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Tuesday, 26 March 1957

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) .- This afternoon the Address-in-Reply debate has revolved round the addendum moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) and we have been treated to a pattern of evasions by four successive Government supporters. The honorable member for Lawson (Mr. Failes), coming from New South Wales, said that the housing position was the fault of the New South Wales Government. He was followed in the same excuse by the honorable member for Mitchell (Mr. Wheeler) and by no less a personage than the Minister for Supply (Mr. Beale). The honorable member for Petrie (Mr. Hulme) changed the theme slightly by saying, since he came from Queensland, that the housing crisis was due to the action of the Queensland Government. There were certain modifications of their favourite theme in each case. The honorable member for Lawson said that the worst feature of the activities of the New South Wales Government in respect of housing was its perpetuation of the Landlord and Tenant Act. He apparently is not as abreast of the law as is the Minister for Supply, who knows that in the last two and a quarter years anybody in New South Wales who wished to let a house which had previously not been let, or who wished to erect a house for the purpose of letting it, could do so, quite free of any restriction as to rent or eviction imposed by the Landlord and Tenant Act.

The honorable member for Mitchell said, of course, that his own Government was to blame to the extent that the housing position would largely be cured if only the Commonwealth Bank were bifurcated. The honorable member for Petrie said that the Commonwealth at least had helped the position by the large influx of immigrant building workers, although he failed to point out that the content of building workers in recent years in the immigration field has declined and is declining at a more rapid rate.

It is pleasant, in those circumstances, to go back to the initial speeches on the motion for the adoption of the AddressinReply, the maiden speeches of the honorable members for Barker and Wentworth. I confess that I had looked forward with some interest to hearing the honorable member for Barker. I had hitherto only been aware of his views on political matters from the fact that, as a lecturer in political science within the University of Adelaide, he had contributed an article on the South Australian State electoral system to the " Australian Quarterly ". I thought that anybody who was interested in explaining the system was a man of some initiative, and that anybody who proceeded to justify it, as the honorable member did, was a man of very great courage indeed. I am sorry that since the honorable gentleman's transition to this chamber the co-educational content of the lectures in political science at the Adelaide University has very greatly declined. I am not blaming the Commonwealth Government for that, however.

I also had looked forward to the advent of the honorable member for Wentworth. I suppose that if he had acquired a doctorate in philosophy he would have been known as an economist. Liberals who are not doctors of philosophy are known usually as accountants, but he designates himself as a banker, and I think there is something magnificent and mediaeval in such a description. I am glad to see that the Division of Wentworth is represented no longer by a Machiavelli, but by a Medici.

The subject of housing was first dealt with on the Government side by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies). He was not at his best, let us admit it. He was supercilious, as usual, but he was not even plausible on this occasion. The statistics he related compared the five years immediately after the war, the five years of economic rehabilitation, with the last five years. They ignored a 1.500.000 increase in population in the intervening years. They ignored the fact that Australia's population is growing very much more rapidly than is the population, proportionately, of any country of the world, and more rapidly than the population of any country has grown since statistics have been kept.

Mr Aston - Tell us about the reference to the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) being at Oxford.

Mr WHITLAM - I cannot detect the honorable gentleman's alma mater from his accent.

This debate has been prompted largely by the Prime Minister's remarks concerning a report on the housing situation prepared by the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner). Honorable members will have noticed, of course, that in recent years all matters dealing with housing have been transferred to another place. First, matters concerning the housing commissions and trusts in the States were transferred there. Last year, matters relating to war service homes also were transferred there. That is why, of course, we can never raise these matters on the debate on the motion for the adjournment, and why we can never ask questions without notice concerning them. This is the first opportunity we have had for more than six months to debate a very significant subject, the most pressing personal problem in Australia.

I must say that the Minister for National Development varies his figures according to the number of houses which are produced from year to year. He has said, in this latest report, that Australia's housing need is somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 houses a year, and he cites figures to show that this year we shall need only 51,500, and that in 1960 we shall need only 55,000. lt is interesting to recall that in August, 1954, he was saying that the nation's requirements of housing, to meet normal growth plus immigration at current levels, was about 60,000 houses a year. He has reduced his target in the last two and a half years. Six months ago he forecast that the decline in the rate of house building was only temporary. But we did not have to go to this report to realize that the housing position was bad. The Statistician keeps figures of the number of people employed in building houses and commercial buildings. He also keeps figures of the output of building materials. He does not keep, and it would be very difficult for him to keep, figures relating to the number of people who want houses.

There can be no doubt as to the decline in buildings and in building materials. I quote what I believe to be the latest figures, contained in the " Monthly Review of Business Statistics ", which come up to last December. I shall compare the figures in each case with the twelve months before. The number of houses commenced in the December quarter of 1955 was 17,970. in the December quarter ot last year it was 16,524. The number of houses completed fell, in the same year, from 17,407 to 17,036, and the number of houses under construction at the end of the respective quarters fell from 63,449 to 60,062. The latest figures in respect of the production of building materials, which are for November, 1956, show that the number of clay bricks produced fell from 77,900,000 in November, 1955, to 70,600,000 in November, 1956. The number of terra cotta roofing tiles produced fell from 6,101,000 to 4,959,000, and the production of cement roofing tiles from 4,971,000 to 3,724,000. The number of cement building sheets fell from 2,476,000 to 2,015,000. The production of domestic refrigerators fell from 34,814 to 23,726. I am comparing figures in corresponding months so as to avoid any reference to seasonal fluctuations. There can be no question that the number of houses commenced and completed, and the volume of building materials being produced, have drastically declined and are still declining.

