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Tuesday, 16 October 1956

Mr BIRD (Batman) . - Over the last seven years, this House has listened to many extraordinary speeches from the Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer), but it is safe to say that to-night even he has excelled himself. In the course of his speech, which was a conglomeration of inaccuracies and illogical comments, he contradicted himself at least a dozen times. For instance, he said that the only fault with the bill was that it did not give enough money to the building societies. In this morning's " Daily Telegraph ", an article entitled " Hint on Home Finance " appeared. In it, I found the following: -

Senator Spoonertoday asked building societies to make themselves independent of Government support.

He said the Commonwealth did not wish or intend to become the major source of finance for building societies.

Commonwealth aid to the societies had been intended primarily to give a lead to others and to encourage the societies to seek money from private investors.

The societies should make more use of savings bank loans and attract more funds from insurance companies.

In other words, if the Minister for National Development had his way, less money would go to the building societies in future than is provided under this bill. The Minister for the Army is so obsessed with the idea that anything which emanates from the Labour ranks must be treated with contempt and derision, that he is not prepared even to follow the lead of the Minister for National Development, whom Cabinet has charged with responsibility for housing. The comments of his colleague yesterday are at distinct variance with his own almost inarticulate utterances to-night.

Let us see what the present ministry has done in the Australian Capital Territory, where it cannot be said that a State government is to blame. In this Territory, where the Commonwealth has complete and unfettered control, this Government, whose spokesman to-night referred so sarcastically to the efforts of Labour governments, has built fewer and fewer houses during each of the last five years. Instead of increasing the number to meet the growing and anticipated population, the Government has, for reasons best known to itself, actually decreased it. It has deliberately cut Canberra's housing programme, with the result that tradesmen have been forced out of employment and been obliged to seek other fields of endeavour. I suggest that the Government should put its own domain in order before it complains of inactivity on the part of State Labour governments. Hundreds of competent tradesmen have been forced to leave the Australian Capital Territory, and it ill becomes a government with such a dismal record to criticize the housing programmes of governments elsewhere.

I would like to point out to the Minister or the Army that he has an entirely erroneous impression of the function of housing commissions. Housing commissions, orginally, were formed to provide houses for the lower-income groups. The Minister seems to be entirely oblivious of that fact, and suggests that they were formed by socialist government in order to socialize the building industry. Clearly, he has no knowledge of what happened in Victoria. The Housing Commission of that State was established by a Country party government under the leadership of the late Sir Albert Dunstan. It was a Country party government, not a socialist government, which decided that private enterprise had failed to supply enough houses to meet the demands of the lower-income groups for rental properties. Any one with the slightest knowledge of the housing position in the last 20 or 30 years - and we have to go back that far if we are to get at the roots of the problem - knows prefectly well that after the depression private enterprise made virtually no money available for the building of homes for rental, which were required by the lower-income groups.

There has, of course, been plenty ot money available for luxury flats and for houses as large as that in which the Minister lives, but after the depression, private enterprise gave up any attempt to provide renting properties for the ordinary wageearner with three or four children. Sir Albert Dunstan realized that something had to be done. The position in Victoria was becoming well-nigh intolerable and his government began building houses for rental, lt was actuated not by the socialist leanings of which the Minister for the Army spoke so vociferously to-night, but solely by the fact that in 1936-37 insufficient houses were being built to satisfy the demand for rented properties by people who, by reason of economic circumstances, were unable to find a deposit with which to purchase a home. The Minister should get his facts in order before he berates a party which in Victoria in 1937 did nothing more than support wholeheartedly a bill to establish the Housing Commission.

The Minister does not appreciate that housing commissions were established to assist the lower-income groups. He speaks glibly about people building their own homes and says, " People do not want to live in Housing Commission homes ". That has certainly not been my experience. Every week-end I have at my door a long queue of people who are prepared to go anywhere in Melbourne under any conditions, in order to get a Housing Commission home. Their willingness is prompted by the conditions under which they are living at present. One often finds a man, his wife and three or four kiddies paying £3 10s. or £4 a week for little more than a single room. Anything is better than that. The Minister's statement that people do not want to live in Housing Commission homes shows that he is completely out of touch. He is concerned only with finding homes for people receiving £1,500 or £2,000 a year. I cannot stress too greatly that the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement of 1945 was designed to provide homes for the lower-income groups. When the Minister gets that into his head he will begin to understand the basic problem confronting the people of Australia in their endeavour to find homes.

