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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 3081

Ms BRODTMANN (Canberra) (18:23): Before I start, I would like to acknowledge and thank the member for Newcastle for putting up this motion. It is a very important issue that we do need to discuss and we do need to dwell upon. It is incredibly complex, and there is no silver bullet, but we do need to be having a national conversation about this. Most importantly, we need to have a minister who is actually initiating that conversation.

I remember the day I was elected as the member for Canberra in 2010—it feels like 1910! It was a tremendously exciting day, and I was eager to throw myself into everything. My mind was racing with the potential and the possibilities, and there was so much to do. I needed staff; I needed to prepare my first speech and I needed to call the volunteers who got me over the line. I got the keys to the office and I went to work transforming the office from a storage space that had been used for so much to a meeting space. It was where I was, standing alone amongst the cardboard boxes, having just got the keys to the place, when the office phone rang and I picked it up. A woman was on the other end. She told me her name and that she was a constituent and she did not know what to do. She had fled a relationship that had turned violent, but with teenage kids—one of them a boy—she was having a hard time finding women's refuges able to take them in because, at that stage in Canberra, women's refuges did not take boys. She was running out of options. She had been sleeping in her car with her kids, who were going to school. They were sleeping in the car at night and going to school the next day. She told me it was getting harder and harder to manage and she did not know if I could help. She told me she was trying everything she could do. She said it was draining, because not only was she homeless and sleeping rough in the car, having survived an abusive relationship; she was also sick. She was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

That was the very first call I received in my electorate office as a new MP and it completely floored me. That call took me by the nose and pressed it firmly to the grindstone. Everything else fell away, because I had a job to do, and right then she needed me to do it. Around 2,000 Canberrans slept rough last night. The ACT has the highest rate of homelessness in the country after the Northern Territory—and you can imagine what it is like in a Canberra winter. I have received many calls just like that first one. The reason may differ every time, although quite often, when it comes to women, it has a lot to do with domestic violence. But the need remains consistent: it is the need for a roof over one's head. Australia should be able to provide that. It is a basic human right that we as a nation are failing to provide. When we fail, we fail women most of all.

Homelessness comes in waves, and the research on the next wave is clear. The next wave will be disproportionately made up of older women. A recent report by the Equality Rights Alliance called for urgent action to reinforce the safety nets, if we are to prevent poverty and homelessness for the current cohort of single older women. ACT Shelter estimates there are more than 11,000 women and 7,000 men over the age of 45 at risk of homelessness. What we do here in this building makes a profound difference to what happens to those men and women. We can either smother the wave or sit and wait for the tsunami.

From time to time, I recall that first call because it reminds me what government is capable of doing and what we as MPs, as senators, are capable of doing. We should never forget the power of government to transform people's lives. In government, Labor invested almost $5 billion in new funding for support services and programs to assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. We invested $5.6 billion in social housing—the single-largest investment in social housing in Australia's history. Today, this massive investment is providing 31,000 affordable homes to those who need them most, particularly here in Canberra.

The mother whose call I took now has a home. She works just around the corner from my electorate office in Canberra. Her cancer is in remission, her kids are excelling and they are now at university. She is a reminder that safe and affordable housing changes lives, but only if it is available. Addressing our housing issues will require focus and consistent leadership. It is why the motion calls for the appointment of a dedicated minister for housing and homelessness. It is why the motion calls for the development and implementation of a national housing strategy. People are depending on the government to really start doing its job. Things will not get better by being ignored.