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Wednesday, 27 March 1957

Mr DAVIS (Deakin) .- I was told lon- ago that any one taking part in a debate would be wise to endeavour to find the points on which he could agree with those with whom he was debating a subject. I find myself in complete agreement with the honorable member for Kennedy (Mr. Riordan) on the fact that the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) amounts to a motion of censure. There may be other points on which we are in accord, but I regret to say that I cannot be sure, because I did not hear a great deal of the honorable member's remarks. His restrained manner of speaking sometimes puts his listeners at considerable disadvantage. His principal point was that the amendment constitutes a motion of censure. As the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt), who is deputy leader of the Liberal party, pointed out last evening, a motion of censure implies two things. It implies, first, that the Opposition invites the House to censure the Government for its action-

Mr Bryant - Inaction!

Mr DAVIS - For its action or lack of action. It implies, secondly, that the Opposition is an acceptable alternative to the existing government. I think that is a fair and reasonable statement of the essence of this debate, so far as it goes. That being so, we are required to examine not only the record and history of this Government's approach to the housing problem but also the Opposition's record, history, and policy in relation to housing, because, in political terms, the Opposition represents the alternative to the present administration. There is too often a tendency to adopt an illogical form of reasoning and say that because one thing is wrong or imperfect the alternative is perfect. Of course, any one who has been a member of this House for some time would regard as ludicrous the suggestion that the Opposition, as at present constituted, is an alternative preferable to the present government, which may have some imperfections.

That is to-day's funny story. It has amused and appalled the Australian electors at various times in recent years.

The honorable member for Kennedy and his colleagues have referred to the housing problem as a housing crisis. I suggest that, if a crisis exists to-day, it existed throughout the Labour government's term ot office because the housing position is incomparably better at present than at any time under the Labour government. Here are some facts on which I think few honorable members, irrespective of their political views, will disagree. The record of this Government - which we must consider, and are considering, in this debate - may be stated in essence by saying that it has built nearly twice as many dwellings as were built during a comparable period by the Labour government. That is undisputed. The average number of people to a dwelling at the 1954 census was fewer than at the previous census in 1947.

Mr Curtin - Who worked that out?

Mr DAVIS - The Commonwealth Statistician. I have no desire to reflect on the honorable member's ability, but I suggest that if he has any doubts he take the matter up with the statistician. A further fact that has been directly mentioned during this debate is that this Government negotiated a new Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement to replace the 1945 agreement. In the new agreement, this Government made provision for 20 per cent, of the funds allocated by it to the States to be made available to co-operative building societies or similar organizations in the first two years, and 30 per cent, thereafter. I think those are basic facts over which there is little dispute.

I suggest that an example of the fallacious reasoning of which we see evidence in debates such as this, both here and in other places, is the tendency to over-simplify large problems and confine discussion to isolated aspects of such problems. As serious and responsible men, we cannot afford to overlook the basic problem that confronts the present Government, and would confront the present Opposition if, by some strange mischance, it were elected to office. This is the problem presented by a 56-year-old Constitution which, in a great many ways indeed, hampers governments and limits their scope in discharging the responsibilities that the people expect them to discharge in these times. The position is complicated further by the uniform taxation system, which was introduced in 1942 as a war-time measure, and has been continued since the war. It has, in fact, established a unified form of government in a nominally federal system. I think the honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen), who addressed the House so eloquently last evening, said frankly that he was a unificationist, and I think most of his colleagues are, too. But whatever view one holds about this matter, one cannot afford to overlook those two problems that seem to me to be the fundamental problems confronting any administration.

Then we come to the lines of party division. We on this side of the House look at the problem in one way, and Opposition members look at it another way, in considering how the Government can solve the problem of housing the people. We on this side of the House believe that, in the main, we should encourage private enterprise, and work through individuals by means of private enterprise, rather than insist, as the 1945 Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement did, on government control of the construction of homes for rental. I was very pleased to hear my friend, the honorable member for Macquarie (Mr. Luchetti), emphasize the importance of home-ownership this afternoon. It is not very frequently emphasized by Opposition members, and it is not improbable that some confusion about these questions of theory occurs in the minds of Labour members during the present process of the Australian Labour party's transformation from a Labour-socialist party to a democraticsocialist organization, and then to a democraticsocialistLabour party. Be that as it may, those seem to me to be, broadly speaking, the important lines of demarcation in this debate.

