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Wednesday, 23 November 1927

Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - I am glad that the Government has introduced this measure. I regard it as an . earnest of the Ministry's intention to give effect to the election pledges of the Prime Minister (Mr. Bruce). During the last election cam paign I wholeheartedly endorsed this proposal and I found that, wherever mentioned, it was received most favorably - so favorably indeed that I would be justified in saying that the people enthusiastically supported it. If we are to have a happy and contented people they must be housed under the best possible conditions consistent with a proper regard for our finances. Unfortunately, large numbers of our people are living under conditions which are deplorable. That is neither their fault nor the fault of any government. It is largely due to the progress which this country has made being so great that the provision of homes has not kept pace with the growth of the population. An earnest attempt should be made to remedy the existing unsatisfactory conditions under which so many of our people live. How far this measure will assist in that direction it is difficult to say. It is not easy to see how homes can be provided for people in country districts, and before we can attempt to place in better homes the people now living in " slum " areas in our cities, a policy of education must be undertaken. They must be made to understand that the condi tions under which they -are living are not desirable, either from their own point of view or from that of the nation. Some years ago the Sydney municipal authorities embarked on a scheme to provide homes for some of the poorer people of Sydney; but many of those whom it was desired to assist failed to appreciate the provision that was made for them. Although homes more desirable in every way than those in which they then dwelt were built at enormous expense and made available to them at rentals which scarcely gave even a nominal return on the outlay, many of those houses remained empty because the people preferred to stay where "they were. I am glad that the Government, in launching its housing scheme, does not itself propose to build houses, as was done in connexion with the war service homes scheme, but intends to allow private enterprise to do the work. That is the safest way in which to proceed, because it ensures that only those peopl'3 who appreciate the advantage of a good home will receive assistance from the Government. The Government's scheme should, therefore, be not only a financial but also a social success. Many people are not satisfied that a housing scheme is the function of the Commonwealth. In support of that view they point out that the control of land is vested in the States, and that all the States have already embarked on housing schemes. They are concerned that the Commonwealth Government should engage in what they regard as a hazardous undertaking. While agreeing with them that the State governments are rightly concerned in providing homes for their people, we should also recognize that to the Commonwealth Parliament is entrusted the safety and well-being of the whole of the people of Australia, and that the future development and prosperity ofthis country depends a great deal on the conditions under which its people live. Better homes result in happier and more contented people. The States are doing good work; but not even honorable senators opposing this bill would go so far as to say that they are doing all that might be done. The housing scheme of the South Australian Government has been most successful. That State has provided thousands of its citizens with homes which, but for the assistance of the Government, they could not have obtained. In most of the States good work has been accomplished in that direction; but there still remains much to be done. Seeing that the Commonwealth is able to obtain revenue from sources not available to the States, it is justified in co-operating with the States in providing homes for the people. Addressing theRotary Club in Melbourne some time ago the InspectorGeneral of the State Savings Bank of Victoria, Mr. G. E. Emery, gave some illuminating facts in relation to Australia's housing problem. He said that 38 per cent, of Australia's accumulated wealth of £114,000,000 a year was expended in housing. He stated further that there were 1,350,000 dwellings in Australia and that to house the annual population increase of 130,000 it was necessary to build 28,000 homes a year. In addition, the replacement of old houses numbered 12,000 per annum.Mr. Emery went on to say that the total cost of those 40,000 homes was between £35,000,000 and £40,000,000 per annum. I point out that those figures apply only to the normal increase of population and to the replacing of old houses no longer considered suitable.

Senator Herbert Hays - Those figures are very speculative.

Senator DUNCAN - I suggest that any statement in relation to housing by the Inspector-General of the State Savings Bank of Victoria, is entitled to respect. It should not have been difficult for Mr. Emery to ascertain the annual increase in our population, and by a simple mathematical calculation to determine the number of new homes required to house that population.

Senator Herbert Hays - Because of the large floating population, it would be difficult to determine where the homes should be located.

