Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Tuesday, 26 March 1957

Mr BEALE (Parramatta) (Minister for Supply and Minister for Defence Production) . - Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker, I think that everybody in the House will agree that although the Opposition did not intend it this way, its amendment to the motion for the adoption of the AddressinReply has been valuable in that it has promoted an interesting and informative debate on a subject of great national importance. I believe that from both sides of the House we have heard some good speeches. Not all the speeches have been good, but we have heard some good ones, which have helped to inform the Austraiian public on the matter of housing in this country. I would be the first to agree, and I think all my colleagues would, too, that the housing situation is a national problem.

The Department of National Development quite recently published a report which has been commended highly in this Parliament - at any rate I have heard it commended in the Senate by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator McKenna) - as an unbiased and informative document. That report tells us that something like 105,000 houses are needed in Australia at the present time in order that all families in this country may have homes of their own of an acceptable standard. The compilers of the report have, they admit, pitched their standard pretty high, but, nevertheless, for the purpose of our discussion to-day, I would like to accept the position that we need 105,000 houses.

Mr Crean - One hundred and fifteen thousand, houses.

Mr BEALE - One hundred and five thousand. I am speaking of the report of the Department, of National Development, which places the figure at 105,000 as of this date. I- imagine that human beings will always demand better and better living conditions, but that does not enter into this housing question. We are concerned with what we would hope to be built and occupied in Australia as a reasonable standard for the people-. Our housing problem arose, as we ail know, because of the cessation of building activity during the war years. Thus extra demands were made for housing in this country after the war. It is worth noting that whereas eight or nine years ago, shortly before this Government came into power; the figure was 250,000 houses needed, it has now been reduced under this Government to- 105,000. That has not all been done by the Government. The reduction has been brought about to a very large measure by the people of Australia exercising a bit of initiative, making sacrifices, and working hard to ensure that they get a house for themselves according to the standard of their requirements. It has been done under a government which has provided conditions to enable it to be done. In broad terms, that is the answer given by the Government - and I hope to develop it in a moment on behalf of the Government- - to -the censure motion which charges it with- not having a national housing policy.

I agree straight away that a shortage of houses is a great social problem. It produces irritation and frustration - even personal tragedy, and damage to family life. AH of us in this House - I imagine that nobody would disagree - are completely aware of this problem, completely sympathetic towards those who are suffering under it and determined, within the limits of our power, to alleviate their difficulties as soon as possible. But housing is not the only problem. If it were the only problem, we could solve it immediately and without difficulty. This country - a young, developing country with limited resources and with great demands made upon those resources - is beset on every hand by problems similar to the problem of housing.

Mr Ward - If the Government had not built the St. Mary's project, plenty of houses could have been built.

Mr BEALE - We have, for instance, the problem of pensions. Everybody would like to be able to give the aged, the sick and the poor better State support, but that is a problem. Are we to concentrate all our resources upon suddenly solving the housing problem and neglect the pensioner? Are we to concentrate, our resources upon housing and neglect the health and hospital needs of the community? Are we to concentrate all our resources upon housing and one or two other problems and neglect the needs of education? Everybody knows that those are also problems. They have to be fitted into the framework of our national life and solved gradually, as we can solve them. An interjection a moment ago referred to defence. Defence also creates an economic and financial problem.

Mr Ward - What use will the St. Mary's project be?

Mr BEALE - Are we not to have this country adequately equipped for defence? 1 know what the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) would say. He would leave this country wide open to people whom, 1 rather strongly suspect, he favours more than he favours many fellow Australians. Nevertheless,, defence is a problem.

We must tackle what is undoubtedly a problem for the nation with due regard to the other calls upon our resources. One other aspect must be considered, and that is that the Commonwealth, in dealing with these problems, and with the problem of housing in particular, must use the tools that are to its hands. Though it is true that, in the financial sense, the Commonwealth has adequate power to give assistance for housing, it is an indirect power. It is given through a section of the Constitution which enables the Commonwealth to grant money to the States upon conditions. But so far as direct power is concerned - and that, I take it, is what is aimed at in -the amendment to the motion - outside our own territories, repatriation, defence and matters of that sort, the Government does not possess direct constitutional power. That is why our predecessors in initiating the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, and we in following it, have had to use the indirect financial method of approach.

