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Friday, 23 August 1985
Page: 301


Senator VIGOR(3.23) —There are proper elements of concern about the administration of the community housing expansion program. To that extent I am grateful to Senator Lewis for bringing the matter before the Senate today. I am, by now, convinced that the axing of CHEP is part of a far more complex process, details of which will take quite some time to emerge. The raising of the Wyuna case, I believe, is a smoke-screen for what is really happening in housing in the Australian Capital Territory. In order not to spend too much time on the Wyuna situation I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a statement by the Wyuna community of its intentions in establishing the community and also a critique of the O'Donovan report. I have received permission from the Government to incorporate this material. Unfortunately, because Senator Lewis was speaking, I did not obtain permission from the Opposition.

Leave not granted.


Senator VIGOR —It is a great pity that censorship is being applied to the other side of the story. We definitely need to clear the smoke and get to the motivation of those who unleashed a furious assault on the CHEP committee if we are to do our job properly. So I am distinctly disappointed that I am unable to incorporate the document. However, I would like to incorporate in Hansard an article from the 29 June 1985 edition of the Canberra Times. It is headed: `Annual funding puts future home program under cloud'. The article mentions that CHEP has been a model for other alternative housing programs under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. Six co-operatives, housing 65 low income earners, have been established at a cost of about $1m, and that includes all future maintenance and administrative costs. I seek leave to incorporate that article.

Leave not granted.


Senator VIGOR —I said that the cost was $1m quite deliberately because the funds used to buy Jerrabomberra House cannot really be lumped in with those granted to co-operatives. The point is that the Department of Territories runs Jerrabomberra House as a priority housing venue. There is no community participation in its management. That would seem to be a breaking of the principles of the whole scheme. Perhaps the allocation should have come from some other area of funding, such as the community tenancy scheme or an emergency housing appropriation. The decision to buy Jerrabomberra House from CHEP moneys was made by the Department of Territories and Local Government, as it then was, before there was any public involvement in the program.

This is one of the strange things that one finds about the administrative support for CHEP. There was a Budget announcement in 1983, yet it was not until a seminar in February 1984 that public participation was invited. It seems that this could be a recipe for problems. There was a one-line allocation, to be used by the end of the financial year, or the remainder returned to Consolidated Revenue if it was not completely used up. Effectively there was only five months in which to get through the work necessary to make the grants work. I believe this administrative problem has been evident throughout the development of this scheme.

However, in my own State of South Australia where there has been full Housing Trust co-operation with the co-operative housing concept, it took three years to arrange the details and articles of association before the Women's Shelter Housing Association could become firmly established. That was with a guarantee of recurrent funding instead of just a one-off fund. In the past financial year we have found that 15 housing associations in South Australia have received mortgage subsidies. Over 130 units of housing were secured for low income renters under the scheme. The applications of about 10 groups in South Australia are currently in the pipeline. The 1985-86 Budget Estimates make allowance for 300 further units to be added to the co-operative housing scheme. It has taken seven to eight years for the scheme to blossom and for the financial sector to become confidently involved in lending money. That has come about because the Housing Trust guarantees the repayment of loans in the event of default. Residents pay 20 per cent of their income as rent. This is used to repay the mortgages and to set aside funds for maintenance and deposits on other properties.

This principle was applied in Canberra; that is, 20 per cent of the income was collected as rent. This applied to the Australian Capital Territory housing co-operatives. A housing co-operative by the name of Poach received a grant under CHEP in 1983-84 to buy two houses. It received a smaller grant of $30,000 in 1984-85, when it was able to obtain as well a loan in the commercial sector to finance buying a third house. The rent paid by members is sufficient to cover mortgage repayments, maintenance and rates on the three properties and on the last purchase. That is an example of what was meant to happen under CHEP. Why has it been so difficult in the Australian Capital Territory? Firstly, I believe the problem has been the uncertainty over annual allocations and the manner in which the money could be spent. That has been a problem that has exercised all the CHEP committees.

Right through the report of Mr O'Donovan and the attachments one finds references to the Committee expressing disquiet about the uncertainty and lack of information on which it could operate. There is little indication of what efforts went into meeting the Committee's requests to provide information about ways in which a trust fund might be set up to avoid last minute panics in the allocation of housing funds before the end of year deadline. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard paragraph 2.46 of the O'Donovan report.

Leave granted.

The paragraph read as follows-

2.46. First, I shall look at the involvement of Mr Uren as Minister for Territories and Local Government from the beginning of July 1984 until 13 December when he assumed another portfolio. Mr Uren was, of course, involved in the Budget allocations for ACT CHEP. The official papers disclose two important decisions taken by Mr Uren. First, he approved the new CHEP Committee for 1984-85 as recommended by a public meeting held in September 1984 (Attachment 11). Secondly, he caused to be sent to the Department a manuscript note saying that he would like a draft prepared to go to the Minister for Finance seeking amendments to legislation or the formation of a Trust Fund to allow private funds to be brought into CHEP in the ACT to ensure the long term viability of CHEP in the ACT. That request is dated 8 November 1984. A copy of the note is Attachment 12.