Senator DUNCAN - I take it that considerations of that kind have not been overlooked. The figures given by Mr. Emery apply to the whole of Australia, not only to Victoria. Mr. Emery added -

During the period from19 15 to 1921 we " did in " £20,000,000 a year of our accumulated wealth by borrowing overseas. People may say that this amount was so large because it covered the war period, but it is significant that from 1921 to 1326 the figure amounted to £27,000,000 a year. Of the remainder of the wealth, £8,000,000 a year is spent on plant and machinery, £18,000,000 on stock and merchandise, £12,000,000 on furniture and personal property, £23,000,000 on government enterprises, including railways and tramways, £43,000,000 on land and improvements, and £9,000,000 on livestock.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to 8p.m.

Senator DUNCAN - These figures prove conclusively the vital necessity for home construction schemes in Australia, and clearly justify the introduction of the Government's proposals. But certain disadvantages , in connexion with the scheme should be taken into consideration. Perhaps it will be necessary for the Government to take steps to meet a situation that may arise: I refer to the probability of increased costs in building generally, as a result of the launching of this scheme. While it is true that there is a great deal of unemployment throughout Australia in a number of trades, generally speaking building trade operatives are fully employed. This new and comprehensive building scheme when it is put into operation will in all probability lead to a demand for both skilled and unskilled labour. In the case of the former it may be difficult to supply the demand. Any difficulty with regard to unskilled labour will easily be met, because unfortunately there is always an ample supply available.

Senator Sir George Pearce - According to the latest returns in Victoria the great bulk of employment in that State is in the building trade.

Senator DUNCAN - That may be the situation in Victoria, but I think the right honorable the. Minister will agree with me that when the Government's building proposals arc in full swing throughout Australia, there will be a big demand' for operatives in the building trade, and it may be difficult to obtain sufficient labour, particularly in country centres. This increased demand will undoubtedly lead to an increase in wages, with a consequent increase in building costs.

Senator Foll - Does not the bill provide also for the purchasing of existing homes ?

Senator DUNCAN - Yes, but the figures which I have just quoted show that 28,000 additional homes are required in Australia each year to meet current demands, and I am endeavouring to show that, when this scheme is superimposed upon existing building activities in the various States, it may lead to an increase in costs. At present the complaint is that a sufficient number of new homes is not being made available each year. If there is this increased demand for the necessary labour, prices will inevitably rise. This is the experience in all branches of commercial life. The Government's action also may affect the demand for suitable home sites. We may see an increase of land values in desirable residential areas. We have heard recently about the present high costs of building materials, so we may assume that costs there will also rise. Although I believe that the Government is taking the right course in bringing forward these proposals, the disadvantages which I have mentioned should not be lost sight of.

Senator McLachlan - Is it not a fact that the present trend of building costs is downwards?

Senator DUNCAN - That may be true of certain areas, but one does not see evidence of decrease in Canberra.

Senator McLachlan - I have some evidence that cost here are falling also.

Senator DUNCAN - I am glad to hear the Minister say that, because those of us who were fortunate enough to have lunch to-day in certain pleasant circumstances had impressed on us the fact that building costs are exceedingly high in Canberra.

Senator Chapman - Were those circumstances normal ?

Senator DUNCAN - That I cannot say. All I know is that we were informed that one weatherboard building with an iron roof, designed for offices, and containing three rooms with fibro plaster partitions, cost about £1,950. We were also told that another weatherboard building with an iron roof about as large as a decentsized cottage, cost in the vicinity of £5,000. The buildings I am referring to were erected by the Federal Capital Commission as portion of the improvements at Government House, Canberra.

Senator Payne - Surely the honorable senator was misinformed.

Senator DUNCAN - I can assure the honorable senator that I was not misinformed. If that is an indication of the building costs in Canberra, and if costs elsewhere are on a similar scale, we may be sure that the cost of buildings erected under this scheme will be pretty considerable.

Senator Payne - The case cited by the honorable senator should be the subject of an inquiry.

