spouses, the nature of the housing problems that service members and their families face. To give credibility to the complaints of servicemen and to show how clear the problem was to the Government many months ago, I will quote sections of a report entitled `Problems Facing Service Spouses' by Sue Hamilton. It was written in April 1986. In the report, which is known as the Hamilton report, Mrs Hamilton states:

I heard many complaints about housing from service families and visited a number of defence married quarters which persuaded me-

I know that the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay) has mentioned a number of these already-

that many of these complaints were entirely reasonable, and that the low standard of service housing is a significant contributor to the poor family morale in the services.

She continues:

The most frequent area of complaint and a source of great frustration for the people I consulted was the poor standard of maintenance in service housing, particularly in that leased from the various State housing authorities. Tenants complained of delays in carrying out maintenance and of poor quality of work and materials when maintenance was done, resulting in rapid deterioration. In some cases I was also told of problems encountered by spouses in reporting maintenance needs themselves when the service member was away from home for service reasons.

The report goes on to state:

There was general dissatisfaction with housing leased from State housing authorities. This applied not only to the standards of maintenance of this housing, but to the general condition of the houses and to the social environment in the areas where they were. In many cases this concern seemed to me to be fully justified.

Mrs Hamilton also states:

Many families complained of the poor security of their married quarters, particularly during the absence of serving spouses. The lack of deadlocks, security screens or properly fastening windows in many married quarters can be a source of considerable concern. A number of people also reported that the combination of poor security arrangements and the socially disadvantaged areas in which large numbers of service houses are located resulted in great difficulties for them in attempting to insure their personal belongings.

Finally a number of home owners spoke to me about the penalty they incur in being asked by their lending institutions to pay investment rates on their home mortgage when they are forced by postings to move away from their homes.

Mrs Hamilton continues:

The overwhelming impression I gained from the service spouses I talked to in the course of the study was their feeling that they and the contribution they make in support of the Australian Defence Force are not valued either within the service community or in the community generally. They perceive the service hierarchy as generally unsympathetic to the special problems that service life creates for a family with its inflexibility in responding to those problems. They see the civilian community generally as placing little value on defence activities and having little or no esteem for those who choose defence as a career or for their families.

In spite of these perceptions, most of the people I spoke to were very proud of their spouse's service career; but they saw that career being pursued at a cost to family life that many Australians would not be prepared to tolerate; and they sought some recognition of the fact.

Everything that Mrs Hamilton has reported in these sections has been repeated to my staff and to me on many occasions by service personnel or family members from the Richmond Royal Australian Air Force base, which is in the electorate of Macquarie. Mrs Hamilton made some further comments that I also consider important. She referred to a 1983 United States of America Army White Paper entitled `The Army Family', which states:

. . . the unique nature of military service lends an urgency to the need to develop a coherent philosophy for the Army family.

Service members and their families should be able to enjoy the benefits of the society they are pledged to defend. Furthermore the nature of the commitment of the service member dictates to the army a moral obligation to support their families.

Mrs Hamilton concludes:

Currently there is a widespread acceptance that a defence career makes special demands on and requires a special commitment from those who choose it. However there is no clear acceptance of the consequence that flows clearly from this proposition-the responsibility to assist serving people to cope with the problems that this special commitment can create for their families.

In January 1985-over two years ago-the Go-vernment had before it an interim report of the program effectiveness review of the task force on the Australian Public Service and Defence Force housing programs. In April 1986, one year ago, it had a report from the Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Status of Women, Sue Hamilton, on the main problems facing spouses of Australian Defence Force personnel. The question I wish to ask is: Why has the Government taken so long to act on the housing problems of service personnel and their families? The answer, of course, is that political support has been lacking at Cabinet level.

A thumbnail sketch of the Government's approach to defence housing and conditions runs as follows: Firstly, it puts off decisions, funding decisions in particular, by creating committees of inquiry and liaison groups. Secondly, it acts only when problems reach crisis proportions. Thirdly, when service disaffection and public interest in the service members' plight threaten political embarrassment, it sets up a back bench committee to tour the country declaring the continued sympathy and good intentions of the Government. Fourthly, it under-funds housing for as long as possible, announces that a large sum of money-$750m-is to be spent over 10 years and then under-allocates year one of that program by $10m to $15m. Fifthly, it boosts revenue by increasing rents for service housing, justifies the increase-7 1/2 per cent in February last-by referring to normal community rates, and then ignores the fact that the increase is double the rate of the last pay rise. Sixthly, it creates an industrial tribunal for the services but then opposes all wage and allowance claims.

The sections that I have quoted from the Hamilton report give some idea of the problems that this Bill is intended to address. However, let me add a number of other facts to fill out the picture. Firstly, of the 22,000 houses in the total defence housing stock, close to 15,000 are considered to be below Commonwealth housing standards. Secondly, in the planned upgrading of service housing, barracks housing has hardly been touched and is completely inadequate. Housing funding has been inadequate for a number of years. Home purchase assistance is inadequate and not available to all service members. Representatives of service families and the private sector have not had sufficient input into housing management and planning. Private industry is reluctant to take over defence service housing provisions because the administrative costs under existing and proposed arrangements are prohibitive. Those in the best position to have oversight of the housing needs of their personnel, base and area commanders do not have sufficient power in the area of acquisition, repair and maintenance of defence housing. All of this compounds the difficulties confronted by service children facing constant family, social and educational disruption and by service spouses seeking employment and child care.

The housing crisis must also be seen in the context of inadequate wages, inadequate allowances, rent increases, pension cuts and inefficient bureaucracy. No other section of the community would tolerate such conditions and no union would accept such conditions and positions of powerlessness for its members. Servicemen do not have union or political power. Their recourse is simply resignation and they are taking this course of action in increasing numbers.

Most of the problems to which I have referred in this speech have not been dealt with as yet. For example, there is no indication that the Government has given any thought to negotiating with mortgage providers to keep interest rates at home rate level for a service family posted away from home. The message to the Minister and the Government is that this Bill is overdue, inadequate and in need of supplementation. Service personnel and their families will still expect further action to recognise their unique service, their grievances and their understandable desire for a fair go.

If the rumours are correct, the mini-Budget will take the axe to defence. I fear, therefore, that the hopes of servicemen and their families, raised in some cases by the public relations visits of the Government's back bench committee on defence matters, will remain unfulfilled. In conclusion, it has been said that a defence force is a body of men used to correct the mistakes of politicians. In this case, our Defence Force is a decreasing body of men who are powerless to correct the mistakes now being made by this Government.