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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 2122

Mr HAWKER(9.19) —Listening to the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Tickner), one could almost believe that fairy tales have come true. It is all very well for him to talk about his new task force-I am not sure which one he means this time-but really he seems to overlook the one simple fact that at the moment resignations from the armed forces are the highest they have been for a long time. That tells us more than anything that people are dissatisfied; they are voting with their feet. The honourable member talked a bit about the problems of rents and made some fanciful accusation against the Opposition. I should think that the honourable member for Hughes ought to be aware, living in Sydney-forget about any hidden agenda-of what is happening to rents in Australia right now. We can see very clearly that, through the Government's abolition of negative gearing and, more particularly, through the high interest rates policy that this Government continues to pursue, rents in Australia are rising at the most alarming rate. If the honourable member were really concerned about the housing issue in general and in particular housing for people in the armed services, I think he ought to have addressed the major problems rather than talk about little band-aid solutions such as having a committee which makes everyone feel nice and warm inside but which really achieves very little.

As the honourable member for Hume (Mr Fife) stated when outlining the case for the Opposition in this debate, there is a very major concern in the defence forces about the whole housing issue, and that is the alarming rate of resignations. As the honourable member for Hume pointed out so clearly, one of the major reasons for this alarming rate of resignations is the very poor standard of housing. While members of the Government might like to give us some history lessons, I think they also ought to recognise that the Australian Labor Party has now been in government for over four years and it has taken a mighty long time to get around to addressing this problem-a darn sight longer than it has taken it to look at some fancy new hardware such as some new submarines.

In talking about defence forces housing one cannot help being reminded of the shabby way this Government has treated former members of the armed forces, in particular, soldier settlers-many of whom live in my electorate-when it brought in that dreadful thing called the assets test. Still we have the situation where a farmer, who happens to have a farm that might be worth $250,000, can find that his house is valued at $50,000 and he completely misses out on the pension. Yet people in the city can have a house worth $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000 and still be eligible for the pension. If that is equity, I would like to know what the Government will try to tell us next. In fact, I would not be the slightest bit surprised-despite the great claims of the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe)-that there are people in Australia receiving the pension right now who have houses of the value of a million dollars or more. So much for the so-called assets test cutting out the millionaires getting pensions. By exempting the family home the Government has in fact created two classes of pensioners-those who live in the city and those who live in the country.

The Defence Housing Authority Bill represents a belated recognition by the Government of the serious problem that is confronting service personnel. As I said, it has taken the Government over four years to bring this Bill into the chamber. I guess we have to welcome it but, as the honourable member for Hume has pointed out, we have moved an amendment in three parts which expresses our reservations about the Bill. So in fact we support the Bill in principle but, just for the benefit of honourable members, I will outline our concerns as they are expressed in the amendment. Firstly, we are concerned that the establishment of a statutory authority is in fact the best way to address the housing needs of service men and women. Our second concern is the failure of the Government to allow adequately for the private home ownership requirements of the Australian Defence Force. Our third concern, as outlined in our amendment, is that we urge greater delegation of the financial responsibility to base and area commanders for acquisition, repair and maintenance of defence housing with appropriate audit controls.

We heard quite a bit tonight about the problems of the rundown in funding of housing for Defence Force personnel. This, in fact, can be highlighted by looking at a few statistics. Under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement-which is the main source of defence housing-housing as a proportion of defence expenditure has dropped drastically over the last 10 years. In fact it has dropped from 1.8 per cent to a miserable 0.25 per cent. More recent figures highlight further the Government's failure to provide reasonable funding for defence housing. If we look at funding through the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement we find that in 1985-86 $4.3m was allocated, but by 1986-87 the amount has fallen to $1.9m. That is a drop from $4.3m to $1.9m. So much for the claims by members of the Government that this Government has moved to address the problem quickly; it has in fact presided over the major part of the problem in the first place. When the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr West) comes into this chamber-he is always trumpeting his so-called achievements in housing-it is amazing and very curious how silent he is about Defence Force housing. We cannot really blame the State governments because the funds are advanced to the States by the Commonwealth. Also, the Commonwealth pays rents on houses provided under this Agreement with the States; so again we cannot blame the States.