The bill before us, about which the Minister speaks so eulogistically, does absolutely nothing to improve the position. Indeed, it is a step backwards so far as Victoria is concerned. Its expressed purpose is to authorize the raising of loan moneys totalling £32.150.000 for financial assistance to the States for housing. The honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Edmonds) pointed out that the States had asked for more, but he encountered a barrage of criticism from the Australian Country party benches. He was told that the States were getting what they wanted. In fact, the States asked for £35,000,000 and are receiving only £32.150,000.

Mr Leslie - That is not too bad!

Mr BIRD - No, but it is not enough. The States agreed to £35,000,000 because they wanted approval for a total loan programme of £210,000,000. This sum was later reduced to £190,000,000. The States are not satisfied with the amount authorized under the bill. Under the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, this Government made £37,200.000 available in 1953.

Now it is providing only £32,000,000. In other words, in three years the Government has reduced the allocation by £5,000,000.

No one will convince me that the housing position has been at all alleviated in the last three years. It might, of course, have been alleviated for people in the £1,500- £2,000 a year group, but I say unequivocally that the position of the average wageearner, in Victoria at any rate, has not been alleviated one iota. I shall show later that the Housing Commission of Victoria has more people on its waiting list now than it had three years ago. The Government proposes that £25,720,000 shall be made available for State housing instrumentalities and £6,430,000 for building societies. In view of the statement made yesterday by the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), I do not know for how long the building societies will receive £6,000,000 a year. In five years' time they may not get anything.

Despite the laudatory remarks of the Minister for the Army, all that this bill will do will be to increase the difficulties of the States in providing homes for people in the lower income group. The Minister for the Army and other members of the Government appear to be extraordinarily complacent about the housing position. I cannot believe that the Minister's complacency is based upon knowledge of the facts, because in private life he is a kindly soul. If he knew the real housing position to-day, I cannot imagine that he would be complacent. The fact is that the people with whom he deals in his private capacity as an estate agent are not people in the lower income groups. They are people in the middle or the upper stratum of society. Consequently, the Minister has not the slightest knowledge of the tribulations that beset people in the lower income group.

Honorable members opposite, in order to support their contention that enough houses are being built, argue on lines that have become familiar to all of us. They say that during each of the last four years approximately 80,000 houses have been built. The figure is slightly under that. It is about 75,000, but I will not argue now over 2,000 or 3,000 houses. Then honorable members opposite say that the current need is for 57,000 houses a year - a figure that do?* not take into consideration th» large influx of immigrants. Their argument is that because housing construction is proceeding at the rate of 80,000 a year and the current need is for 57,000 houses a year, the lag is being overtaken at the rate of more than 20,000 houses a year. That specious reasoning will not stand examination. A cold perusal of the housing statistics reveals, not only that we are not building enough houses to overcome the post-wai shortage, but also that we are going further into arrears each year.

It is quite futile for honorable members opposite to base arguments on the number of houses that Labour built between 1945 and 1949. Such arguments are childish. In 1945, the war had just ended. The government of that day was faced with a terrific problem of rehabilitation. Industries had to be started again to provide the bricks, wood, tiles and all the other things essential for the building of houses. Obviously, the Government could not start those industries again in five minutes. Terrific pressure was being exerted upon State authorities for the construction of factories, flats, &c. The pressure upon available resources was so great that not even a government composed entirely of Mandrakes could have built many houses then. It was not until 1948 or 1949 that the supply position became easier and the building industry began to settle down on an even keel. So it is stupid to base an argument on the fact that fewer houses were built between 1945 and 1949 than between 1951 and 1955. In each of those two periods economic and industrial conditions were so different that there is no real basis for comparison. The arguments based on that comparison which the Minister trotted out were on all-fours with other baseless arguments that he has submitted.