What have we done? I shall outline what we have done, and in doing so I shall answer the charge that the Government has no national housing policy. First, apart from our obligations to our territories, we have a record that has never been equalled in the sphere of war service homes, which is a matter of direct legislative responsibility. In the past seven years, about £190,000,000 of the taxpayers' money has been supplied by the Commonwealth to build 91.000- homes. That is a remarkable figure. Since the war, on war service homes and in finance under the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, the Commonwealth, on behalf of the Australian taxpayer, has supplied no less than £500,000,000 for housing. Yet it is said that this Government has no housing policy. It is no wonder that we are proud to point to these things! My colleague, the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), and my colleague, the Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer), have pointed out that, compared with the great United States of America - I might say the fabulous United States - and also with the United Kingdom, last year this country had the highest rate of home building. Of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, Australia came first. At the same time, in that year we had the lowest number of persons occupying each home unit.

Mr Cairns - What is the difference in the respective population increases?

Mr BEALE - This is per capita. It has no regard to the size of the United States compared with the size of this country. It is a comparable figure. Turning to the amount of finance supplied, I shall give comparisons between 1949, the last year of Labour's term of office, and 1956, the last complete year of this Government's term of office. In 1949, tax reimbursements were £48,600.000. In 1956 we paid to the States £157,000.000. In 1949, no loan support was given by the Chifley Government; last year we gave £91,000,000 of loan support to the States.

Sir Arthur Fadden - We gave the States the whole of the loan market.

Mr BEALE - Yes, we allowed them the whole of the loan market. We stayed out of the market. Under the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, in 1949, £14,500,000 was allowed to the States by the Chifley Government; in 1956, we allowed £33,200,000. Under the war service homes scheme, in 1949, £8,600,000 was allowed by the Chifley Government; in 1956, £30,000,000 was allowed by the Menzies Government. Figures are not everything. Nobody would suggest that they are everything, but the allegation has been made that we have no housing policy. After all, when £500,000,000 has been invested in housing at the instance of the Commonwealth during the past eight or nine years - almost all of it under this Government - how can it be said that there is no housing policy?

I shall move from what the Commonwealth has done. It is a formidable record and one which obviously causes difficulty in the minds of honorable gentlemen opposite, as their interjections show. What have the States done? As I pointed out, this is obviously a matter of joint concern. We live under a federal constitution. We live under a constitution in which the great bulk of the power in matters of housing is in the hands of the States, not the Commonwealth. In this matter of State as well as Federal concern, we find that the records of the States vary quite dramatically. I shall take Western Australia as an illustration. Since 1947, there has been a 73 per cent, improvement in overtaking the housing lag in that State. Western Australia, by the way, has had by far the largest population increase of any State, and in this year of grace Western Australia has reduced the housing lag to the entirely manageable position in which only 4,000 houses are needed.

When we turn to my own State of New South Wales, which has had by far the smallest population increase in the relevant period, there has been an improvement of only 43 per cent, in the housing position, and there is at present in New South Wales a shortage of 60,000 houses, more than twice the shortage existing in any other State in the Commonwealth. It is little wonder that this controversy that has been going on lately has had its root in the State of New South Wales. Far from this being a matter of Commonwealth responsibility - although this Government has done its best - if there must be criticism about the housing lag in New South Wales, then the blame lies entirely at the door of the Cahill Labour Government of New South Wales. It is due mainly to two causes. The first is the quite grotesque and, as the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) said, scandalously high cost of building in New South Wales. It was pointed out in one press statement this morning that rail freights for timber from Grafton to Sydney have increased by 500 per cent, since 1947. It now costs more to bring timber from Grafton to Sydney than from Singapore to Sydney. At the same time royalties on timber in New South Wales have increased by 625 per cent. That is one cause of the housing lag in New South Wales, and that obviously is a matter of State concern. The second cause is the matter of tenancy control, which has been mentioned in this House again and again. I say only this about it: Before 1955, every dwelling house in New South Wales was subject to a form of tenancy control under which, with certain exceptions applying to only a few protected persons who are a diminishing class and have almost disappeared, one could not get a tenant out of a house in New South Wales unless one could find him alternative accommodation.

Mr Ward - What is wrong with that?