Reference has been made to the constitutional position. It is true that the Commonwealth can do nothing, in general, about housing, except as regards its own employees, the inhabitants of its Territories or exservicemen, other than to provide money. It cannot control, in any direct way, how the money is spent. If, as seems to be the case, there has been great exploitation in the sale and subdivision of land, that is a matter for the States which can exercise control over the sale of land. If we complain at the number of commercial buildings, such as service stations, being built, that again is a matter for the States and the building controls that they can exercise. If we believe, as everybody claims, that it would be cheaper to build houses in projects or groups, it is necessary to acquire or resume land in large lots, and we cannot do that except in respect of ex-servicemen, &c. - and we have given that up now. But the States can do it. They can develop estates in that fashion.

We cannot engage in town planning, but the States can. If we complain of the extra cost of housing caused by archaic local government provisions regarding ventilation, ceiling heights, the separation of kitchens and laundries and other extravagant and outdated requirements, once again there is nothing we can do about it. It is a matter for the States. If we complain, as many government supporters have done, about the effect of rent control on the distribution of houses - that is, if we are prepared to have a 41 per cent, increase of rents in six months, as happened in Western Australia in 1954 when the Legislative Council of that State refused to extend rent control legislation - once again, that is something that we cannot do anything about. But the States can. If we complain about real property laws, if we point out that it is impossible to have horizontal mortgages in respect of home units - again we can do nothing about it. But the States can. If we complain about the royalties on timber, as the Minister for Supply (Mr. Beale) did, and imply that we should hew down our forests and do nothing to replace them, again that is a matter for the States and not for us. There is, however, no feature of the housing problem which cannot, constitutionally, be solved by co-operation between the States and the Commonwealth.

Normally, a house cannot be carried across a State border and, therefore, section 92 of the Constitution, which is the great impediment to Commonwealth and State co-operation in many respects, and which makes a legislative no-man's land in this country, does not apply to housing. By cooperation between the Commonwealth and States - admittedly very difficult to achieve - it is possible to overcome all these constitutional difficulties. But if the Government still thinks it is inhibited by the Constitution, let it avail itself of our offer to support the grant of a Commonwealth legislative power in respect of housing. The Government here is pleading the absence of a power the grant of which to this Parliament it opposed in 1944. In the same way, it so often pleads the absence of legislative power in regard to industrial matters, the grant of which it opposed in 1946, and the absence of power to deal with inflation, when it opposed in 1948 the grant of power to deal with prices and profits. If, as heretofore, home-building and home purchase have to be financed from taxation, as war service homes and Housing Commission houses are, or by banks and insurance companies, the Commonwealth has all the financial power that is required to complement the property powers of the States.

There is no question that the Commonwealth Parliament's powers over insurance and banking are sufficient to enable it to direct banks and insurance companies to put all the money into housing which is necessary to meet fully the demand for houses. The Banking Act, by section 27, provides that the Commonwealth Bank can direct private trading banks as to the purpose for which advances may or may nol be made. The Commonwealth Bank Act, by section 10, provides that where the Treasurer disapproves of the Commonwealth Bank's policy he can require the bank to alter its policy, so long as the Government takes the responsibility therefor and a report is brought to this House. Now, on 11th September last, 1 asked the Treasurer whether he disapproved of the policy of restricting loans for the erection and purchase of homes upon which the central bank and the trading banks have mutually agreed, as he had just told the honorable member for Phillip (Mr. Aston). I asked whether, if that was so, he would exercise the powers under these two acts that I have mentioned to ask the Commonwealth Bank to alter the policy and, if the bank refused, would he direct the bank redo so. The Treasurer replied, " I shall answer both questions, ' No * ". So he does not disapprove of the policy of the banks; accordingly, he will not reverse or modify the policy.

If the banks are not lending enough money for housing that is unquestionably a responsibility of the Government. If these acts that I have mentioned are valid - and they have not been challenged - then we can correct the position. At the beginning of last year, we saw the commencement of one of the most flagrant confidence tricks that has ever been played in this country. Three private trading banks were given licences to operate savings banks. The licences provided that, in respect of 30 per cent, of their deposits, the banks would consult the central bank and pay particular attention to loans for houses. But what has been the policy of these banks as regards loans for the purchase of houses? In

January, these three private savings banks had £91,000,000 of depositors' funds. Far from lending 30 per cent, of that amount, as they agreed to do, they have not lent even 13 per cent. The New South Wales Savings Bank has announced that in the first year it will lend £6,000,000, over 80 per cent, of it to individuals and less than 20 per cent, to building societies. The Australia and New Zealand Savings Bank has announced that it will lend £5,000,000 in the first year. The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney has announced that it will lend £2,000,000. All those come to considerably less than half the 30 per cent, in respect of which they were required to consult the central bank in accordance with the terms of their licences. They have bluntly said that, until further notice, that is the amount they will lend. One does not know how much the Commonwealth Bank has lent, but it has still lent very considerably despite the fact that over the year its deposits have increased, not by the £40,000,000 a year which was customary, but by only £4,000,000. lt still kept up its advances for housing to somewhere about the £10,000,000 mark, although the figure used to be about £12,000,000.

