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Wednesday, 27 March 1957

Mr LUCHETTI (Macquarie) .- The right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page) has made a significant admission. He has been frank, whereas other Government supporters who attempted to answer charges made by the Opposition declined to be frank. The right honorable gentleman admitted that the Commonwealth has power to deal with the housing problem. There has never been any doubt about that. The original Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement entered into by the Labour Government in 1945 made it abundantly clear that the States would have power to proceed with the construction of homes for the people of Australia and that the requisite finance would be provided by the Commonwealth. This Government has retreated from that position, and has evaded its responsibilities. The Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), in one of the weakest speeches that he has made in this House, did not attempt to answer Opposition charges or to substantiate a press statement made by him on 7th March, which, I believe, he would have liked to withdraw immediately he made it.

Mr Ward - Where ha3 he been since?

Mr LUCHETTI - The Prime Minister has not appeared in this chamber very much since he made the speech to which I have referred.

The Opposition is justly entitled to make the charge that the Government is treating the housing problem contemptuously, and is not showing as much interest as it should in the task of housing the people of Australia. It is true that the Government has done something, but its record will not house the people who require houses today. The responsibility rests upon this

Parliament, and especially upon the Ministry, to carry out the mandate that it sought from the people in 1949 - confirmed in 1951 - and proceed to make money available so that people who require accommodation will be given it. What else could the people ask for? If they ask for that surely they are not asking for too much. The need to be housed is a minimum requirement. Surely every person born in this country is entitled to believe that, in the course of his lifetime, he will be able to obtain accommodation. Likewise it is necessary that every person who is brought into Australia should have some assurance that he will be accommodated.

I know that we could bring to this country for employment in heavy industry, the engineering industry, for example, tens of thousands of good citizens and good settlers, people who would make a contribution to our development, if we could assure them of adequate housing in this land. But, of course, we cannot do that. I say clearly that in housing there should be no grades. We should not consider where a person comes from, his occupation, or his religion. Our only concern should be that a human being is in this country and that that human being is entitled to be housed.

This Government made lavish promises. It told the people of Australia that it could do a much better job than the Labour Government, which had previously occupied the treasury bench of this Parliament. I have in my hand the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement of 1945. That agreement, made by a Labour government, between the Commonwealth and the respective States, made it clear that adequate funds would be made available to the States for housing. Despite that, we have evasion by Government supporters who now say that housing is a State responsibility. If there is a good record in some field of activity, if production has been expanded in some direction, or if a greater number of homes has been built, the Commonwealth Government immediately says " Look at our proud record ". But when houses are not built it says, " Look at the dismal record of the States".

I do not think it is necessary to go through the statistics of what is required and the money that should be made available - a weary pattern that has characterized some of this debate. It is not a matter of saying that £10,000,000 or £20,000,000 or £500,000,000 is required. The amount of money that ought to be found for housing in Australia is an amount adequate to house every person who requires a house in Australia at the present time.

Mr Cleaver - At what cost?

Mr LUCHETTI - The honorable member asks at what cost. To a person with a house it is not an important matter, but to a person living in a fowlhouse or a shed, as is indicated in the report by the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), it is an important matter. May I offer the suggestion that this report was not presented and compiled for the purpose of damaging the reputation of the Government? If anything, the emphasis is on the other side. For instance, the housing requirements of Canberra are conveniently lumped in with the New South Wales figures, despite the shameful failure of the Government to build houses for the people of Canberra.

The number of Australians living at the present time in sheds are as follows: - Western Australia, 4,480; Tasmania, 1,612; Queensland, 9,117; New South Wales, 24,799; Victoria, 5,742; South Australia, 2,345; and the Northern Territory, 941. This is the record that is proudly presented to the Parliament and to the people of Australia by the " Minister for NoDevelopment ". This record stands to the everlasting discredit of the Government which rightly deserves the censure of this Parliament, as it has received the censure of the people of this country, for its failure to provide homes. Quite apart from promises, any responsible government would have accepted the challenge to combine the idle hands and the available materials for the purpose of producing homes; yet the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) says that it is not a question of finance; it is a question of man-power and materials! Witness after witness at an inquiry in Sydney instituted by the Australian Labour party and conducted by members of this chamber, testified to the quantity of available materials, and the number of idle hands to which that material could be applied for the purpose of building homes.

Mr Cleaver - What is the percentage of idle hands?

Mr LUCHETTI - There are many idle hands at the present time. I would expect the honorable member, who poses in this place as one who does not neglect the small matters, to realize how undesirable it is that men should be leaving the building industry, leaving country towns, leaving their saw-mills and other decentralized industries to go into luxury industries instead of continuing the work of building up this nation and making it great. Surely we ought to be thinking along those lines.