If we want to look at the seriousness of the problem we have to go back and look at some of the statistics. The first thing we find is that the Department of Defence has admitted that nearly 60 per cent of its houses are below standards-standards that were set in 1972 under the scales of accommodation. When one considers that the Defence Department has 29,000 houses the scale of the problem becomes apparent. In other words, there is an urgent need to upgrade at least 15,000 of these houses. As honourable members would be aware, a housing problem just does not appear overnight. The warning about the need for increased housing has been around for years. In fact, the Australian Defence White Paper highlighted the problem in 1976-over 10 years ago-when it noted that there was a shortage of married quarters in most areas of Australia. As the White Paper also pointed out, there was a need to obtain a further 3,200 houses by the early 1980s.

More recently, a report from the task force on Public Service and Defence Force housing programs written in 1985 noted that there were insufficient married quarters available and that a large number of existing married quarters were substandard. That was in 1985, so the warnings have been repeated. It was also noted that there was a common complaint that repairs and maintenance work took too long to get done and on occasions it was not even done properly when it was done. On this latter point, the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) cited a worthy aim when he spoke in his second reading speech of one of the three essential elements to remedying this problem of poor repairs and maintenance. The Minister said:

There must be a single organisation established which is dedicated to management of Defence housing and free from bureaucratic controls.

Great words! As the honourable member for Hume has already pointed out, the Opposition is highly critical of the Minister on this point, and we strongly doubt that this aim will be achieved by the type of legislation that has been introduced here, because, despite the Minister's high sounding rhetoric, there is in fact a real lack of delegation. No doubt many people have heard the story about how many weeks it takes Defence Force personnel to get a light bulb changed because of the paper that has to be shuffled backwards and forwards before they can get the authority to allow someone to do it rather than going to buy the thing themselves.

The seriousness of the housing problem is also highlighted in a report written by Sue Hamilton in April 1986 entitled `Supporting Service Families'. In that report she said:

The low standard of service housing is a significant contributor to poor family morale in the services. At times when families are suffering all the other stresses associated with a change of location, it would at least lessen the trauma a little if they could be confident of being offered a reasonable standard of accommodation on arrival at their new location.

I think those words spell out very clearly one of the major problems-one which I highlighted at the beginning of my speech-that of the rising number of resignations.

One notable aspect of Defence Service personnel housing is the failure of the Government to give any extra assistance with home ownership to members of the Defence Force. At present assistance is provided through the Defence Ser-vice Homes Corporation, but both former and serving members of the Defence Force can in fact become eligible for loans of up to $25,000 at favourable rates of interest to buy their own home. The money that has been available for loans through this scheme has been slashed by 35 per cent, from $126m in 1985-86 to $82 1/2m in 1986-87-again giving the lie to the argument put by members of the Government that they are in fact concerned about the Defence Force personnel and the standard of their housing. It is interesting to note that over the same period defence spending increased by 11 per cent. In other words, the Government is quite happy to increase spending on defence-and, of course, we welcome that-but at the same time it forgets, by failing to keep up adequate funding for housing, the very people who are expected to work in our defence forces.

As was pointed out on page 161 of the 1986-87 Budget statement, the Government has invited financial institutions to join in arrangements to provide home loans for those eligible under the defence services homes scheme. It was also stated in the Budget Papers that these arrangements would be introduced from 1 January this year. Despite the fact that this invitation to private financial institutions was first announced back in the mini-Budget of May 1985, there still seems to have been very little action. The waiting list of service personnel who have applied for a loan under this scheme continues to grow. In fact, as of six months ago, the waiting list was at least 10 months-again, an indication of the priority that the Government puts on Defence Force housing. In fact, it is nearly two years since the Government first announced that it would do something about this waiting list. If the answer given to a question asked by Senator Newman in the other place on 25 March is any guide, the delays will continue. In fact, if honourable members want to check, they will find that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) refused to give any undertaking as to when this waiting list would be reduced. I have had personal representations from constituents on this matter. Quite frankly, whatever way we look at it, the situation is quite unsatisfactory. Again, I think this indicates the failure of the Government to come to grips with the enormous problem facing Defence Force personnel housing.