Sitting suspended from 6 to 8 p.m.

Mr WHITLAM - When the sitting was suspended, 1 had pointed out that although Australia's population was growing proportionately more rapidly than that of any other country in the world, in the last twelve months the number of houses under construction, the quantity of building materials in use and the number of people employed in building houses had greatly fallen. 1 had also pointed out that the Commonwealth had complete control over the sources of finance whereby those materials and men could be . adequately employed.

I now point out that, between July and December last, the trading banks had decreased their advances for housing by £7,400,000, and in the previous financial year by £11,100,000. They had, in fact, reduced their advances from £105,700.000 to £87,200,000 in eighteen months. I recalled that six months ago when 1 asked the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) whether he disapproved of the banks' policy and would alter it, he said, " No, I do not disapprove. I will not alter it ". I pointed out also that, a year ago, licences were given for the establishment of three private savings banks. Those banks now have deposits of £100,000,000. Under the terms of their charter they are required to advance 30 per cent.- £30,000,000- for housing, but this year, instead of advancing £30,000,000, they have announced that they will advance £13,000,000. 1 come now to another aspect of building finance, the building societies. The building societies have been having an increasingly thin time of it in New South Wales and Victoria, the only two States where they have operated substantially in recent years. In this financial year, the New South Wales societies have received less than £6,000,000. Last year, the amount was £6,627,000, the year before £6,815,000, the year before £7,350,000, and the year before that £11,700,000 - showing a constant decline. In Victoria, the decline has been similar. We find that in this, the first year in which money will bc made available for building societies in those States under the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, the advances by the banks and by the life assurance and fire assurance societies are lower than they have ever been. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline in the contribution of life assurance societies ever since, in August. 1951, the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) and the Treasurer discussed with the life assurance societies, here in the capital, public financial questions and investment policy generally. In the middle of 1951, the life assurance societies cut their advances to building societies to 10 per cent, of the former figure, and this year they are the lowest they have ever been.

I would like to point out the contribution which increased interest rates have made to higher building society repayments, lt will be recalled that when this Government came into office the interest rate to building societies was 32- per cent. In July, 1952, the Government increased this to 4i per cent. In March the Government increased it to 5 per cent. The difference which the greater interest rates alone have made is shown by the fact that if a man were to borrow, for a period of 30 years, the sum of £1,000 he would make monthly repayments of £4 14s. 2d. at an interest rate of 31 per cent., £5 ls. 8d. at 44- per cent, and £5 7s. 6d. at the present rate of 5 per cent.

I come now to the question of housing commission finance. All the money with which commission houses are built is provided by the Commonwealth Government. In. the peak year 1953-54 New South Wales received, lor housing commission houses, £12,450,000. In each of the next two years it received £10,800,000. This year it will receive £8,208,000. In Victoria the decline in the same three years has been from £12,000,000 to £10,800,000, and then £7,600,000. In South Australia the amounts have been £4.500,000, £3,600,000 and £2,770,000, respectively.

The number of applications for housing commission homes has risen constantly. In South Australia during the last financial year there were 11,751 applications. In the previous year the number was 10,800 and in the year before that 9,807. In Victoria, the number of applications has risen to 15,039 from 12,449 in the previous year and 10,089 in the year before that. In New South Wales there was, in fact, a decline last year to 13,228. In 1954-55 there were 15,628 applicants and in 1953-54 there were 14,175. That is a good indication of the demand for housing in Australia.

The war service homes position is shown by the fact that, in the last financial year, the total number of houses provided fell to 11,803 from 12,788 in the previous year. One can break these figures down into all the different categories of war service homes assistance and in every case find that there was a drop. The number of applicants last year was 22,131. The only increase was in the waiting period, which is now two years between making an application and receiving the first instalment with which to build a house, and fifteen months between making an application and getting a loan to buy a house or discharge a mortgage. 1 conclude by referring to the immigration position, which was touched on by the honorable member for Petrie (Mr. Hulme). I would draw his attention to the remark. of Mr. S. D. C. Kennedy, the building representative on the Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council, over which he presides. He said that immigration was recognized as a national issue, but that Australia's drive for new citizens could not possibly succeed unless housing was dealt with as a national matter. He added -

Australia is losing valuable citizens who return to their homelands because they cannot get homes in this country.

We not only lose the people, but a!so the money it has cost to bring them here.

We must find ways of holding them, particularly the skilled tradesmen, and there is no better way than helping them into homes of their own.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Adermann - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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