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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 5851

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (18:01): People should have the right to control their own income. People should also have the right to safe, secure and affordable housing. People should also have the right not to live in poverty. Because this bill, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Public Housing Tenants’ Support) Bill 2013, contravenes those rights, the Greens will not be supporting it. This bill is an extension of income management and removes the right of public housing tenants to manage their own income. It also poses risks to residents as a result of lost income and the stress this will put on their health and the health of their families.

If people want to enter into income management voluntarily, of their own free will, then there is a role of government to facilitate that. The Australian Greens do believe that a form of voluntary income management may be useful for some people in managing their finances, but it will not be effective unless people enter into it of their own free will and the processes involved are transparent and clear. Instead, Labor wants to force people to live below the poverty line, by removing their ability to negotiate how many of their rent arrears they can pay according to their means. The Australian Greens would rather see $8.6 million spent on initiatives that add to the safety net, not cut more of it away, and increased services that empower people, not spent on taking their power away and making pressure worse.

The Greens recognise that income management is not evidence based social policy for a caring society but merely a pursuit of a new approach to a social welfare based on paternalism. The government has consistently emphasised the importance of evidence based policy. For example, Minister Macklin has spoken of her 'unshakeable belief in the power of responsive, evidence-based policy to drive progressive reform at many different levels'. Yet the growing body of evidence on various forms of income management demonstrates that it does not work. From the last four years worth of income quarantining in the Northern Territory, research clearly demonstrates that this policy is not working. For people affected by child protection income management in Western Australia, WACOSS have noted very low rates of participation in financial counselling for people affected and financial counsellors found child protection income management makes recipients more dependent than before, 'stifling their motivation to develop financial management skills'.

So if income management does not reduce exits to homelessness and does not improve personal decision making, goal setting or financial literacy and only enforces dependency on the system, what is it good for? And if indeed income management is the only way we can prevent these exits to homelessness, what does this say about the way we are running our public housing system? What does it say about our safety nets?

It is not even clear that there is a problem. The most recent Productivity Commission report on government services states that there is a very high rent collection rate in public housing, of 99.6 per cent. The main reason that the government has provided for this bill is that it will reduce the risk of homelessness from tenants facing eviction due to arrears. But this is a very long bow. The long bow the government has drawn in tying this bill to the goal of reducing homelessness is insulting to those who work in the sector, who could think of a lot of better ways to spend $8.6 million to reduce homelessness—and that is something that I will speak on in a moment.

This bill was discussed during the recent Senate estimates hearings. The lack of information that FaHCSIA could provide on key elements of this bill at this late stage was astounding. What they could tell us was that 756 public housing tenants were evicted due to arrears in 2011-12. Another 1,111 tenants have abandoned properties leaving arrears, excluding Tasmania—that is across the whole of the country. But, when asked how many of those would have gone into homelessness, they did not have figures. When asked what evidence they had that the enactment of the scheme will reduce homelessness, the answer was completely inadequate. When asked for figures of tenants evicted by jurisdiction and for dollar figures for the arrears, they did not have the figures.

The states want a mechanism to make it easier for them to take away tenants' income, yet they refuse to provide figures on what tenants owe. This federal Labor government is aiding and abetting conservative state governments to increase the pressure on public housing tenants. Isn't the mere fact that they are saying that this measure is aimed at preventing public homelessness of concern? If people are becoming homeless from arrears, then this is an abject failure of the state's duty to protect the most vulnerable. Is the safety net so bad that people fall straight through it without any support at all? When asked why the ceiling is 35 per cent of a tenant's income, which, of course, would automatically place all payees into housing stress, the department had no satisfactory answer, except to say that it is an upper limit and it will be up to state housing authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis—the very same state governments that we hear day after day in this place are cutting services and not treating people with the respect that they deserve. When asked if putting people into housing stress also puts people at risk of homelessness, the department had no answer. All in all, there is no hard data to support the claim that this bill will prevent homelessness, and it has been really uncomfortable to watch the government try.

But it is not just the Australian Greens who oppose this bill; many housing peak bodies and community sector organisations were involved in the consultation process. Across the board, fairly unanimous opposition to this bill has been articulated by Homelessness Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service, National Shelter, the Tenants Union of New South Wales and the Top End Women's Legal Service. The National Shelter does not support the legislation and has concerns about whether the scheme will really alleviate homelessness. Homelessness Australia do not support it. They have not seen any evidence that it would reduce exits into homelessness. The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service both made submissions in opposition to the bill.

What is concerning is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The consultation was not public but just with these select representatives. But, closer to my home, the Tenants Union of Victoria also oppose the bill. They believe that the problem of evictions due to non-payment of rent, which the bill allegedly targets, does not even exist. They say FaHCSIA did not obtain adequate data on public housing evictions due to rental arrears from the states, a point that was proven in Senate estimates on Monday night. They say public housing residents cannot get evicted by the Office of Housing in Victoria without an order from VCAT, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Regardless, the majority of public housing evictions do not occur due to rent arrears. Therefore, they say, there is no need for this bill—or certainly not in Victoria.