We heard evidence from Mr. Kraegen, secretary of the Country Sawmillers Association of New South Wales, "who told the inquiry that no less than 80 saw-mills were idle in New South Wales and that some townships had veritably become ghost towns. Surely this responsibility ought to demand of members of this chamber that we should get on with the job of building houses, maintaining our country people in their towns, and doing a much better job. I am not satisfied that the best job has been done at any time. It is clear that with only 60,000 houses being built annually to meet an estimated current annual demand for at least 75,000 much more has to be done. The only way anything can be done in this chamber is for the House itself to censure this Administration. We should tell the Government clearly and bluntly, as the people are saying outside, " You have failed in your duty, and we are recording that failure here in this chamber ". The press has said it and Mr. Stewart Fraser, director of the Building Industry Congress and a member of the Liberal party, has said it. Responsible people in local government and elsewhere have said it. It is for this Parliament also, if it accepts its responsibility, to say it. Mr. Bolte, the Premier of Victoria, together with every person with any sense of responsibility in this country, has declared that this state of affairs should end forthwith.

I hold in my hand copies of communications addressed to responsible people, including State Ministers, bringing to their attention the need of people who require homes. Here is one which gives an illustration of the great human problem involved. This man wrote to me saying - 1 have a wife and two children and my wife is expecting another child in five weeks' time. At present we are all living in a closed in verandah which has a cement floor. The verandah is 16 feet by 8 feet, and as you can imagine it is very crowded with a family ana with the luggage and so on.

I have another letter which describes how a husband, wife and two children, one a girl aged three and the other a baby of six months, are obliged to live in one room. Another letter gives an illustration of a family living in one room, one child suffering from whooping cough and the rest suffering in other ways. A further case from my electorate shows how people are living in deplorable conditions. They are suffering conditions that no decent people - or people of any kind - should be called upon to suffer.

I shall not go through all the letters. Those 1 have read indicate the position and measure the pattern of the human problem involved in this matter. I ask honorable members to lift themselves above party strife and turmoil and to try to speak for human beings who need homes. If they do that, they must affirm, as we on this side of the House do, that a vast sum of money is required to build the necessary number of homes for the people. The question is a social question of overcrowding, of mixed sexes and of great numbers of people living in tenements where there is little chance of parental control. All these matters pose great problems. The question of a husband and wife sharing a home with other people also raises a most important matter.

If this Parliament in the course of its life were to do no more than to get to work and overcome this problem of housing, then it would earn the gratitude of all the people. I have not for one moment in the course of my remarks in this chamber or outside it said that some effort has not been made to deal with the question of housing. An effort has been made, but what we have done in the past is certainly not good enough. Much more must be done and I can only hope and trust that this Parliament will stimulate the Government, rouse the Ministry from its slumbers, remove its self-satisfaction in regard to these matters, and dispel its belief that there is no crisis in the building industry, that there is no shortage of money and that the problem is one of man-power and materials. We all know that such a belief is foolish and absurd. Yet it has been stated on many occasions.

As the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page) said, home ownership is a right that belongs to every person in this country. I believe that every person should be given an opportunity to own a home. It is a right that every person should have. But one must remember that 90 per cent, of the breadwinners earn less than £20 a week. The interest alone on a £3,000 house, with amortization, would cost about £4 a week, and to that must be added rates and taxes and the cost of a suitable block of land. All those considerations add to the great problem and make it abundantly clear that, in the inflationary condition which exists at present, it is almost impossible for the average person to buy a home. Some brave souls have said that it is grand to see people receiving 90 per cent, advances. But it would not be too much if the Government were to introduce a scheme so that 100 per cent, advances could be given to every person who wishes to build a home. I believe that through home ownership we will have better citizens and better communities, and a feeling of belonging and forming part of the pattern of the community will be formed. When that state of affairs exists, we will be helping to build a much better nation. Consequently, I hope that the feeling towards home ownership will be spurred on.

