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Monday, 24 June 2013
Page: 6820

Mr ANDREWS (Menzies) (16:00): I rise to speak on the Homelessness Bill 2013 and the Homelessness (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013. The bill's explanatory memorandum states that this bill is aimed at increasing recognition and awareness of people who are homeless or who are at risk of homelessness. The consequential amendments bill repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 to make way for the new legislation and replaces the definition of 'homeless person' which applies in the provisions about including itinerant electors in the electoral rolls to ensure that people who are homelessness can still effectively participate in electoral activities. The bills make some definitional changes and remove references to the superseded Homelessness Funding Mechanism referred to in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994. The bills are otherwise little more than broad statements of principle and aspiration. This is something we are used to seeing from this Labor government—all politics, no policy. These bills do not impact on funding for service provision for homelessness.

The coalition will not oppose the bills, but is concerned that, through this legislation, the Labor government has produced yet another statement of aspiration without any ongoing tangible commitment to reducing homelessness on the ground. Indeed, the bills are a missed opportunity and will not make any difference to the plight of homeless Australians. These bills stem from a recommendation in Labor's white paper on homelessness to enact new legislation to ensure that people who are homeless receive quality support services and adequate support. The introduced bills are the product of the white paper recommendation and inquiry into homelessness legislation in 2009 by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community and Youth and a public consultation process in mid-2012.

I will turn specifically to the Homelessness Bill which, as I mentioned, is an aspirational document only. It is not a funding instrument and, contrary to the objective of the white paper, has no impact on the services and support provided to homeless people. The Homelessness Bill draws attention to the experience of homelessness and voices the goal that all Australians have access to appropriate affordable, safe and sustainable housing. The bill sets out a range of service delivery principles to which the Commonwealth is committed and the strategies seen as necessary to reduce homelessness. In response to stakeholder feedback, the bill widens the definition of homelessness so that people staying in crisis accommodation cannot be ruled out of the definition through any concept of choice. The definition also now includes a reference to safety as a vital element in a person's living circumstances.

Let me turn to the consequential amendments bill. The consequential amendments bill repeals the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994. The Supported Accommodation Assistance Act was primarily a vehicle for providing funding to states and territories to administer the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, which provided crisis and transitional support and accommodation services to the homeless. New funding arrangements—the National Partnership on Homelessness and the National Affordable Housing Specific Purpose Payment—were introduced in 2009 under the Federal Financial Relations Framework, superseding the funding mechanism in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act. The new bills retain the statements of principle about homelessness contained in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act.

The consequential amendments bill also makes a change to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, replacing the definition of 'homeless person' which applies in the provisions about including itinerant electors on the electoral rolls and which currently partly relies on concepts drawn from the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act. The new definition of 'homeless person' will ensure that the itinerant elector provisions will continue to apply despite the repeal of the 1994 act so that people who are homeless can continue to participate in electoral activities in the Australian community.

Aside from making some definitional changes and removing references to the superseded funding mechanism in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, the bill is little more than a broad statement of principle. The definitional changes are important, ensuring that people staying in crisis accommodation are not excluded from the definition of 'homeless' because they have chosen to leave their homes. Indeed, young people escaping violent home life or mothers and their children who have had to leave home for their own safety can hardly be said to have chosen the state of homelessness. But the bill is otherwise simply a statement of high-minded aspiration. For more than 105,000 homeless Australians, and the thousands of dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to support them, these bills will raise the hope and expectation that a Labor government might finally do something tangible to stem the tide of homelessness in Australia, but without actually doing anything. It is disappointing that these bills will make no difference to funding or service provision for homelessness. Homeless Australians do not need any more high-minded aspiration. They need support and they need funding. Labor is offering them neither through these bills. Like the coalition, homeless Australians and stakeholders in the sector will be deeply disappointed by the bills. The coalition will not oppose the bills, but we believe that they are a missed opportunity and will not make any difference to the plight of homeless Australians. Most disappointingly, the bills go no way to addressing Labor's multiple failures on homelessness.

I turn then to this government's record of failure on homelessness. The Rudd-Gillard government has mismanaged homelessness policy right from the start and has made it difficult for the states and territories on the front line to do their job and deliver services to some of our most vulnerable citizens. In 2008, the then Prime Minister, the member for Griffith, Mr Rudd, said that homelessness was a national obscenity and promised to halve the rate of homelessness in Australia by 2020. Sadly, Labor's record has not matched their rhetoric. In fact, under Labor's watch, homelessness has increased. Between 2006 and 2011, ABS census figures show a 17 per cent increase in the number of homeless people in Australia, or an increase of over 15,500 people, from 89,728 in 2006 to 105,237 in 2011. Under Labor, over 17 per cent of Australia's homeless are now under the age of 12, and homeless families represent almost one-third of those receiving support in 2011-12. In most cases, these are single adults with children.

Compounding this failure, on 2 May 2013 the Australian National Audit Office released a report which revealed major failings in the government's key homelessness funding deal with the states and the territories, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. According to the audit report, the government is unlikely to achieve its own target of a seven per cent reduction in homelessness by 1 July 2013—weeks away. The government's likely failure to reach its seven per cent target has only been confirmed by a recent COAG Reform Council Report, Homelessness 2011-12: comparing performance across Australia, and by officials from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs at Senate estimates hearings this month. The ANAO report uncovered multiple other problems with the program. Firstly, state and territory governments are not required to report financial information to the Commonwealth under the scheme or the program, meaning the Commonwealth has no way to know if jurisdictions are meeting their financial commitments under the agreement. Secondly, payments to the state and territories are not linked to outcomes, milestones or performance benchmarks. Thirdly, the absence of outcomes based reporting means the government is unable to make meaningful assessments of overall progress within each jurisdiction or nationally and receives very little information on whether the reforms are even working at all. Fourthly, problems with homelessness data used under the program mean the government cannot even measure changes in homelessness levels in Australia over the life of the agreement.

Once you move passed the overblown rhetoric, Labor's commitment to reducing homelessness is not founded on the facts. In 2013-14 federal budget, Labor has not committed any funding beyond next year to homelessness. Instead, this government has allocated $159 million in 2013-14 for a one-year so-called Transitional National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the states and territories. The torturous process of renegotiating the program resulted in continued instability for homelessness service providers and Labor's last-minute, one-year deal to extend funding beyond 1 July 2013 is a bandaid solution that does not provide certainty for those services or the thousands of homeless people who rely upon them. In addition, Labor has negotiated funding arrangements for homelessness so badly that it has made it all but impossible to know if the reforms are working at all. Under Labor, the future of homelessness funding in Australia will remain uncertain beyond mid-2014. This government has allocated nothing in the forward estimates to fund vital homelessness services across the country.

The coalition, as I said, will not oppose this bill, but we do not believe the wordy sentiments it expresses will make any difference to thousands of homeless Australians out in the streets in the towns, the cities and rural areas of Australia. The coalition is committed to supporting the homeless in more than words. We are committed to combatting the many and complex causes of homelessness, supporting homeless Australians with real, practical assistance and preventing even more Australians from falling into homelessness. Unfortunately we cannot wave a magic wand and make homelessness go away. Setting arbitrary targets and making big promises to solve the plight of our under-privileged is not the best approach, because we simply cannot comprehend the complex nature of the issues which they face. These can include domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and economic circumstances such as the sudden loss of a job. A coalition government, if elected, would streamline homelessness services and cut red tape for providers, along with providing a $1.5 billion package for mental health problems.