Another matter which I might mention is rent. When talking about defence housing, it is important to look at the shabby way in which this Government has treated service personnel who are currently renting houses. From 2 April rents have been raised 7.9 per cent while, in compa-rison, wages and salaries in the defence forces have risen by only 3.8 per cent. In other words, rents are rising at twice the rate of the wages of Defence Force personnel. When we remember that over half of the housing is below standard, such a rent increase can hardly be justified. The problems with rent arrangements go further than just the inflated increases. As the Returned Services League of Australia has pointed out, the present rental arrangements are excessively complex. One of the first challenges facing the Defence Housing Authority will be to look at the problems relating to rent on service homes.

As has been pointed out in every speech made by members on this side of the chamber, the big effect of all this is on the morale of the Services. The seriousness of the morale problem in the defence forces under this Government is well illustrated by reference to one simple statistic. In January this year over 1,000 personnel resigned from our defence forces-1,000 in one month out of a total of 70,000. These resignations are more than double the number in the previous month of December last year. This is probably only the tip of the iceberg. In the 12 months to January 1987 total losses from the Services were 8 per cent greater than total gains. In other words, the numbers are in fact falling. In 1986 male officer resignations were up 34 per cent on 1985. In fact, skilled and highly trained personnel are resigning faster than they can be replaced. Obviously it is time that a full inquiry into service wages and conditions was instituted because such a drain just cannot be allowed to continue. I do not think anyone on either side of this chamber would deny that below standard housing is a major reason for this low morale and for the alarming rise in resignations in the defence forces.

It is quite clear that the lack of funding for Defence Force housing, the lack of funding for defence service home loans and the rapidly rising rents being charged to defence personnel are all contributing to the low morale amongst our ser-vice personnel. It is not just a problem of housing a few people. It is the very fabric, the very people who could be called upon to defend our nation who are being neglected by this Government. We hear so much about the wonderful submarines and all the money that we are going to spend on them. But what about the people who are going to drive these machines?

Mr Cohen —Drive them?

Mr HAWKER —Well, all the other bits and pieces too. It is all very well for the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) to come into this chamber and talk about his Government being the first to adopt a set of principles to govern housing assistance to its own employees, including particularly members of the Defence Force. I suggest to the Minister that it takes more than principles to build houses and to keep people with such a vital role to play willingly in our defence forces.

The Government's legislation represents a belated effort to correct a long-standing problem. The success of this move will have far reaching effects on the morale of the Australian Defence Force. Therefore, the success of solving the Defence Force housing problem will have a direct effect on the defence of this country. Without adequate housing, there will be great difficulty in attracting good personnel to the Services, let alone keeping those who are already serving. I have already highlighted the alarming rate of resignations over the last year. The Minister for Defence may wish to bask in the limelight of his new defence hardware such as the submarines. But if the personnel are not available because of inadequate housing, this equipment is unlikely ever to be fully utilised.

The Opposition has warned the Government about the weaknesses of this Bill and about the urgency of improving housing. The honourable member for Hume has moved an amendment which expresses very clearly our views. However, the fundamental question is whether the Government will fund the defence housing adequately, because without proper funding the rest of the Government's aims in defence will be largely irrelevant. The Minister must give this commitment. I ask the Minister to take the opportunity in his summing up to give the commitment that, despite whatever the Treasurer (Mr Keating) might do in his mini-Budget, he will ensure that an adequate commitment is given to the upgrading of Defence Force houses which is so desperately needed. In concluding his second reading speech, the Minister for Defence said:

A high degree of expectation exists in the defence community that the Authority will come to grips with the housing problems which have been endured by service families over a long period.

All honourable members would join with me in hoping that those expectations are fulfilled by this Government.