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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 5085

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales) (15:54): I rise to speak on this matter of public importance which, by its very nature, indicates the necessity for discussion—again, the pattern of broken promises of this government, the expectations that have been raised and dashed and the commitments which have been given but remain unfunded. I am keenly aware every day in my shadow portfolio responsibility areas like housing, in particular, and homelessness that individuals who look to government for leadership in this space find that view sadly wanting, I must say, in the case of this government.

We are all aware of this government's track record of overpromising and underdelivering. The repeated discussions we have had in this chamber in relation to company tax, for example, would be a good start—again and again put forward, with the one per cent reduction promised on about 100 occasions. It is a ridiculous proposition for a business operator in Australia to be waiting for any certainty from this government, because it simply is not delivered. The last time that this promise was made—a promise that was due to commence less than two months after the budget—it was dumped without even being introduced to the parliament properly.

We heard today from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, about his personal white elephant, the NBN—which was of course promised in 2007 with much fanfare and with a cost, at the time, of $4.7 billion. Two years ago what were Labor saying about the NBN? They said it would be rolled out to 1.3 million households with over half a million paying customers by June 2013. That is not too far away, really, if you look at your calendar closely. But now we learn that the revised June 2013 target is 341,000 households with only 54,000 customers. What a convenient revision that is! And the price tag itself just beggars the imagination. We are looking at almost 10 times the originally promised price. That is just another example of Labor, as the government, promising the world for free and delivering very little at enormous cost. And I have not even come close to talking about the carbon tax, but I think I can rely on some of my colleagues to also address that matter here this afternoon.

I want to go to some very important issues close to my shadow ministerial responsibilities and raise the attention of the Senate in relation to those and the broken promises, the raised expectations and the lack of true commitment to funding. Last week, as many senators would know, was Homeless Persons Week—a time when many Australians took the opportunity to reflect on the situation of homeless people in our community and the work of those in so many non-government and not-for-profit organisations who do such an extraordinary job supporting and caring for them.

Many Australians are struggling to avoid the rising costs of living that are affecting their most basic comforts. In the middle of winter, that includes very simple things such as the heating of a home and the use of electricity to turn on lights. Those of us who have been in and around our electorates during the break and talking to our constituents have all heard stories from individuals, most particularly the elderly, who are finding this an extraordinarily difficult process to live through. Many of them are facing this with great fear and great concern.

But too many Australians do not even have a home to heat, with families living in a vast range of circumstances—none of which are desirable—and, indeed, many children forced to sleep rough. And things continue to get worse, not better. Rents and mortgage payments are rising for many, especially at the lower end of the market. And the carbon tax itself will add thousands of dollars to the construction cost of new homes, for those who dare to put their toe in the water. That is an additional pressure on housing costs, which will push more lower income families into housing stress, rental stress, mortgage stress and, for some, into homelessness as rents become less affordable and housing costs become less affordable across the board. And not only are housing costs going up; insufficient houses are actually being built.

The national housing shortage in this country is something that I see many of those opposite often wave away with a swipe of the hand as though it is not important. But, for a country that depends not only on its own population but also on migration to survive and to sustain ourselves in the business market and the employment market, to have a housing shortage which was recently reported to have increased another 14 per cent to 228,000 as at June last year is a very, very scary statistic.

It adds up to one-quarter of a million houses that we need but do not have. It is a fairly stark question for the government to respond to. In other words, a material percentage of the Australian population would not have access to adequate housing even if they could afford it, and we already have too many people resorting to marginal accommodation. Increasingly, without a demonstration of some leadership in this policy area, more and more Australians will be in that position and, frankly, it does not matter where you come from. It does not matter if, like Senator McKenzie from a rural and regional area in Victoria or, like me, you are from Western Sydney or inner Melbourne, the homeless and their families are absolutely everywhere and communities are becoming more and more alert to that problem.

Homeless Persons Week 2012, though, was marked by an ironic and extraordinarily unhelpful degree of uncertainty for homelessness services across the country. Hardworking services spent a lot of their week bringing homelessness into the national consciousness, they looked after families who were struggling to provide a roof for themselves and their children, but what was the government doing? It was largely talking about itself and making threats via the Prime Minister to the premiers that she does not like who sit around the COAG table. Where does that get anyone? The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which was introduced to halve homelessness and provide supportive accommodation to all rough sleepers by 2020, is due to expire on 30 June next year. I have asked about its renewal during question time in this chamber and I have asked about it in estimates.

In 2008 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, told us that homelessness was a national obscenity and promised that his 12-year plan to address homelessness would have significant results. In agreeing with the states and territories to new funding, he declared that that four-year $1.1 billion agreement was a 'down payment' on the overall plan. But as a responsible, hardworking Australian would know, putting a down payment on a house is just the beginning. You still need to pay the debt. We were attacked—many were attacked—for saying that that was a very significant target that the government had set for itself and for querying its real attainability.

The government cannot even measure its own progress now. The most recent minister in this area has stated that the government will have to look at data from the latest census to see how it is going. So, four years in, two years until the interim target of a 20 per cent reduction in homelessness is supposed to be met, eight years until homelessness is to be halved, the government cannot say whether it is making progress. Now, when it is asked how it will meet those targets, its plan appears to be to revise the definition of homelessness, to make a few global statements in its homelessness bill, to try to find some savings apparently to fund homelessness prevention and to ask the states for more money. In what appears to be an effort to stay afloat politically, it is really struggling to stay afloat financially.

The minister also says they will have to find savings to provide for the funding to extend the agreement. He cannot say how they will do this beyond June 2013. He is quoted as saying that the federal government have not determined the level of resources they could put at this point and, 'We would have to find savings to provide those resources'. So much for a down payment! So much for responsible forward budgeting! It is not trivial funding. There are about 180 homelessness services across the country that have no funding certainty from the middle of next year and many have reported that they are concerned that services with which they work may have to close early. Those services are lining up to warn of the dangers to those homelessness targets if the NPA is not extended.

Across the nation, we see people struggling every night. The government's response is not good enough; the minister's response is not good enough. To tell us from Finland and from Berlin about international programs and what he thinks they might do in Homelessness Week 2012 in Australia is not a good enough response to the people who are currently sleeping rough. It is not a good enough response to vulnerable mothers and their children and it is not a good enough response to people who put their faith in this government to mean what it says. They are profoundly disappointed and have every right to be. The government needs to do a much better job.