Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 21 March 1957

Mr CRAMER (Bennelong) (Minister for the Army) . - First, I am very pleased to take part in this debate, which presents us with an opportunity to express once more our loyalty to Her Majesty.

Opposition members interjecting,

Mr CRAMER - It is a little incongruous that this type of interruption should occur during my opening remarks. I do not think that it is necessary to devote very much time to answering the honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Edmonds). I listened very carefully to what he said, and it was plain that he was endeavouring to patch up the holes that had been shot in his leader's argument by the honorable member for Lilley (Mr. Wight). If Queensland is doing so well it is a shame that Labour wants so badly to get rid of the Premier. Mr. Gair.

Mr Edmonds - Who wants to get rid of him? Do you think we are going to do the "Artie" Fadden act?

Mr CRAMER - Labour is said to be frying to get rid of Mr. Gair. I want now to speak on certain aspects of the censure motion of the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt). He has suggested that acute social ills have been caused by what he calls this Government's failure to establish, in conjunction with the States, a national housing plan, and to provide adequate finance. It is interesting to note that the Commonwealth is linked with the States in this alleged failure. This is, in some respects, an acknowledgement that housing is, constitutionally, a matter for the States and not the Commonwealth.

I want to deal particularly with two points in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it would be a kindness to say no more than that the speech displayed a complete ignorance of housing and its ramifications, as well as an utter bewilderment on questions of finance and economics. One could refer at length to certain misstatements that he made. For instance, he charged the Government with raising in the new Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement the interest rate, as fixed by Labour. That is just not true. The terms of the old agreement, which was drafted by Labour, fixed the interest rate as the rate applicable to long-term Commonwealth borrowing. It was not fixed at 3 per cent., but in exactly the same way as the rate is fixed under the new agreement. The rate for long-term loans has increased; but the rate prescribed by the agreement has not.

The Leader of the Opposition wants more money for war service homes, building societies, and so on, but nowhere in his speech did he tell us where the money was to come from. He did not say whether it was to come from increased taxation, or increased credit. All he said - and it was in the broadest terms - was that the Commonwealth should provide more money for housing. He relied very largely on the results of an alleged inquiry under the chairmanship of the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward). Ordinary common sense and intelligence prevents one from supposing that that honorable member would provide any information that would show the Commonwealth Government in a good light, so one can discard the suggestion that the inquiry produced facts.

I turn now to the recent press campaign. I can quite understand the pressure for more finance that may come from the public. There has never been enough money for housing, but I have never read more ill-informed or stupid statements than have appeared in the press in recent weeks. The needs of genuine people have been portrayed in such a way as to whip public feeling into a fury. This has been done by politically interested parties, not with the idea of relieving the needs of certain people, which are very great, but purely for the purposes of political propaganda. That, to my way of thinking, is tragic. This problem is not new; it is not something that has arisen recently. It is a problem that has been with us for some time, and is being dealt with. But it is being accentuated by the States, particularly New South Wales.

Honorable members interjecting,

Mr SPEAKER - Order! There are too many interjections. I warn honorable members on the front bench that if they continue to interject I shall have to take action against them. I ask for their co-operation.

Mr CRAMER - As has been said, and as was particularly well said last night by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), this is a very human problem. Nothing is more important to our nationhood than the housing of families. I have said so a hundred times in this House since I have been here. We must realize that a home is much more than a shelter; it is where the ideals of a nation are nurtured and where the character of the people is formed. Therefore, it is of national importance. No government, State or Federal, can ignore the fundamental right of people to a home. The real truth of the problem should be faced, and faced without the intrusion of party politics. If we can reach that basis, we can get somewhere. But it should not be made on the basis of political propaganda or of sectional vote catching, as has been done in the recent publicity. I deplore that.

