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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5489


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:33 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Family and Community Services (Senator Vanstone) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to housing affordability.

As the minister indicated, there is a meeting of state, territory and federal ministers responsible for housing in Hobart this Friday to look at advancing the development and finalisation of the latest round of the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement, which is coming up for renewal. It is crucial, in the Democrats' view, that when that agreement is finalised the federal government's role in it specifically addresses, in a proactive and effective way, the need for the current crisis in housing affordability to be addressed.

It does not really matter what area of housing you are talking about—everybody is aware of the massive increase in the cost of buying a home in most parts of Australia. There have been absurd increases of 80 per cent, 100 per cent or 120 per cent in many capital cities over the last five years. That might be great if you are a property investor but if you are just a family or a person trying to buy a home it is simply untenable and, I would suggest, bordering on obscene.

The government introduced its First Home Owner Grant, which was welcome and indeed necessary to regenerate activity in the housing sector following the introduction of the GST, but it was an increase of $7,000. There have certainly been some indications that it was misused by some people but it was hardly an amount which would cover the dramatic increase in private housing costs in recent times. I think it is worth noting that with the government's decision to wind back that grant there are potentially significant amounts of money for the government to put into housing funding.

According to the Financial Review on 19 September, the cost of the First Home Owner Grant was about $3 billion in the first two years, which was about twice its original budgeted cost. So, with the government's announcement that it is paring back that scheme, the savings from doing so are also likely to be much bigger than initially thought. The Democrats believe that a big chunk of those savings must go into public housing, community housing and supported accommodation and must go to all those people excluded by poverty from the housing market, as well as helping with the extra costs required of those people in the private rental market.

Figures released by ACOSS just last week showed that over 90,000 low-income Australians in the private rental market are paying more than 50 per cent of their income in rent. Again, the federal minister might say, `We're putting money into it through the rent assistance scheme rather than just through the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement.' That is welcome as far as it goes but the point has to be made that that amount of money is not keeping up with the increase in the cost of private rentals. That is why people are paying 50 per cent of their income in rent, which is simply untenable and should not be expected. The amount of rent assistance for many people is $50 a week. If you are student on Austudy it is zero; you do not get any assistance. I do not think anybody would suggest that $50 a week, whilst it is welcome, goes very far towards the cost of private rentals for many people these days, particularly in some of the larger capital cities like Sydney. That reality has to be acknowledged and it has to be addressed.

It is not good enough for the federal minister to say, `The state departments have run their housing departments badly.' Maybe they have but it is the federal government's responsibility, surely, to ensure that a primary area—one of the most fundamental areas if you are looking at avoiding poverty and ensuring opportunity—is housing and housing costs. If that fundamental is not addressed then all those other fundamentals about education opportunities and employment opportunities are irrelevant, because if people cannot get secure and affordable housing then a lot of the rest does not go along with it.

The amount of money being put into new housing stock in the public and community housing sector is continuing to decrease and the amount of new stock is continuing to decrease. We have a crisis in the public housing sector, we have a crisis in the number of people able to afford private rental and we have a crisis in the affordability of buying a home. The federal government has to have a holistic approach to this. As Laura Tingle wrote in the Financial Review today, there is no `holistic approach at the federal level' to housing policy in such a fundamental area. We cannot just sit back and take the approach we have to date. Despite the efforts of some in the private sector, like the Housing Industry Association, who have looked at trying to get low-income housing and affordability addressed, the issue— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.