In 1944, the Chifley Government recognized that at the end of the war there would be a grave housing shortage, so it established the Commonwealth Housing Commission to consider the problem. The commission found that, allowing for the normal natural increase of population, a minimum of 700,000 houses would be required by the end of 1955 - eleven years ahead. I point out that that estimate did not take into consideration the immigration policy, which had not been formulated then. Everybody knows that since the end of the war about 1,100,000 immigrants have entered the country. In those circumstances, it is obvious that the estimate that an additional 700,000 houses would be required by the end of 1955 was very conservative. The commission estimated that Australia was 300,000 houses short in 1945, and proceeded on that basis.

By 30th June of this year, 575,000 houses had been erected since the end of the war. That was 125,000 short of the figure estimated by the commission, which did not take into consideration the great influx of immigrants. If we were 120,000 houses short on the basis of an estimate that did not take immigration into consideration, how many houses were we short, in fact, with a population that had risen by 1,100,000 as a result of immigration? We must face the unpalatable fact that at the present rate of building we shall never catch up with the arrears. This bill will put us further and further into the red, so to speak.

The Minister for the Army made the point that when the Labour party was in power one house was built for every 4.3 persons by which the population increased and that since this Government has been in power one house has been built for every 2.6 persons by which the population has increased. Those figures ignore the distribution of houses among the people. It is the people in the middle and the upper classes who have gained most in this connexion. We see frequently houses of six or seven rooms being erected for occupation by only a married couple. The people in the lower-income group have certainly not gained anything as a result of the housing policy of this Government. The Minister has claimed that while this Government has been in office one house has been built for every 2.6 persons increase of the population, but we cannot arrive at any specific finding on averages. I point out again that the purpose of the housing agreement was to provide homes for people in the lower income group. If homes have been built for persons with incomes of from £1,500 to £2,000 a year, the figures might show that one house has been built for every 2.6 persons increase of the population, but that would not mean that houses have been built for people in the lower income group - for men on £15 or £16 a week with a wife and four or five children.

I will not hear a bad word said about the Housing Commission of Victoria. I am not actuated by political bias when I say that because, as I pointed out earlier, the commission was the creation of a Country party government. Even the honorable member for Mallee (Mr. Turnbull) nods his head and smiles when I say that, because he realizes that, as a member of the Country party, he must support my statement, although it cuts across the arguments that the Government has advanced in this debate. Despite heroic efforts, the Housing Commission of Victoria has not managed to overtake the housing lag. That is due to the insufficiency of the funds received from this Government. Up to the present time, the commission has built approximately 30,000 homes at a cost of £68,000,000, but, unfortunately, the present rate of building does not meet the demand. In 1953, the commission had a waiting list of 11,000 people. Since then, it has built approximately 1 1 ,500 houses, but the waiting list now is 12,000 people. The number of people waiting for houses has increased by 1,000, despite the fact that 1 1,500 houses have been built by the commission in the last two years. I was informed by an officer of the commission with whom I was conversing at a function last week that the waiting list is increasing at the rate of 200 a week. During the last few years, more people have been applying to the commission for homes than ever before.

That does not seem to coincide with the statement of the Minister for the Army that people do not want to go into housing commission homes. The only quarrel that the people have with these homes is that there are not enough of them. I have not the slightest doubt that the people are not concerned about what suburb they go to, or whether the house is of brick, brick veneer, concrete, or wooden construction. They are concerned only with getting for their wives and families a reasonable house, with reasonable amenities, at a reasonable rental. The Minister laid great stress on the fact that the bill proposes the allocation of 20 per cent, of the funds to co-operative building societies, and he advanced the extraordinary argument - I was about to say it was peculiar to him, but other Government supporters have advanced it in the past - that the Australian Labour party was opposed to home-ownership. I wish to refute, with all the vigour at my disposal, that vile allegation against the Australian Labour party, because at every stage of its political existence the Australian Labour party has fought for a policy of encouragement of home-ownership. In all State parliaments Labour governments have at some time introduced legislation designed either to inaugurate a system of home-ownership or to improve a home-ownership scheme already in existence. That has been done for reasons which are not hard to understand. Our party represents, in the main, the working class, and we want the working class to enjoy the good things of life, including contentment and security. Everybody knows, of course, that it is the ambition of 90 per cent, of the people to acquire property of their own, whether it be big or small. The Australian Labour party, above all other parties, understands the feeling of contentment that is attached to homeownership. lt is an understandable feeling. All our efforts by means of legislation through the years have been directed to providing homes for the people and especially homes for ownership. We understand pride of possession, and that having a real stake in the community has a very marked effect on the individual and national morale of citizens.

