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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5475

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:15 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services. I refer to the growing crisis in housing affordability in Australia which is demonstrated by the dramatic decrease in the availability of low-cost rental housing; the fact that over 90,000 low-income Australians in the private rental market are now paying more than 50 per cent of their income in rent; the dramatic decline over the last 10 years in government investment in public and community housing; and the enormous leap in the price of housing for those wishing to buy a house. Minister, given the upcoming meeting of state and territory ministers to finalise a new Commonwealth-state housing agreement, will you give a commitment to ensure the federal government significantly increases its funding support for housing and particularly ensures that the agreement will clearly address the need for more affordable and secure housing for low- and middle-income Australians?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for the question and for the opportunity to clarify some misunderstandings under which the senator is clearly labouring. Yes, there is a meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory housing ministers in Hobart on Friday. I am unaware that the meeting is meant to finalise an agreement. We have had one meeting in the past where we have said that officers would go away and look at a range of initiatives to see if we could better supply low-income public housing in Australia. The meeting on Friday will be to discuss developments since then.

So if you are seeking to raise expectations either independently or have had them raised yourself, I think you can put them aside. The second misunderstanding you have is with respect to Commonwealth involvement in public housing and assistance for low-income people for public housing, which you describe as diminishing. In fact, this is simply not the case. It is important to understand that the Commonwealth has two ways of providing assistance to low-income recipients. One is through the Commonwealth-state housing agreement where by way of block grant we fund the states and the states then provide public housing. The second is by way of rental assistance for people who are on income support. People who are in public housing are not eligible for rent assistance. So there are two categories of people who need assistance and the Commonwealth helps them both. When you add those two figures together, the Commonwealth's support for public and low-income housing is, in fact, increasing. It is important to recognise the role that rent assistance plays, because there would be a number of people for whom public housing would not be appropriate—not appropriate because either they do not have the highest need or they may be looking for work, for example.

The states by their decisions to put public housing in outlying areas—I will not say deplorable management of public housing, but I will say their deplorable management of urban transport—have made it very difficult for people in public housing to actively look for work and make work worth while because of the cost of getting to and from the places where the jobs really are. So for someone in that predicament looking for work, rental assistance in the private rental market is much more likely to be of real help to them than public housing which is provided by the states, so stubbornly, in areas where there is no work. We are negotiating with the states over these matters and I hope that between us we can produce better outcomes not only for recipients of public housing but for low-income people who need assistance—for example, rent assistance.

Senator BARTLETT —I thank the minister for her answer. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. As the minister stated, the meeting this Friday is to look at ways of developing the new round of the Commonwealth-state housing agreement to increase assistance particularly for low-income people in terms of housing. But clearly, as the minister's own answer demonstrates, Commonwealth funding has not been enough to address housing affordability. Is it not the case that actual funding under the Commonwealth-state housing agreement for public and community housing has declined over the last 10 years? Whilst I acknowledge the government's contribution under rent assistance, is it also not the case that this has not kept pace with the increase in the cost of the private rental market, particularly for low-income earners? Is it not the case that the cost of housing is increasing and the ability of the average Australian to afford housing is decreasing? What measures is the minister going to put forward to the meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory housing ministers to address this crisis? (Time expired)

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank Senator Bartlett for his question. As I said in my answer, the Commonwealth's contribution to public sector and low-income housing has been increasing. You add the Commonwealth-state housing agreement money and the rental assistance money together to come to that answer. You indicated that you do not think that rental assistance is adequate. You referred to increased rents—around Australia, I presume. But you must understand that all welfare benefits are paid on a uniform basis—we treat Australians equally—and, of course, housing in some areas is much more expensive than it is in others. This is one of the dreadful difficulties with providing assistance not only in the area of housing but also in a whole variety of areas. There are different costs between the states and even within the states. I do not have a magic wand to solve that. I do not believe anybody else does either. I think it is a matter of sitting down with the states and working out how we can contribute to a better supply as effectively as we can. (Time expired)