What is the problem? I shall put it in a simple way. Thousands of people cannot get homes to rent, and finance to buy a home is very short. It is strange that, in such circumstances, we should be able to point to anomalies that have arisen in recent years. For instance, it is strange that we are suffering from what can be called a tragic housing shortage, yet Australia as a whole has more homes per head of the population than any other country except New Zealand. New Zealand is almost on a par with this country. Since this Government came into office, one house has been built for every 2.66 people. That is far beyond the needs of the increased population. Yet in some States the apparent shortage becomes greater. That is quite an anomaly. It is strange, because I know - and many members of this Parliament know - that in 1946, immediately after the end of the war, there was not one suburb in the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne where " to let " notices could not be seen. Since then, more houses have been built than the needs of the increased population would warrant. Yet a great shortage, or apparent shortage, of houses exists to-day. lt is also strange that, while this is happening, no great housing problem exists in Western Australia and South Australia. Western Australia had a Liberal government until a couple of years ago and South Australia has had a Liberal government all the time. Neither of those States has as many houses per head of the population as the other States. To the average man in the street, these things are puzzling and he does not understand just how they occur. lt is strange that the greatest shortage is in New South Wales, and in the City of Sydney. It is also strange that New South Wales is the State where the greatest degree of controls has been imposed upon the people in relation to all forms of housing. One must be forgiven for relating this alleged shortage of houses to the control system which has operated.

The press has given in great detail accounts of the sufferings of some people. I am very sympathetic - as I am sure everyone is - with them in their troubles. I shall' read a passage from a newspaper. T admit it is not a very authoritative journal but I think these figures are fairly accurate. The article in the newspaper reads -

In New South Wales, 24,799 families are living rh sheds', humpies and shacks.

That is a disgrace; it is a terrible thing -

Forty thousand are sharing private dwellings with other families.

Thirty thousand are living in sub-standard dwellings.

In the Sydney area alone, 21,000 families are down for ballot for Housing Commission homes.

Those are tragic figures. But no one has pointed out another side of the problem, lt is true that a percentage of houses in Australia are over-occupied. That is to say, they are crowded to the point of indecency, and people are living in the circumstances that I have just mentioned. That is quite true, but no one has pointed out that in New South Wales alone 200,000 houses are under-occupied. That is shown by the census figures. There are tens of thousands of vacant houses in the City of Sydney itself, lt is very poor comfort to the men who are living in sheds, as many unfortunate people are, with their families - three or four kiddies, in many instances - to know that in the City of Sydney alone, 40,000 single women and men are living in dwellings capable of housing three or four people. That position is repeated in the City of Melbourne. If this is not a tragedy, I should like to know what is!

There is a reason for the situation that I have outlined. I can cite a specific instance. Near where I live, there is a block of 24 flats, each of two bedrooms. My firm put three or four people into each flat in 1938. To-day, twelve of the 24 flats are occupied by single girls and, in one or two instances, by single men. This is a very serious- matter. We speak of the housing crisis. I admit that we have a housing problem, but the guilty men are the Labour party socialists who brought this on the people. I charge the New South Wales Labour Government and the Labour government that existed in Victoria - because they are the principal States concerned - with having brought about this bad distribution of houses which is causing families to live in hovels. That is the reason - the sole reason - for it. Not only has Labour been responsible for this inequitable distribution brought about by the system of controls, but it is also responsible for the complete destruction of the confidence of investors in housing as a means of investing funds.

Mr Bird - The confidence of investors commenced to diminish after the depression.

Mr CRAMER - What does the honorable member for Batman know about it? He does not know very much.

Mr Bird - The Minister knows a bit about it!

Mi.CRAMER. - 1 say this without fear of contradiction, because 1 do know. 1 have lived with this problem for 35 years, and 1 know it well. 1 say that the socialist principles of Labour have been responsible not only for the failure of investors to invest in the building of rental homes and in me converting for letting of existing older homes, but also for the lack of provision of finance from the source from which finance should come in a properly run democracy. Where, to-day, do we find a flow of money from the trustee estates, which previously was customarily invested in real estate? Where do we find a flow of money from the trustee companies? We uo not find it to-day in the field of real estate because Labour has destroyed the confidence of those investors in that kind of investment. That is why the people cannot gel money 'for housing. Why is it that insurance companies, which traditionally invested money in real estate, now do not invest in that way to any great extent? It is simply because they do not trust socialist governments which may come to power. You cannot restore this confidence overnight. You must show that you really mean to allow these people proper security for the money that they advance. The same remarks apply to private finance, and also, to some extent, to the trading hanks. The Leader of the Opposition has said, as have other persons, that finance is the key and the only cure.