Mr BEALE - What is wrong with it? The Cahill Government itself has recently acknowledged that it is scandalously wrong, and has changed the law with respect to houses built after 1 954. Furthermore, when it comes to fixing rents in New South Wales, with respect to houses built before 1955 rents were fixed on the basis of 1939 valuations. There were some adjustments, but every fair-minded person will admit that, in fact, the rental returns to landlords in New South Wales whose houses have been occupied since before 1955 are unfair and inadequate. In fact, I had the opportunity on Sunday night of watching on television a session featuring Mr. Cahill, the Premier of New South Wales. The session is known as " Meet the Press ". Mr. Cahill was bombarded with a series of questions about this very matter of tenancy and rent control, and he ended up by admitting that these controls were causing very great hardship to a very great number of citizens in New South Wales. Those were his words, as nearly as I can remember them. He said that his Government was going to have another look at it. Indeed, it had a look at it before, because recently it changed the Landlord and Tenant Act to provide that with respect to any house which was let or built after the beginning of 1955, it is possible for the landlord to exclude the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act to which 1 have referred. You can now let your house for any rent you like, so long as the tenant consents. You can now eject your tenant by giving him 30 days' notice, or some other appropriate amount of notice. If anything were needed to prove that the original tenancy arrangements operative prior to 1955 were unfair, it is the fact that the State government changed the law in that year. As a result, however, we now have the grotesque and unfair situation in which houses rented before 1955 are subject to rigid tenancy control, under which one cannot eject one's tenant except by almost an act of God, while houses rented since 1954 can be entirely excluded from tenancy control and from the restrictions on the right of ejectment.

So there has been built up in New South Wales, over the last five or ten years, a most bitter resentment in the hearts of thousands of people who have been subjected to these unfair conditions. It is of no use to lock the door after the horse has bolted, because the damage has been done. The psychological condition has been created in which landlords and would-be landlords, having been bitten once, are now twice shy. Therefore, we have the situation in my State in which there is an almost complete cessation of building for investment, and a very strong reluctance on the part of persons who would otherwise be able to do so to let their houses to tenants. They say, " Although the law is now all right, who is to say that the old unfair provisions will not be reverted to "? It will take a long time to live that down and to create trust and confidence in the community.

The point that I am making is that at the door of the Cahill Government must be laid responsibility, at least in part, "and indeed in large measure, for a state of affairs which has had the result of denying houses to people who could otherwise get them. However, persons to whom I have spoken about this matter have said, " We will admit that the New South Wales Government must take its share of responsibility, but what about the Commonwealth Government? What about its action in giving directions to the banks and restricting credit for homes "? That is just not true - and I speak as a member of the Government when

I say two things. First, no directive has ever been given by the central bank to the private banks about housing loans. That is point number one. Secondly, there is nothing in current credit policy restricting the bank's powers to provide finance for housing within the limits of their investible funds. As proof of that statement, we have the fact that in Western Australia the housing problem has virtually been solved. Any instructions given to the banks are Australiawide, and so, if such instructions had been given, they would obviously be reflected in bad conditions in Western Australia corresponding to the bad conditions in New South Wales. The fact is that there is nothing in credit policy restricting lending by the banks, and no such directions have been given. Everybody knows that for years there has been in operation a general request to the banks to exercise caution in lending which would tend to promote inflation, but no directive has been given which could be interpreted as restricting the private banks in lending for housing.

Quite obviously, there has been a temporary slowing down of the rate at which we are overtaking the housing lag, and this has been due to two or three causes. The first is the high building costs to which I referred some time ago, which have been contributed to very largely in my own State by State legislation. You just cannot justify a situation in which men lay bricks at the rate of 200 or 300 a day, and, as we all know, go away in the week-end and lay them at the rate of 800 to 1,000 a day for their own purposes. This is a form of industrial insanity which is seriously damaging the housing programme. The second cause is that there has been a delay in New South Wales in the ratification of the last housing agreement which was made between the Commonwealth and the States. In that agreement, it may be remembered, there was a provision for 20 per cent, of moneys allocated to the States to be reallocated to co-operative building societies. Owing partly to the lag in ratification there was, therefore, a delay before the cooperatives got control of that money. That has reflected itself in a slowing down of housing finance. There is no reason to suppose that that should not now move forward; but if there is to be a criticism to the effect that finance is not becoming available from that quarter, such criticism must again be laid at the door of the Government which took its time about ratifying the agreement.

Of course, another factor, which is a normal enough one, is that when the new savings banks were created a great deal of money flowed into them, some of which would otherwise have gone into the Commonwealth Bank. To that extent, the Commonwealth Bank was inhibited in increasing further the amount of its loans. But that also is about to be rectified.

Suggest corrections