Senator DUNCAN - It certainly was commented upon pretty freely in certain quarters. I agree with Senator Payne that it should be inquired into. I have mentioned these costs in reply to the interjection from the Honorary Minister (Senator McLachlan), who toldus that building prices were falling even in Canberra. I can assure him that public servants and others who are erecting homes in this city would be very glad if that were so. At present the complaint is that building costs are abnormally high, not only in Canberra, but throughout the Commonwealth. Indeed, so high are they that it is almost impossible for the average working man to own a decent home. I feel sure that it was the realization of these facts that impelled the Government to bring forward its scheme for home building, and I have mentioned the possible disadvantages because they are likely to react upon the scheme generally, and certainly will affect those who participate in it to the extent that they may not be able to get full value for the money borrowed. There is also another aspect that should appeal to all thoughtful students of the present position. The launching of the scheme may lead to a decrease in values of existing homes, and in that way prejudicially affect a large number of workers and others on small salaries who are buying homes from existing building a uthorities on the time-payment system. If by reason of the operation of this scheme the value of those assets is decreased, to that extent we shall be doing them an injury, because, instead of sh aping a reward for their industry and thrift, they may see the value of their assets decline somewhat. There is also the question of rents. People are building to-day in the several cities of the Commonwealth and are basing rents on present values. This scheme may so affect values that it will not bepossible to obtain the same rents for existing properties, with the result that those who have invested money in them may not get an adequate return. I have mentioned these disadvantages in order that the Government may take steps to avoid them. Talcing all the circumstances into consideration, the advantages of the scheme far outweigh its disadvantages. I feel sure that the bill will receive the support of the Senate, and that when the scheme is put into operation it will result in many thousands of our people possessing their own homes. That will make them better citizens, with the result that the Commonwealth will benefit.

Senator KINGSMILL(Western Australia [8.17]. - I am glad to be able to support this bill, although I do so for reasons for which some honorable senators have condemned it. When the Government's housing scheme was first mentioned. I was afraid that it would mean another house-building scheme, and, having a lively recollection of what took place in connexion with the war service homes, I admit that the thought of any repetition of that scheme was unpalatable to me. But seeing that the scheme before us is merely one by which the building of homes will be financed by the Commonwealth, my objections to the war service homes scheme do not apply in this instance. The scheme has two advantages: first, it provides prospective home-seekers with money to finance their undertaking on reasonable terms; and, secondly, it provides the Savings Bank with a satisfactory investment for some of its funds.

Circumstances, financial, economic, and social, differ so greatly in various localities that it is difficult to generalize upon the effect of this scheme, which will operate over the whole of Australia. We may take it, however, that the introduction into the financial world of a new competitor in this class of finance must be good for the borrower, although it is difficult to estimate its effect upon those who, for some time, have had their own way in the granting of loans for the erection of homes. The effect of the scheme on existing properties is also problematical. However, seeing that it will assist people to obtain homes, it must be in the interests of Australia. As there are spots even on the sun, so there are one or two defects in this measure. The residence conditions embodied in the bill are altogether too stringent. In the Federal Public Service particularly there are numbers of men whose duties require that they from time to time shall change their place of residence. Those men will find it difficult to comply with the condition that borrowers must personally live in the houses to be erected with the money provided under this scheme. That provision is a necessary safeguard in some instances, because it will prevent speculative building with money secured from the Commonwealth Savings Bank. On the other hand, it may deter public servants in, say, the Trade and Customs Department, the Commonwealth Railways, or the Postal Department from building houses in which to retire when they leave the service. The residential conditions of the bill could, with advantage, be modified. It could be left to the discretion of , a board to say whether, in genuine cases, the provisions of that part of the bill should apply. In its present form, instead of conferring benefits, the measure may place restrictions, in some cases, on those whom we desire to help. The somewhat harsh nature of these provisions may also affect public servants in the service of the States whose duties require an occasional change of residence. For instance, teachers in the State education departmentsare frequently called upon, often at short notice, to transfer from one part of the State to another. I should like the Minister in his reply to say to what extent the Government would be willing to modify this provision, which in its present form, appears to be a little too rigid. I understand that the clause in question has been taken from the legislation dealing with the provision of workers' homes in the several States.

Senator McLachlan - It applies also to the war service homes.

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