Dr Evatt - At this moment, yes.

Mr CRAMER - To say that is utter and absolute nonsense. The State governments, which are crying the loudest, are not exploring the avenue that is immediately available to them to obtain thousands of houses for the people who need them. They are not game to face the political consequences of doing the right thing. Of course, finance is needed. T do not deny the fact that finance is needed, and particularly for those people who have deposits and wish to buy. But no amount of finance that we can provide to-day will solve the problems that I have just spoken about, because we have not a free-running economy, in which the people can sort themselves out according to their needs and ,heir ability to nay. We have not this freerunning economy because the Labour government tried to segregate and freeze off a bie section of the economy and keep it from running freely with the remainder of the economy as a whole. We cannot do that and get away with it. This distortion of occupation of housing accommodation is the very matter that is causing the tragic circumstances of to-day, and this has all come about since World War II.

I say quite frankly that the Prime Minister is perfectly correct when he says that the building trade, if supplied with too much money, would become a source of inflation and of higher home-construction costs. There is no doubt that that is true. I know, because I myself am connected with the building trade and I know what is happening in it. For years there has been over-full employment in the building trade. That condition persisted until two or three months ago. The cost of building construction has been excessive. Sub-contractors in every job have been receiving excessive amounts of money for their work, and the people have not been paying the proper prices for homes. It is only within the last month that we have seen a fall in the tenders of sub-contractors and in the cost of construction of new homes, lt is only now thai we are achieving real stability in the cost of construction of new homes. This is a matter about which 1 have intimate knowledge. These costs are at present coming down, and it is very pleasing to know that they are coming down.

I agree that there is at present a small falling off in activity in the building trade, but it is nothing to create a panic. There is no need to worry about it. One would imagine, to read the press and to hear partisan statements in this chamber, that there was something to get panicky about. Well, there is nothing. There is a slight falling off. but it is having its good effects as well as, as claimed by some, its ill effects. lt is doing a lot of good, not so much for the building trade as for the people who wish to buy existing properties. This brings me to an error that the people who dispense finance have fallen into. They believe that you can solve the problem simply by applying new money to the building of new houses. That is not the solution at all; the solution is to see that finance is running freely, whether for old or existing houses or for new houses, so that the economy may be allowed to find its own level. That is the only way in which this matter can be dealt with. We cannot deal with it merely by applying money for the purpose of constructing new homes.

Do not let me be misunderstood. I agree that we need to go on building new homes, to the fullest capacity of our tradesmen and our materials. But do not imagine that that is the way in which' this problem will be solved. I agree that we do need some further finance, but we must be very careful of the delicate balance. The Prime Minister put his finger on the problem last night when he said that we needed to keep that very neat balance. I believe that finance will become more readily available from a number of sources in the very near future, and not because of any direction from this Government. I have no doubt, for instance, that the central bank, whose function it is to watch these matters, will not fail in its duty if, having looked into the matter, it finds that there is a need for any further extension of credit to maintain a proper balance in the building industry. I have every confidence that the central bank will take appropriate action. I am not making any pronouncement that the Government will give any direction, because that is not necessary, but I believe that that is what will happen. lt amazes me, as it amazed the Prime Minister, that every time money is required in Australia for some purpose, the people are taught to believe that there is only one source from which that money can be obtained. They are told that they must go to their Commonwealth Government, and that that Government must provide the money for every purpose under the sun. Well, that is just sheer poppycock and nonsense. You cannot run a country in that way. In all this campaign that has been indulged in neither the Leader of the Opposition nor any other honorable member on the opposite side of the House has asked, " Where is the extra money to come from? ". Do they suggest that we should increase taxes in order to get the money? Do they suggest that the Commonwealth Bank should provide it? The Commonwealth Bank has done a magnificent job, and I do not want to repeat what has been said by other speakers and also by Senator Spooner in the Senate to-day. Over and over again these things have been said. The Commonwealth Bank has been the most reliable source from which to obtain money for building societies, at least until the implementation last year of the new Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, ls it expected that the trading banks should provide all of this extra money? We know the position of the trading banks, and we know that they have set up savings banks.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Suggest corrections