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Wednesday, 19 November 1986
Page: 2470

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(11.56) —The Government recognises that there are housing problems facing Defence Force personnel and it has been quite energetic in taking steps to improve not only the housing stock at bases but also accommodation facilities generally. The Government accepts its responsibility in this respect and it has to be said that the Minister for Defence, Mr Beazley-indeed, the Government in totality-has taken every step available to make sure that the needs of our Defence Force personnel are met. I remind the Committee that the problem with the housing stock at our bases and accommodation generally did not begin in March 1983. There was a deliberate policy by the Opposition, when in government, of not making sufficient funds available over the time in which it had ample opportunity to provide funds to obviate the clear deficiency that exists in the housing stocks for Defence Force personnel. We recognise that there is a problem, but it has been a long-standing problem.

I think all of us agree that there has been an improvement in private housing and public housing over time. For example, if one put in a new kitchen 20 years ago and one looks at the sorts of kitchens that are available now, one can see the evolution of home improvements generally. The Government takes the view in general terms that nothing is too good for our Defence Force personnel and therefore it is taking steps, having regard to the limitation of funds, to improve dramatically our housing stock. Because of the commonality of Defence Force matters-my own portfolio covers service personnel who are eligible for defence service home loans-I have been in on some of the discussions on these matters. Senator Newman would acknowledge that from my response to her question several days ago. I appreciate her interest because she has had a personal involvement in these problems.

There is no doubt that in many cases the housing is sub-standard, but it has been sub-standard for very many years. We are attempting to make up the lag and improve the housing stock generally. To do that, of course, the Minister for Defence has to argue for the allocation of funds. He does that and he then passes the responsibility on to the Department of Housing and Construction for it to realise the Government's objectives in the best way with the scarce public funds made available. It is simply not true to suggest, as has been suggested, that somehow or other there is a misuse of scarce public funds by the Department of Housing and Construction in the carrying out of its obligations in this respect. It is a pity that we get this selectivity of quoting in such a way as to suggest that there is gross maladministration in the Department or that we are not getting the best value for the public dollar. Of course we are.

I think that flows from a philosophical view the Opposition has that anything that is done in the public sector must not be any good and can be bettered by the private sector. That view ignores the way in which the Department of Housing and Construction operates because, whilst it is true that the Department is the authority concerned, it invites tenders from the private sector. All DHC Defence houses are constructed through the normal competitive tendering processes. They have regard for the normal market situations, which vary, as I am sure many honourable senators will be aware, from State to State. Prices may fluctuate from region to region even though the same materials are available. Site influences play a part. Drainage and the way in which a house is constructed in relation to the geography of the region are other influencing factors.

There is an opportunity for tenders. The Department offers the tenderers an opportunity to submit prices based on their own standard designs. Therefore there is no reason to believe, as has been asserted by Opposition senators, that the Department of Housing and Construction is not receiving normal competitive prices in the tenders for its housing construction program. Of course it is possible to get different prices for different constructions for different reasons. We do not dispute that. But that ignores the additives that exist in this area. The Department accepts that price differences exist, but that does not take into account the selectivity which has been raised by honourable senators of site servicing, fencing, whether a garage or carport is provided and the many components required to make a house habitable-floor coverings, light fittings, built-in wardrobes and all of those extras which make the difference between a standard competitive price and what is ultimately accepted.

These extras are part of the Government's determination to provide the highest possible standard of accommodation. That applies not only to group housing but also to the improvement of housing in base areas. I concede to Senator Newman, as I am sure that she would also concede, having seen the standard of housing on some of our bases, that some housing is 30 to 40 years out of date. That is an indictment not of this Government but of the previous Government for its neglect in this area. The Government has accepted the challenge and is taking every possible step within its financial constraints to remedy that. It will take many years to realise the objectives that the Minister for Defence has in these matters.