What is clear, though, is that this bill hands the housing office a shortcut to residents' Centrelink income support payments, to minimise the costs associated with managing arrears. The Tenants Union of Victoria submission highlights the following risks to residents. This bill will increase poverty. It is proposed to be capped at 35 per cent income management of Centrelink payments, which would leave a single parent with one child approximately $24 a day to live on. The bill does not include an independent appeals process. The bill undermines already existing successful processes. In Victoria, the current system of residents negotiating payment plans with the housing office is working. Tenants are currently able to negotiate individual payment plans, but this bill will eliminate that process. The bill will increase demand for other support organisations. The government says that it has addressed the needs of the sector, but the sector says this is not so.

This bill is particularly close to my heart as the member for Melbourne. There are eight public housing estates in Melbourne, the most concentrated in any electorate in Australia. I am extremely proud of the work I have been doing with public housing tenants in Melbourne over the last three years and that I have been lucky enough to represent them in this place. I have attended community meetings and gatherings and am in close contact with tenants and community groups. I have attended the Hands Off Melbourne's Estates rally where public housing tenants spoke out against selloffs and private developments in Fitzroy and Richmond. My office has assisted hundreds of residents in public housing to access suitable housing and services, particularly around maintenance issues, and has also assisted people facing homelessness to get into public housing.

This bill provides a good opportunity to tell the parliament that the issues public-housing residents really care about, and what I am hearing is that people are doing it tough and living in overcrowded conditions in public housing because they are waiting for years for housing that is often not big enough for their families. Their incomes are so low that they are finding it hard to make money stretch and having to choose between essentials, food or school materials. Labor's cuts to single parents mean that single parents cannot afford rent and cannot make ends meet. They are also concerned about the low level of Newstart, which was not increased in this budget, and the cuts and changes to disability support pensions that Labor has brought about. They really want dental care to be in Medicare, something that the Greens have fought for and won for kids. They want to see more funding going to public schools. They want to get a job but often cannot find appropriate services for finding a job. They want a suitable place for their kids to study and do their homework but are worried about overcrowding and what it is doing to their family's health.

More recently there has been a move by the Victorian state Liberal government to make changes to public housing and people are concerned that this will mean rent rises and, worse, that private housing will be privatised and that their housing is being sold off from under their feet. Yet in Melbourne between 2006 and 2011 the total number of dwellings owned by the state housing authority actually decreased from 7,291 to 7,172. This was in the face of public housing waiting lists tens of thousands long.

The Greens believe that all people should have the right to control their own income. People who have not been able to pay their rent for just one month can be forced under this bill onto the scheme and then kept on it for a full 12 months even after they have paid off their debt. I am deeply worried that public-housing residents will be at a greater risk of poverty and lose control over their finances by being forced onto this scheme. People do not fall behind because they cannot be bothered paying their rent. Rental arrears suggest people are in deep financial trouble. We know that lower income support payments lead to people having to resort to credit loans or borrowing from friends. We also know that people are going without essentials, like savings for an emergency, contents insurance, heating and cooling and so on, which further compounds housing stress. Money is incredibly tight for them and the pressure is only getting worse.

Income-managing people in such difficult financial situation will only compound problems and push them further into poverty. This policy will hit some of the most vulnerable people in our community. The recent Salvation Army national economic and social impact survey found that 37 per cent of people on the disability payment, 36 per cent of single parents on Newstart and 29 per cent of single parenting payment recipients are in public housing. There must be a more caring way to help people out. This bill comes at a high cost and there are better alternatives. The costs of managing this scheme are so high it is impossible to justify it. The cost of this mechanism is $8.6 million over four years, and that is astounding. The Greens believe this money would be far better invested in providing services and caring for our most vulnerable.

The Greens and welfare organisations around the country are calling on the government to fund more services instead of attacking public-housing residents. Instead of this bill, the government should be looking at the root cause of arrears and evictions. The Australian Greens know that the causes for homelessness are many and complex, which is why we are so disappointed at the lack of any new action taken by Labor in this budget to increase services or funding for new housing for people experiencing homelessness. The government should be providing more support to programs that are proven to work. If we were genuine about reducing the risk of homelessness we would provide more funding to voluntary schemes such as Centrecare which already exist where public-housing tenants can nominate to have their rent automatically deducted. Similarly, their arrears could be deducted through a voluntary payment plan.

We would provide more funding for agencies to support people at risk of arrears and evictions; fund more case management and support worker programs for residents; fund training for housing officers, increasing housing officers to support people; and in my state of Victoria fund the Victorian Social Housing Advocacy and Support Program. The Liberal state government recently cut funding to their front-line services, putting over 2,000 people, including individuals, families and children, at risk of homelessness this year.

It is also worth pointing out that for $8.6 million we could provide 16,000 tenants with safety and security measures, like security screens on their windows and doors and swipe cards in their buildings. Or we could put a solar panel on the roof and insulation in the homes of almost 3,000 public housing tenants, which would dramatically reduce their cost of living and improve their comfort. Or we could take 24 families off the public housing waiting list by building that many new homes outright.

To conclude, the Australian Greens believe that all people should have the right to control their own income. The Greens stand with the peak housing bodies and welfare organisations around the country who are calling on the government to fund more services, instead of making the lives of the most vulnerable in public housing even harder. We need to protect all people and their families from falling into a poverty trap. We will oppose this bill.