Senator VIGOR —The report refers to a minute written by the then Minister for Territories and Local Government, Mr Uren, on 8 November 1984, requesting draft legislation that would allow the introduction of private funds into the community housing expansion program. No mention has been made of what happened within the Department in response to that minute. I wonder whether the present Minister was ever made aware of its existence. I believe that the Senate should know exactly what happened especially as the scheme is now being axed.

It is being axed without being given an opportunity to exist under private enterprise conditions. This is what the CHEP committee was seeking. Indeed this is how this type of scheme operates in other States, such as South Australia. It is interesting that before the media hysteria over this issue, on 20 July last Paul Malone wrote a very perceptive appraisal of the community housing expansion program. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard the second half of his article.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows-

The program itself was a relatively small innovative attempt to provide cheap accommodation.

It would be a pity if all such attempts to improve the public housing alternatives were damaged by one political embarrassment. But that may yet be the case.

A number of community groups in Canberra fought hard for the program and when funding cuts were announced in March this year there was a noticeable reaction. The Canberra Times carried a number of articles outlining why the cuts were serious and quoting those who have devoted a considerable amount of their time to making the scheme work.

Members of the CHEP committee which had representatives from such organisations as Shelter and the ACT Council of Social Services pointed out that they had contributed unpaid time in their efforts to carefully asess projects which met the guidelines.

It is no secret that significant sections of the Department of Territories were cool to the whole CHEP program. They will not regret its passing and the use of funds solely on more conventional public-housing projects.

Reports suggest that Mr Scholes did not fully approve of the guidelines for running the program which he inherited from his predecessor, Mr Uren.

But if this is the case he was free, as minister, to have them changed or to apply more stringent guidelines himself before he gave approval for any grant.

Every minister inherits programs from his predecessor which he does not like and it is up to him to act as soon as possible to have them knocked into an acceptable shape.


Senator VIGOR —At a time when State and local government housing authorities are being encouraged through moneys from the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement to develop co-operative housing programs where tenants have full responsibility for the management of their own accommodation, the Government is pulling the plug from under community housing investment in the Australian Capital Territory. This is something that is being done as far as we can see under the umbrella of a Press rampage on one of the participants in this scheme. Not only has CHEP gone but also the community tenancy scheme, under which a group such as a students association could lease housing stock, guarantee to find tenants and meet appropriate rental payments. At the same time an extra $220,000 has been found for mortgage and rent relief in the Australian Capital Territory. I believe that mortgage and rent relief is an important part of any comprehensive housing program. I refer the Senate to the report `Homelessness-A Capital Problem' published in January last year. This is a comprehensive document on the serious housing crisis in the Australian Capital Territory and things have become worse since. At the moment the Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Service is conducting a one-month study into the problems of the homeless. I will mention some of the recommendations in that homelessness report. Page 20 of the report states that the Department should establish a rental bond board. Each year the Consumer Affairs Bureau receives over 3,000 inquiries about such problems from lessees and landlords. Page 93 of the report states:

The CHEP concept needs to be encouraged and developed to maximise community involvement in housing.

Incidentally, at page 17 of the report is a table showing the fall-off in land servicing in the dark years between 1978 and 1982 when, in total, only 18 blocks were serviced. Perhaps that is why the Opposition has not stood on its housing record or attempted to take a constructive approach to Australian Capital Territory problems. At the moment over 4,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing. The Commissioner for Housing loans scheme will be revived in November after last year's managerial debacle which saw loan commitments frozen for over a year.

The Canberra rental market has, until recently, been the tightest amongst the mainland capitals. The vacancy rate got as low as 0.2 per cent in January 1984 compared with the 3 per cent that the Real Estate Institute of Australia regards as the balance point between supply and demand. In the past two years the price of housing has also risen astronomically in the Australian Capital Territory. I am sure all honourable senators will have noticed that. The moving annual median price for an established house in June 1983 was $62,100; in June 1984 it was $77,700 and in June 1985 it was $87,000. In June the median price for a house was $88,700 and for a unit $76,700. Only Sydney has more expensive houses. On top of this we have the housing boom and inflation putting up prices and rents. It is no exaggeration to call the situation a crisis. That is why the Australian Institute of Urban Studies held a seminar on Canberra's housing situation in June this year. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a nine-point summary of the problems, as listed in the excellent paper entitled `Monitoring the Allocation of Housing in the Canberra Area' by Colin Adrian of the Institute and Ken Johnson of the Australian National University.