If we are to do that, we must look at other things, too. We must consider the question of profits earned by the financial institutions which are continually trying to exert pressure. I mention Custom Credit Corporation Limited. That organization suggests that there is nothing wrong with 10 per cent, interest on finance for homes. That is absurd! That organization, which would charge immigrants 10 per cent, interest on the money that it advanced for them to come to this country, thinks it is a reasonable and proper proposal that they should be charged 10 per cent, interest on the money necessary for them to purchase a home here. That sort of thing must be cast to one side. A cheaper interest rate is necessary and is fundamental. It is also necessary for the rent of State Housing Commission homes to be fixed at a rate that will make it possible for people to enter those homes with some reasonable chance of owning them at some time. 1 come now to the question of the components in home-building - timber, bricks, steel and so on. We have the glorious example of Australian Iron and Steel Limited making a profit for this year which was 40 per cent, more than its profit for last year. The profit last year was 40 per cent, greater than that for the previous year. Yet not one home is built without a considerable amount of steel! That sort of thing has the blessing of this Government. If we want to get to grips with this problem, if we want to see people owning their homes and if we want to see some real action and" not platitudes about home ownership, all these things must be tackled. The right honorable member for Cowper referred to the necessity for savings banks to make money available for home-building. That would be a most desirable state of affairs, but I remind the right honorable gentleman that the Government gave a franchise which permitted three private savings banks to commence operations. In a brief period, those savings banks have collected not less than £100,000,000 in deposits. According to the arrangement made when they were permitted to operate, they should have made available for housing about £33,000,000. Instead, only £13,000,000 of the £100,000,000 has been made available for house-building. That, I feel, answers to some extent the comment of the right honorable gentleman.

If we express those sentiments, they are quite good, but we must see that effect is given to them. The right honorable gentleman said that this Parliament has the responsibility and the power to do this job. We should see that we use those powers in the interests of the country. It is shameful for the Prime Minister and Government supporters to delude and hoodwink the electors with advertisements saying what they are prepared to do and promising to give every newly-married couple a house, if they are not prepared to face up to their responsibilities.

Before I leave the subject of housing to mention another matter, I want to say that I believe that a comprehensive housebuilding programme is necessary. We must return to the rent rebate system. On that point I want to say for the benefit of the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Fairhall) who is not in the chamber now, that it is not very long since he took a course of action that the previous Minister for the Interior refused to take and increased the rents of Commonwealth tenants at Lithgow by 90 per cent. Those rent increases fell on people who had paid more than the cost of the houses. Most of the tenants were factory wor', .rs employed at the Commonwealth Small Arms Factory at Lithgow. Immediately after the rents were increased by 90 per cent., those people were dismissed from their employment at the Small Arms Factory. When they sought a rental rebate from the Commonwealth, they were refused.

In the last few moments before my time expires, I shall refer to a grave crisis in the mining industry. The Minister for National Development, whom I describe more aptly as the " Minister for No Development ", has also stated that there is no crisis in the mining industry. In the view of the Minister, of course, there is no crisis, but in the mine fields over the last year or two about 1,900 fewer employees have been engaged. There are now 1,000 fewer than there were in 1956, and there were 900 fewer last year than in 1955. In the western district, in which I am especially interested, 1,350 men have been dismissed from the industry during the last five years. These were men who had given a lifetime of service to the coal-mining industry. Old-established collieries have closed. Only recently, Australian Iron and Steel Limited, a company that has made record profits, gave notice of dismissal to its entire staff at Lithgow, totalling some 216 employees. I regard that as shameful, in view of the tremendous profits earned by the company.

I submit to this Parliament that constructive thinking is required on the question of producing power in this country. The Parliament should consider whether we shall set about trying to re-establish the coal-mining industry, for I am much more concerned about the people engaged in that industry than about those in whose hands the oil industry rests at present. It appears to me that this nation may experience a crisis in the future. We have just emerged from the troubles concerning the Suez Canal, which resulted in an interruption of oil supplies to the United Kingdom, and some diminution in supplies of oil and petrol to Australia. All these things suggest to me that we should get on with th* job, and that we should think constructively with regard to the coal industry. We should know just what is taking place in that industry. The average weekly increase in coal production in New South Wales has been of the order of 39,000 tons. It is not a question of a lack of production. The miners are working harder, but many of them are losing their jobs. That is the problem at present. Nor is there any reduction in demand. The demand is continuous, but the miners are producing more coal and still losing their jobs. I ask this Parliament to get on with the task of establishing by-product industries in the northern, southern and western fields, so that the mines may be kept in operation. In a time of crisis it is extremely difficult to train miners and open up mines.

These are the pressing problems facing the mining industry at present, and I can only hope that the social problem, the matter of the dismissal of these employees who know no other industry, and who are being taken from their townships and villages in the closing stages of their lives, will be satisfactorily solved. These people have not been fairly treated, and this Parliament should accept its responsibilities and try to ensure that the industry is preserved. If the Government is not concerned with its preservation at present, it should at least take into account the fact that it would be extremely valuable in a crisis.

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