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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5718

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:20 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services, and it relates to this Friday's meeting of state housing ministers. Firstly, does the minister agree that one of the primary purposes of the Commonwealth-state housing agreements has been to deliver affordable housing outcomes to low-income Australians? Does she agree that many state housing authorities are now no longer financially sustainable or are in danger of becoming financially unsustainable? Is the minister aware that funding for public and community housing has declined significantly, meaning less housing stock for low-income earners? Will the government commit to reversing this decline in housing stock or will it wash its hands of the issue and say that it is a problem for state governments?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for his question, which follows from his question to me yesterday or the day before— I cannot remember which. I am pleased to see he is not persisting with a view that Friday's meeting is to finalise; it is simply the second meeting that the Commonwealth will have with the states to progress negotiations on a new Commonwealth-state housing agreement. Yes, Commonwealth-state housing agreements have had, as their main purpose, the provision of housing to low-income Australians—a particular category of that. We are now at the point where, as I understand it, some 90 per cent of recipients of public housing are on income support and it would be about 87 per cent of those that are on some form of income support, not family tax benefit. It is only about four per cent that might be very low income earners—they are actually earning, they have a job but they are very low income earners—and the only government assistance they are getting is in fact the family tax benefit, the sort of payment back of tax that Senator Coonan was referring to yesterday. There is a very small proportion of people like that.

Senator Bartlett, as I indicated in my answer to you yesterday, there are other groups of low-income Australians who need assistance—those who are not on welfare who might find it much harder to get into public housing and those for whom it may not be appropriate to be in public housing because of its placement at the moment in relation to where the jobs are, its placement at the moment in relation to transport and the limitations that this puts on the flexibility of someone who is genuinely looking for work.

Secondly, you asked me about the financial viability of the state housing authorities. I do not think that is for me to comment on at this point. I would not welcome comment from the states on what they think about the Commonwealth and its financial arrangements. I would not agree with their competence to comment and I do not expect them to agree that we have the competence, or that it is our province, to be indicating whether we think their state housing authorities are viable.

You do invite me, however, to say that I think state and territory budgets are the least transparent in the community services and health areas, and probably all other areas. They are useful in terms of a bottom line, but, as for being useful in terms of telling a community sector group, any interested journalist or an interested bystander where the money is actually going, they are pretty close to useless. Insufficient attention has been paid to the transparency that ought to be in state budgets, which would then allow us to see them and make a competent comment as to the viability of state housing authorities.

The Commonwealth is, of course, committed to assisting low-income earners in two ways, as I told you yesterday—partly by contributions to the states to assist in the public housing stock and partly through rent assistance, which assists those other Australians for whom public housing is not appropriate or not available but who nonetheless need assistance and turn to the Commonwealth for it.

Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the Minister for Family and Community Services agree with findings of the summit on affordable housing that was held in Canberra yesterday that among the measures that need to be explored is the measure of implementing solutions to increase the amount of private investment that is targeted at affordable housing for low-income earners? Will the minister be putting forward measures at this Friday's meeting aimed at improving private sector investment in housing for low-income earners?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I have two responses to that question. I think it is a common view that we would like to see more private sector involvement in low-income housing. There is a range of difficulties associated with that, dealing with the sorts of returns that can go back to the private sector. Some proposals that I have looked at are not realistic, considering the sort of purchasing power you would expect housing tenants to have at the expiration of a long period in order to buy out that housing and considering that you have such dramatic rises in house prices in certain inner-city areas. It is not realistic to go into some of those plans and expect that those people will genuinely be able to buy that house at the end of the time. It is a very difficult situation, but I think it is one where there is common agreement that we should all be looking to see what we can do to increase private sector involvement in low-income housing.