Mr Calwell - Home-ownership was provided for in the 1945 agreement.

Sir Philip McBride - What did Mr. Dedman have to say when he was Minister for Post-war Reconstruction?

Mr Calwell - We hear the same old hoary story presenting the same old lie.

Mr DAVIS - The honorable member for Melbourne (Mr. Calwell) is apparently endeavouring to drag out a quotation from the words of his friend and former minis terial colleague in the Labour government. I have no wish to concern myself with the stories of the past. There is evidence in the 1 945 act that it was framed for the erection of buildings for renting purposes. It is also true that, while provision was made in the act for the sale of homes, in Victoria, the State of which I have some knowledge, over the period of years until the act was amended there were 92 houses sold out of something like 15,000 or 20,000 houses erected. It was almost impossible to buy a house from the Housing Commission during those years because of the form in which the legislation was framed. I have no desire to discuss what Mr. Dedman said. The facts stand for themselves, without the quotations from one who has long since ceased to grace this House by his presence.

Mr J R FRASER - More's the pity.

Mr DAVIS - Well, the majority of the honorable members of this House do not agree with that. However, the honorable member is entitled to his own opinion.

If we take, as we must, a broad survey of this situation in an endeavour to arrive at a solution of it, we have to look at the matters which affect housing in this country. In my opinion the first is immigration. My friend, the honorable member for Petrie (Mr. Hulme) yesterday dealt with this matter and quoted figures which illustrated, in his opinion, that the contribution made by immigrants towards the solution of the housing problem, was greater than their demand for houses. There is some difference of opinion on that. As I see it the answer is not yet finalized.

There is a particular matter which, largely, has not been dealt with, and that is the industrial development that has taken place in this country in post-war years. I would think all members of the Opposition would subscribe to the opinion that this development has set up a demand for finance for industrial and commercial building, which has removed a great amount of money from the home-building field. In other words, it has intensified the demand for finance for building in Australia. However - and my friend from Kennedy (Mr. Riordan) overlooked this point - it has caused a further demand for men and materials, which, in a different sort of economy, would have been freely available for home building.

The problem is not, as the optimistic gentleman from Kennedy seems to believe, purely a matter of finance. It is, of course, a matter of relating finance to the men and materials available. So the answer does not lie entirely in the provision of finance. I want to mention one or two things about that later. There is the complication of existing legislation both in the States and the Commonwealth. About that, also, I will say something later. Then there is the further complication of the rising standards of living over the last few years, which have affected the demand for houses and the demand for certain types of houses. All those factors and possibly more that I have overlooked, come into it and they cannot in themselves be ignored.

I want now to make one or two comments about what possibly could be done. It seems to me that the situation at the present time is not the crisis that some of the more vocal gentlemen of the Opposition would have us believe.

Mr Bird - The Minister for the Army said there was a crisis.

Mr DAVIS - Honorable members opposite who are so anxious to put words into the mouth of the Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer) can themselves, in due course, take part in this debate. There is not a crisis in housing in Australia to-day; there is a problem. There is a very marked distinction between those two things. Finance alone cannot produce housing. Materials and men also are required, and a serious factor in the housing problem today is the continued rise in building costs. Houses, whether erected by governments or individual builders, are beyond the purse of the younger people of this community.

Mr Curtin Mr. Curtininterjecting,

Mr DAVIS - The honorable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr. Curtin), who reads so eloquently from the speeches prepared for him would do well to leave alone those who do not follow his thoughts. I want to turn to a feasible method of dealing with the housing problem and I make this assertion with confidence because it cannot be effectively disputed on the basis of fact. I believe the solution to the housing problem as we know it in Victoria and New South Wales at least, lies in the encouragement of the co-operative housing society movement. The facts show - and there are many facts available to prove this - that the co-operative housing society movement can build more and better houses, and can build them more efficiently, than any government instrumentalities yet set up in those States.

Mr Edmonds - Rot!