The Committee's first concern was the very high cost per house nationwide. The Committee acknowledged that there were contributing factors and identified some, but it did not exhaust all of the factors. Hence the debate that is taking place. The position is that, given the Defence scales and standards used for service housing, the real determinant of the cost is the tenders received from the construction industry. That, of course, is a matter of contention. We accept that. But the responsibility does not rest in the Senate; it rests with the Department, which is interested in saving funds and applying them in the best possible way. Within the guidelines set out in the Defence brief, the Department of Housing and Construction proceeds on the basis of open competitive tenders. We are dealing here with not only housing but also defence in the specific sense that it is the funding authority. I am advised that the comparative evidence available indicates that the costs of this process are appropriate for the product concerned. We cannot accept that there is any dereliction of duty in respect of the Department or that in some way or other there is a misuse of scarce financial resources.

The Department of Defence is responsible for the level of funding provided and it also nominates the areas where it is required so the Department of Housing and Construction has no say in that matter or on the number of houses that need to be upgraded and other factors. Those matters are within the province of the Department of Defence. The Department of Housing and Construction's principal role is to carry out the work in accordance with the level of funding provided and in accordance with the guidelines provided by the Department of Defence. To that extent we can get into a philosophical argument. Generally the Opposition takes the view that all of these things should be done by the private sector. I am sure, that on mature consideration, the Opposition would not want to abolish the Department of Housing and Construction; it would realise that there would need to be a supervisory role and an organisation capable of carrying out government requests. That is the way it has been in all the post-war years. This Government, as any government, will always concede the necessity to look at maintaining an organisation capable of properly supervising the expenditure of public funds.

Senator Michael Baume raised some matters in his contribution that clearly indicate that he is off beam about the expenditure of money. He concedes that we are dealing with housing studies for the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless and that the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr West) has approved a Press statement. Senator Baume suggested that somehow or other the Government is not interested in the homeless and the great social problems that exist in the homeless area. The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless-I am sure the Opposition on mature consideration would agree-is a project with which we ought to co-operate. The Federal Government has approved more than $750,000 not $1.3m, for 35 housing studies and evaluation projects as the first stage of its contribution to the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. There is nothing wrong with that because it has been done in agreement with the organisations that are concerned about homelessness and the needy in the Australian community.

I have heard talk about the Chairman of the National Non-Government Co-ordinating Committee, Bishop Peter Hollingworth. Nobody could say that Bishop Hollingworth is not a person of great repute in the whole area of social concern, housing and poverty. He is an acknowledged expert in this area. This research involves looking at the housing needs of not only people in the area we are discussing now but also Aborigines. It involves looking at innovative and brick construction and commenting on the effectiveness of current public housing arrangements. The Government is not about publicising, as Senator Baume has suggested, some defensive position it finds itself in as a result of inheriting a very unsatisfactory state of affairs when it came to office in March 1983. It is about the Government accepting its responsibility. This Government has accepted its responsibility in respect of public housing whether it be for Aborigines, indigenous Australians, Anglo-Saxons or migrants. This Government is spending more money on public housing now than has ever been spent on it before except for the Whitlam era. That is because we recognise our obligations and responsibilities in this area. It ill becomes a senator to suggest that funds have been placed aside for, I understand, the next two years to give ourselves a pat on the back. We are quite capable of doing that.

Senator Michael Baume —With our money.

Senator GIETZELT —The honourable senator should be the last person to talk about that. He will remember that the previous Government set up great media projects and tried to sell itself as did its counterpart in Queensland in the last Queensland election. That Government spent a considerable amount of money in the election period telling Queenslanders how good it is. What is good for the goose is good for the gander but that is not the issue about which we are concerned. The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in accordance with our obligation to the United Nations, is not about that but about seeking how best we may get the most out of that scarce public dollar. That is the Government's commitment and that is what the Government is seeking to achieve in the current circumstances.

Of course there are many issues on which the Opposition would disagree with the Government but I doubt whether they can be resolved. I am sure my contribution will not convince the Opposition and I am sure the Opposition would concede that its contribution will not convince the Government. We have ideological and philosophical differences. Honourable senators should bear in mind that the Department is about carrying out its obligations in accordance with government policy.