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Thursday, 1 March 2018
Page: 2445

Ms McBRIDE (Dobell) (10:35): I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing And Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017. Housing affordability drives growing inequality in Australia and in my community in regional New South Wales on the Central Coast. People deserve an affordable home. People deserve a secure home. They deserve a home that's close to services. All Australians have the right to a secure and affordable home throughout their lives. People also deserve a genuine chance to live near good jobs. This is essential, but it is out of reach for so many Australians, particularly in regional communities like mine. For too many people, the housing pressures are getting worse, not better. Australia has a housing crisis: a crisis of supply, a crisis of affordability and a crisis of suitability and sustainability.

I remember my parents telling me about their first home. My parents had been searching for a home and for a loan. Finally, my dad met with a local bank manager who said: 'I'm going to give you a chance. I'm retiring and I want to give a young family a start.' Not all people now have that same start. Too many don't. It is unacceptable that, in a wealthy country like Australia, so many Australians have nowhere to call home. There is no greater example of increasing inequality than the many Australians sleeping on the streets, couch surfing or living in overcrowded and unhygienic housing.

Before I came to this job, I had the privilege of working in Wyong Public Hospital. I worked in the mental health unit there for just under 10 years. I saw large numbers of people come to the mental health unit who were grateful that it gave them a secure place to stay, a place where they could take a shower and where they knew they would have a meal. Those people were in a situation that shouldn't happen in Australia today. It shouldn't happen in regional communities like mine on the Central Coast. The government must do something about it.

I would like to change the direction of this speech a little and talk about an organisation that does understand homelessness, one that has worked in my community for almost three decades. I would like to share the story of Coast Shelter. It is not-for-profit charity based on the Central Coast, and it has been working to make a difference for the most vulnerable people in our community for more than 20 years. They have refuges located across the Central Coast, and they provide homes and support for young people, men, women and families in crisis. At their Coast Community Centre in Gosford, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served to almost 150 people each day in their restaurant. I was really pleased to be able to spend a day in their kitchen with my team to help serve lunch at Christmas, when people are often most in need and feel really isolated and alone. The facility has shower and laundry facilities available, and also free legal advice from the Central Coast Community Legal Centre. Coast Shelter gives swags, sleeping bags and blankets to people sleeping rough, and helps provide for essentials such as medicines, food and fuel.

The previous speaker mentioned that family violence leads to considerable homelessness and to families in crisis. I was able to visit Coast Shelter's Rondeley domestic violence program, which provides critical support for women and children fleeing family violence. I met with their program manager, Nicole, and she let me know about some of the work they are doing, and also about some of the challenges that they face and the unmet needs. On the day when I visited recently, I met with Laurene, who spoke to me about fleeing her own violent relationship only a week before. She was there with her young child. That conversation that I had with Laurene that day will stay with me. In that crisis, the one thing that Laurene said had helped her was this Rondeley program and knowing that she was now safe. They have worked with over 600 women and children in the last year alone and have formed really well-respected and great working relationships with local law enforcement and community groups. But they need funding to extend this work, and they need the government to back them with policies that let them do their best work and not get in the way.

In the last financial year, Coast Shelter provided 64,000 overnight beds in 10 refuges and 72 outreach properties. Around 800 men, women, young people and children were accommodated, mostly aged between 15 and 17 years. Of those, the highest number of presentations were from people experiencing family violence and family breakdown. Close to 50,000 meals were provided to people in need and more than 1,500 food hampers were donated by generous community members and businesses. Close to 400 people used their showering and laundry facilities and 105 people were able to access their no-interest loans for people in crisis, which came to a total of more than $85,000. Over 500 people were assisted with paying their medical prescriptions. As a pharmacist, I know how critical it is that people get timely and affordable access to the treatment they need. With the rising costs of energy, 302 people were helped with assistance to pay energy bills. Seventy-three people were provided with free legal advice and 15 swags were given to those who were sleeping rough.

Despite the generosity of the local community, and business and government support, one in five people seeking help from Coast Shelter is turned away. I am privileged to work closely with Laurie, Shayne, Charles and the team at Coast Shelter, but they urgently need additional federal resources to provide housing and homelessness services in my community on the Central Coast.

Today, however, I would like to place on the record my gratitude to the chief executive officer of Coast Shelter, Laurie Maher AM, who has just this week announced that he will retire in July after 26 years in this role. Laurie has been a stalwart in our community. There is no-one who has done more locally to raise awareness of the issue of housing and homelessness and also do something practical about it. I commend him for his work and wish him all the best in his future endeavours.

Another Central Coast organisation that understands homelessness is the Shoebox Revolution, a charity that collects perishable foods, toiletries and essential items which are packed in shoeboxes and distributed to people in need on the Central Coast. It is a labour of love for sisters Bec and Sheridan, who saw the lack of housing options contributing to the need in our community. They started off in their garage, with social media and a whole lot of energy, and set about launching this charity which has grown to include seven collection points across the Central Coast and has delivered thousands of shoebox packages to local people experiencing hardship. I spent time at their family fun day at The Entrance last year marking Anti-Poverty Week, helping to raise awareness of the causes and consequences of poverty and hardship, and encouraging people to take action to address the problems.

