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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2420


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (18:12): We've got a housing crisis in Australia. When you have a situation where young people look at not only owning a home as being out of reach but even renting a home in an area near where they might work or study as being, for many, far more than they can afford, then you know you have a problem. It is reflected in the historically low homeownership rates. It is harder than ever for young people to get into the housing market.

It's no surprise considering the way that we've set up our tax system in this country, which gives incentives and billions of dollars every year to people who've already got two, three or four houses. They can go and buy an extra one if they already have a home and get a big tax break from the government, but, if you're a first homeowner, you sit back and watch, auction after auction, as the bids just keep going up and up because the people who are buying the houses probably already have a house or two, and they know that, no matter how much the house costs, if they rent it out and write it off as a loss, they will get a big cheque from the government to cover some of that loss. Not only that, in a few years time they'll get to sell that house and get a tax cut on the proceeds from selling it as well.

The system is rigged against first home owners and the system is increasingly rigged against young people in general. We're talking about people who might think about having the dream of owning their own home one day, but, when you see that about one in three young people in this country either haven't got a job or don't have enough hours of work so that they've got a job but haven't got enough income, you start to understand that we are reaching crisis point in this country. A big part of the reason that we are in this situation is, as I've said, our tax system, which gives billions of dollars a year to people who've already got a home to buy their second, third or fourth home, but also, in the last few years, governments have stopped doing one of their core functions, which is to make sure that people's humans rights are being respected—and that includes the right to have a roof over your head.

Governments should look at housing the same way that they look at schools or hospitals. If we turned away hundreds of thousands of people from schools every year because there simply weren't enough schools built, or we weren't paying enough teachers, there would be an outcry—and rightly so. But governments seem to think it's okay that we've got tens of thousands of people in one state alone being homeless, and a public housing waiting list of between 30,000 and 50,000 in my state of Victoria. People seem to think that's okay.

As to my electorate, the last time I looked at the stats, my electorate had more public housing than any other electorate in the country. You see it in those big tower blocks as you head into and out of and around Melbourne, and you see it in all the low-rises as well. But most of those were built in the sixties or seventies, and there hasn't been a government, large-scale, new build of public housing since that time. Despite the fact that the population has grown, there has not been an increase in public housing stock.

And it's not just in my electorate of Melbourne—although I see it there most acutely, because I spend a lot of time in public housing, and we've got the most in the country, according to the last stats I've seen. It is happening right around the country. All state governments, whether they're Labor or Liberal, are not building enough public housing, and the federal government has taken its eye off the ball there as well.

The problem is that if you don't build enough public housing then there's not enough supply at the bottom end, of cheap rents, and it allows the rent for everything else to get pushed up. So if we wanted to put a roof over people's heads, and if we wanted to bring down the cost of renting to a level where it was affordable, and if we wanted to start taking the heat out of house prices, one simple solution would be to go back to what governments used to do and build more public housing. That's not because everyone who needs an affordable home would go and move into public housing, but if you built a lot of public housing then you'd take a lot of people out of the bottom end of the market, you'd lower rents proportionally, and then the rents everywhere else would fall as well.

So one of the first things that we need to do is to get back to basics and say that one of the things that governments should be for is making sure everyone's got a roof over their head. If we looked at housing in the same way that we look at schools, governments would be building more public housing, and we would not see the situation that we have in my home state of Victoria. There we saw the Liberals try and sell off the existing public housing. Now Labor is trying to do the same; instead of building more, they're trying to flog it off.

We need to get back to thinking about public housing as a community good. Then what we could do is to use some of those billions that are going to negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions—tax breaks for the very wealthy—to also build another layer of affordable housing. And there are some really good ideas out there. Some people have said, 'Why not look at our super funds'—which I think have $2 trillion under their control; I stand to be corrected, but it is something like that. Why not say, 'Let's work out a way of getting all that money'—which, in fact, is guaranteed savings for them, because, by legislation, employers have to put money into there—'and find a way of giving super funds, for example, the right to build and buy properties that are just built to be rented out at below market rates.' So why don't we do that? Why don't we start actually building some infrastructure here, using some of the savings that we have in Australia, to build or rent things out at below market rates?

I hear someone from the Labor side laughing as I suggest that, and I remind them that that was actually something that was on the books, in my suburb of Kensington, under a Labor government; they were talking about building one of the new housing developments and selling off some of it for key workers who work in the city but who just can't afford to live near the city. So you might build some new housing developments and either rent them out or sell them at affordable rates, so that the people who come in and clean in the CBD offices don't have to spend all their money on petrol and car parking to get into the city but might actually be able to live near the city, or so that the essential service workers who service the city could come and live near the city as well.

So there are some good ideas out there. If we built a lot more public housing, and also encouraged a lot more affordable housing, we could do it. But it takes a bit of guts. It takes a bit of guts to stand up and say, 'We need things like rent control.' We need things like governments actually being prepared to borrow to fund the infrastructure that we need to make sure everyone has got an affordable roof over their head. And it means saying that it might be time for the federal government to reconsider its role in this area.

We went to the last election, as we have gone to elections before, saying it's time to start pooling some of the government money, taking it out of the tax breaks that we're currently giving from capital gains tax and negative gearing. Let's take that money and instead put it into a new housing trust or an affordable housing corporation that would allow for the massive expansion of public housing and affordable housing around this country. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so it's no surprise that a government bereft of ideas of its own has seen the idea of an affordable housing corporation and picked it up and tried to appropriate it. But as is always the way with this government, it's more the veneer of being seen to be doing something rather than actually doing something itself because the amount of money that the government is proposing to put into this, on current reading, still isn't going to touch the sides. We are still going to see young people unable to buy their own home, we are still going to see public housing waiting lists in the tens of thousands and we're still going to see people continuing to remain homeless. When you have a situation where housing services say that they're turning away 50 per cent of the people who come to them seeking help because the services don't have the money to deal with them, you understand the scale of the problem that we are dealing with.

I look forward to this bill being scrutinised as it goes through the Senate because there are a lot of questions to be answered as to whether it's going to do anything useful or whether it has the appearance of doing something useful. The government does have form in picking up ideas that are good ideas and trying to put them into practice. But at the end of the day, the test has to be this: do we think it's right in this country that, going back to the 1990s, a house cost on average six times a young person's income but fast forward a couple of decades and it now costs 12 times an average young person's income? That's the situation we have at the moment.

I fear that this government's attempt to be seen to be doing something about housing is not going to fix the problem because the pea under the mattress in all of this is that our tax system pushes up house prices. As long as we have unfair tax breaks in the form of negative gearing and capital gains tax, then the government might be pushing very gently with one hand against house prices but, with the other hand, they're lifting up house prices by allowing negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions to remain in the budget. The government will be wasting money if they don't tackle the big problem and the big problem is our tax system.

Another big problem is government mentality and unwillingness to build the housing that we need. We need to start saying in this country that housing isn't to be treated like another asset like shares, housing isn't something to be invested in—and I know some members of parliament on the government side have over a dozen investment properties themselves—housing isn't something to be treated like an asset class, but that housing is a human right. And until every person in this country has an affordable house, whether renting or buying, we've failed. So I'd urge the government, as this bill progresses through the parliament, to listen to the recommendations that might come from the Senate inquiry but also to stop backing in their rich mates and to finally get rid of those negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions that are working against first home buyers and making their lives a misery.