About eighteen months ago the Parliament passed legislation to amend the 1945 housing agreement to provide for the sale of housing commission homes to tenants on a deposit of £200. The Victorian Housing Commission was very keen to see whether this plan would be successful. It had been observed that tenants, in thousands of instances, had shown a marked interest in the properties which they rented, improved them, laid out very fine gardens, and maintained houses although they were not legally obliged to do so. What did we find? The last figures that I was able to obtain show that of approximately 30,000 tenants of Victorian Housing Commission homes, 676 have paid deposits, the commission is awaiting payment of deposits promised by another 600, and 3,000 have applied to the commission for a sale price quotation. They are the only persons who have shown interest in purchase - about 4,300 of a total of about 30,000. The reason is quite obvious. Many thousands of tenants of housing commission homes have not the slightest prospect of ever purchasing, because they have not the deposit and have not the slightest chance of ever getting it. All that we shall be doing as a result of the Government's policy will be to take 20 per cent, of the funds and give them to building societies, and fewer homes will be available to persons who cannot find the necessary deposit to purchase homes under building society agreements.

I do not suggest for one moment that funds should not be made available to building societies, but I suggest that they should have funds in addition to those which have always been provided for home> tor rental purposes. The Government's scheme will not solve the problem in relation to rented properties. All that the Government proposes to do is to deprive the State housing commissions of the opportunity to provide for rental purposes as many homes as they provided before. The Government proposes to take the right to a home from 20 per cent, of prospective tenants. This action will not solve the housing problem at all. More money should be made available by lending institutions to building societies, but what do we find? The Minister for the Army, in one of his many mis-statements to-night, said that the Australian Labour party was so hostile to investors, and that its legislation was so directed against investing classes, that investors would not put money into home construction. Let us see who has provided money for co-operative building societies. Private banks and insurance companies have provided very little indeed of the funds of building societies. They have not met their obligations to the community. The Commonwealth Bank and the State savings banks are the only lending institutions which have realised that they have a job to do in co-operative housing schemes. In Victoria there are 266 building societies which have borrowed £45,000,000 for their operations. Of that amount, the banks have advanced £41,000.000, but of that £41,000,000 the Commonwealth Bank and the State savings bank have advanced £32,000,000. It is time that the Government went to its friends, the private banks, and told them that they have a responsibility to the co-operative housing societies and that they should make more money available.

A similar position exists in New South Wales, where housing societies have had a longer existence. Of £71,000,000 loaned by banking institutions to housing societies in that State, the Commonwealth Bank has advanced £57,000,000. I suggest that in every State the only banking institutions which have done the right thing by cooperative housing societies are the Commonwealth Bank and the State savings banks. To take money from the Commonwealth's annual allocation for housing commission homes and divert it to co-operative building societies is only to relieve private lending institutions of some of the responsibility which is rightly theirs. If the Government wants to give an impetus to the co-operative housing movement, it should direct private banks to make the necessary money available. Irrespective of what is said by the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) he has power under the current legislation to take this action. That is the solution of the problem. The Government should increase its allocation to the amount which was suggested for this year by the States, namely £35,532,000. This amount should be made available to housing commissions for building houses for rental, and the Government should request the private lending institutions to make money available to cooperative building societies to permit them to carry on with their very worthy work. One of the greatest difficulties that confronts the average worker who wishes to buy a house to-day is the high price that he is required to pay. Unfortunately, the cost of a house to-day is between 350 per cent, and 400 per cent, greater than it was in 1939, but the basic wage has increased by only 233 per cent. Retail prices have increased by 160 per cent, and food prices by 204 per cent.

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