While this work helps to address the problems of housing affordability and homelessness in our community, it is being led and driven by volunteers at a local level. Whilst we know community-led projects are the most effective, what is the government doing at a national level to help? I'm really disappointed. This government has no comprehensive housing plan. This government has consistently failed to take any meaningful action to tackle Australia's housing affordability crisis. It seems that they look at it as a number on a ledger, not a person in a home.

The government announced its intention to negotiate a new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement as part of the 2017-18 budget measures. The government described the measures as a comprehensive plan to improve housing affordability, which they thought would be well received. But there were problems. The package announced in the budget wasn't well received. It was criticised as being unlikely to make any real difference to housing affordability. And it was criticised, rightly, for failing to deliver the big-picture solutions needed to end homelessness. I would like to quote James Toomey of Mission Australia. He said:

Disappointingly, the Budget contained inadequate assistance for the many people in rental stress who remain just one step away from homelessness. Rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable for older and younger Australians alike, with those on Newstart and the age pension struggling to find a home within their means.

I work very closely with the two state Labor members, and David Mehan, the member for The Entrance, said to me recently—and it's a conversation we have had many times—that the biggest issue he deals with every day in our community is housing and homelessness, and one of the big contributors on the Central Coast is rental stress: being able to get a bond and being able to find a rental in a really competitive rental market is out of the reach of so many people.

I know I've said this before, but it has just stuck with me. I was at a mobile office in a park and I met a young family. The mum showed me a drawing that her child had done, and in the drawing was a house with a garden and a dog. They hadn't been able to keep their dog because they hadn't been able to keep their home. For this child, that had changed his life, and he was then having to start at a new school because they were in a new community—and this was something that had happened again and again. This can't continue to happen. We cannot have more young people like him whose start in life is so tough. We need to do something, and there is an urgency about it. The government doesn't seem to understand that this is urgent, that these aren't numbers on a ledger, that this isn't ticking a box to say, 'We've got a policy,' or 'We've put forward a bill.' These are real people, and this is about them having homes to live in.

I've mentioned that I worked in mental health at Wyong hospital, and one of the things we would do in our multidisciplinary teams was planning people's transition into the community when they were able to leave the hospital. I'll always remember the social worker handing a phone book to one of the patients and saying, 'You need to start calling real estate agents.' In this competitive rental market, where rents are out of many people's reach, how is someone going to be able to get well and stay well with that financial stress of not being able to leave the hospital to go to a safe and secure place to live? Much evidence provided to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee argued that the 2017-18 budget measures fall far short of a comprehensive housing strategy, and the Commonwealth lacks a credible national housing plan.

Putting that to one side, let's have a quick look at what this bill does. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Federal Financial Relations Act 2009 to repeal the current national specific purposes payment for housing services paid to the states and territories, and replace it with new funding arrangements under which payments to the states and territories will be contingent on their being party to primary, supplementary and designated housing agreements. The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement will provide $375 million over three years from 2018-19, maintaining the current $115 million of annual homelessness funding provided under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness—and I note that the current annual funding level of $115 million still reflects the $44 million funding cut in the Abbott government's disastrous 2014-15 budget. This funding will be ongoing and indexed to maintain and provide funding to frontline services that help Australians who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. To ensure that the funding for frontline homelessness services is preserved, the agreement will separately identify the indexed funding to be matched by the states that relates to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

There is a big problem with this, and that problem is that the bill as drafted actually places housing and homelessness funding at risk. It jeopardises this funding. Many of the submissions received by the Senate economics committee, and evidence provided at the public hearings expressed strong criticism—and rightly—of the conditionality the bill places on the payment of housing and homelessness assistance to the states and territories. In its submission, Melbourne City Mission, which is Victoria's largest funded provider of youth homelessness services, said:

The Bill contains conditions that allow the Commonwealth to withhold all funding for the States for housing and homelessness under the NHHA. This creates significant risk for frontline crisis services like Melbourne City Mission and, more importantly, the nation's most vulnerable citizens.

Homelessness Australia also expressed strong concern about the immediate risk the bill poses to the payment of housing and homelessness funding to the states and territories:

Should funding to states and territories for housing and homelessness services be cut, the 394,000 Australian households who currently reside in social housing would be put at risk of homelessness, and services to the 288,000 Australians who access specialist homelessness support in a year would be reduced.

Labor agrees there is a need for greater accountability and transparency in expenditure of Commonwealth assistance payments, but the bill does not adequately address this issue. The Turnbull government does not have the comprehensive housing strategy that is necessary to address the country's largest and growing crisis of housing affordability and supply for very low and low-income households. The Abbott-Turnbull government have had four budgets in which they have had the opportunity to reform negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, and they have failed. The measures in the budget tinker at the edges but will do nothing to put first home buyers back on a level playing field with investors or take the heat out of the housing market. The housing affordability measures announced in the budget fail the fairness test and don't come close to the budget centrepiece the Treasurer and his junior minister had been promising for months. This is quoted as being a centrepiece without a centrepiece. However, we do not believe that this bill should not be passed, because should it fail to pass the homelessness support that is dependent on this bill passing would be placed in serious jeopardy.