Leave granted.

The summary read as follows-

(a) a rapid growth over the past two years in the price of housing in the ACT and the increasing difficulties of below average income groups becoming owner occupiers;

(b) the lack of private rental accommodation and rapid increases in rents;

(c) the length of wait involved for allocation of public housing;

(d) the degree of homelessness in the Canberra region associated with a lack of affordable, `lower end of the market' accommodation;

(e) the housing needs of special target groups-aged, youth, unemployed, disabled-most vulnerable in a tight rental market;

(f) the cost associated with the provision of housing (and a relative absence) of low-cost accommodation;

(g) broader issues of urban consolidation, associated with housing styles and types and declining occupancy rates in established areas;

(h) the intimate relationship of the housing sector with the `well-being' of the Canberra economy through such variables as the construction workforce, levels of government expenditure and availability of housing finance;

(i) the impact of broader societal and demographic trends in Canberra on housing needs, e.g. the housing implications of high rates of youth unemployment and increasing numbers of single parent families.


Senator VIGOR —The way in which the terms of reference were given to Mr O'Donovan and the limited amount of time available to him in which to come to grips with the issues meant that some of the points about the housing situtation were not taken up and there was some sensationalism about the Wyuna community. I do not believe that we should hold this against the inquiry which was carried out under very stringent conditions. The terms of reference should be wider and the Government should now continue to look thoroughly at this problem. I also hope that the Government will respond in a far less hostile way to the request for further negotiations by representatives of other community housing groups which I contacted before this debate. Russell Fisher has written a letter to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) on behalf of the Meidelant, Segais, POACH, HOME and WITCH co-operatives, asking for more consideration to be given to the scheme. I seek leave to incorporate that letter in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The letter read as follows-

The Co-operatives.

C/ C.H.E.P.

F.M.B.

P.O. Box

CANBERRA CITY 2601

Wednesday 21st August 1985.

The Hon. R. J. L. Hawke,

Prime Minister,

Parliament House,

CANBERRA A.C.T.

Dear Prime Minister,

Representatives of the following Co operatives-Meidelant, Segais, POACH, HOME and WITCH-met today to discuss the Recommendations of the Inquiry into the Community Housing Expansion Program and subsequent proceedings in Parliament.

We appreciate the Commonwealth's interests and concerns and are in agreement with Inquiry's call for a ``mutually satisfactory agreement'' (4.16) to be worked out. To this end we are willing to negotiate with the Commonwealth on the condition that the Commonwealth provides legal fees in order for the Co operatives to be equitable partners in the negotiation process.

Further the Co operatives request the continuation of funds for a Resource Worker to assist the Co operatives through the negotiation process.

As a matter of principle and for fullest co operation from both parties we request Observor Status at the proposed Interdepartmental Committee meetings. We see this request as based on the Co operatives' view that a ``mutually satisfactory agreement'' will best be achieved if based on trust.

Your sincerely,

RUSSELL FISHER

on behalf of the Co-ops.


Senator VIGOR —The Wyuna smoke-screen must not be allowed to be a cover for inaction on housing problems in the Australian Capital Territory. A serious attempt should be made to get a recurrent community housing program operating in the Australian Capital Territory. The Minister for Territories (Mr Scholes) has not demonstrated that the previous arrangement forced upon the CHEP committee by ministerial and bureaucratic lethargy was inefficient. There is no way that we can expect a committee to operate without proper guidelines and I believe that such guidelines were not given by the previous Minister, Mr Uren, and this matter was not followed up in any way by the current Minister. It is very difficult for people who are operating a scheme to operate in a vacuum. The Minister has certainly not demonstrated that a modification of the South Australian or Victorian models could not be made to suit Australian Capital Territory conditions.

Eventually the full story will emerge but in the meantime it is extremely important that we should not let individual affairs and names of people who may be well-known in the community be used by the Press and others as a smoke-screen for real problems in the community. It is extremely important that we, as senators, should stand up against the type of sensationalism and front-page journalism which has been going on concerning the Wyuna community. I repeat that I am very disappointed that the paper from the Wyuna community cannot be incorporated in Hansard to allow honourable senators to consider aspects which that community wanted to raise as well as those aspects which the community's opponents might want to raise in debate. We as Australian Democrats have no particular leaning towards either view. We wished to have that incorporated in Hansard in order that the facts could be known. I believe that the only way in which we can deal with matters properly is by presenting facts. That is why I sought that incorporation. Again, I seek leave of the Senate to have that information incorporated at this late stage so that it is possible for the debate and investigations to continue effectively.

Leave not granted.


Senator VIGOR —I thank the Senate for its indulgence in this matter. I hope that we can resolve the problem of community housing in Canberra-the problem for all those people who need homes and who are currently not getting them.