Mr DAVIS - I cannot understand the interjections of honorable members opposite who apparently object to the proposition that more and cheaper houses should be built. In Victoria, the co-operative housing organization is a very substantial movement. It has an aggregate membership of over 25,000. It has a waiting list - for the information of the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) - of about 10,000 people. It has a total loan accommodation of over £47,000,000. The movement has, since its inception, acquired 21,420 buildings and it has in the course of erection at the present time, 4,797 buildings. It is a very substantial movement indeed and here I should like to quote the sources of the finance that has been made available to it because this lends some interest to the discussions on finance. In round figures, the State Savings Bank of Victoria has provided £16,000,000; the Commonwealth Bank has provided £17,000,000; the friendly societies have provided £750,000; the insurance companies, £1,500,000; the private banks, £9,500,000; and other government instrumentalities, £1,500,000. So, the funds invested in the co-operative housing societies are not exclusively funds from the Commonwealth Savings Bank or from government sources. In other words, this movement, if encouraged, has the power to draw funds to itself in competition.I have mentioned before the industrial building to which a large amount of finance goes. That is an important point. I believe that in Victoria in the present year funds available to the co-operative housing societies movement from the Commonwealth Bank have been about £1,000,000 less than last year. I shall read from a source which I feel sure my friends of the Opposition will not challenge, the Commonwealth Bank report. That report contains the following statement: -

A sudden contraction in its lending before the new savings banks were ready to take up their share of responsibility could have produced some economic disturbance. The Commonwealth Savings Bank, therefore, continued for a time its broad pattern of new investment but some reductions have since had to be made in its rate of lending.

That, I believe is the crux of the Victorian problem. If the Commonwealth Bank had continued to make advances at the rate that it had made them last year or, alternatively, if it had used its power as the central bank to see that the total funds available for housing in Victoria remained comparable with those of the previous year, then Victoria to-day would have a lesser problem than exists. That is something we must expect.

There is one further point. The House, as far as I know, has up to the present addressed itself to the question of building new houses. It is true that the Minister for the Army raised this point. It is an important point and I want to refer to it. The census for 1947 contains a reference to the dwellings occupied by only one person. Those figures are of some significance. They show that 152,000 people were occupying 152,000 dwellings in 1947. In 1954, 213,000 people were occupying 213,000 dwellings. It is true, of course, that many of those dwellings are single rooms. They may be the huts to which my friend the honorable member for Kennedy referred, but it is also true that a great number of the 213,000 dwellings are houses occupied by one age pensioner. Because of the Landlord and Tenant Act or equivalent legislation in the States, that pensioner will not let a portion of those premises, or -

Mr Edmonds - If he lets portion of the premises, his pension would be taken away from him.

Mr DAVIS - The honorable member who makes speeches so badly desires to help me in making mine, but he anticipated the point 1 was about to mention. The point is that Commonwealth legislation, for which we all have some responsibility, makes a person who receives more than the permissible income ineligible for a pension. He is allowed to own the house that he is occupying. Two things must be done to meet this sort of problem. First, the States have a responsibility. It is stupid to throw backwards and forwards allegations of State or Commonwealth responsibility; we all have responsibility. The States, at the Housing Minister level, should consider the effect of their landlord and tenant legislation in relation to the individuals I have mentioned. I believe that the Commonwealth should consider in its social services legislation what can be done to safeguard the rights of a person occupying a whole dwelling in these days. A provision could well be included in the relevant act to exclude rent received from the letting of portion of these places from income computed to determine eligibility for a pension. If that were done, a substantial reduction would be effected in the admitted demand for housing. That, in itself, would have the effect of reducing the pressure from the States on the Commonwealth for finance and might lead to a realistic appreciation of the problems that face us.

I submit those matters to the House, in the main, not as the party political line, though, under the conditions of this debate determined by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt), we cannot avoid looking at the dreadful alternative government represented by the honorable member for Herbert. Other than that, we should look at these base problems, as far as possible, as responsible people irrespective of political parties. After all - and in this I agree with my friends, the honorable member for Kennedy and the honorable member for Macquarie (Mr. Luchetti) - however great the problem, it is a vital problem that all of us face to-day.

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