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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 386

Senator TAMBLING (5.55 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate—

    (a)notes the public release of the Industry Commission's report into public housing on 13 January 1994;

    (b)recognises that the recommendations of the report will affect over one million low income households in Australia receiving housing assistance from the Commonwealth and State Governments;

    (c)condemns the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Human Services (Mr Howe), the Minister for Social Security (Mr Baldwin) and the Assistant Treasurer (Mr Gear) who publicly acknowledge that the Federal Labor Government will not respond to the Industry Commission's recommendations until June 1994; and

    (d)urges the Federal Labor Government to address the recommendations in the 1994 Federal Budget context.

This motion refers specifically to the Industry Commission's report on public housing, and I acknowledge Senator Margetts's general comments on the tabling of that document. My motion goes further. The second part `recognises that the recommendations of the report will affect over one million low income households in Australia'. The motion then condemns the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Human Services, Mr Brian Howe, the Minister for Social Security, Mr Baldwin, and the Assistant Treasurer, Mr Gear, for the action that they took in a joint press release at the time that this document was released. Their response was totally inadequate and certainly did not measure up to the fine principles, recommendations and findings of the report itself. In the fourth part of the motion I urge the federal Labor government to address the recommendations that have been made to it, rightly and properly, in the context of the 1994 federal budget.

  The federal government to date has not given public housing the attention it deserves. I was appalled to read in the press release by the ministers for housing and social security and the Assistant Treasurer which accompanied the report that they publicly acknowledged that the federal Labor government would not respond to the Industry Commission's recommendations until June 1994. What a disgrace. Here is a statement that refers to a response that is going to come in June. I ask honourable senators to contemplate the reason for that. The budget this year is in May, so a month later the government will make a response.

  It simply cannot be argued that the federal government needs more time to address the pressing problems of public housing in Australia. The Industry Commission report that was tabled in January follows on from an interim report that has been on the table since August last year. And now the government says mincingly, `Please give us a bit more time; let it flow to a month after the federal budget'. What a disgrace. This government has absolutely no ability to address the problems raised by the Industry Commission.

  The areas that need to be addressed urgently by the government include: expenditure to promote and facilitate public housing; housing assistance to people in crisis; the supported accommodation assistance program and the crisis accommodation program; the funding to modify community housing to meet the special needs of people with disabilities; the housing problems facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; the rent assistance measures for tenants in the private rental market so that, firstly, it declines as income increases and, secondly, is available to all low income tenants in the private rental market and, thirdly, is brought closer to rent rebates in the public housing sector.

  The Australian people have a right to know what their elected government is going to provide in the form of housing assistance—and the government is going to totally walk away from this. We have total chaos and confusion. One only needs to look at the budget overview for the Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services that accompanied the 1993-94 federal budget. That overview properly recognises that in the area of housing the expenditure is in the order of $1.125 billion. That is over a billion dollars of expenditure.

  A great proportion of that—probably about 90 per cent—is dedicated under the Commonwealth-state housing agreement which obviously needs radical review. That is addressed in one paragraph of that overview. On the following seven pages of the document we get all of the little petty cash items that the government wants to pick up and claim credit for. I stress, it is a review of the mortgage and rent assistance program. With export strategy, because the housing industry has been faltering in Australia, the government wants to expend some $0.8 million for us to be competitive internationally. It is an important construction initiative, but not one that I would have put down as the second most important priority.

  Again, the government is going to provide the implementation of a housing choices strategy for older Australians—that is not addressing the fundamental problem. It is going to look at a national youth housing strategy for young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who, it claims, `obtain public housing at a rate disproportionately lower than any other age group', and where there is often a lack of consistency in the way they are treated by state housing authorities. The government wants to look at these 16- to 19-year-olds, not the fundamental issue of the family and how important it is. As I said, this confusion and chaos is constant.

  The Industry Commission report, which is in two volumes, is an important document. It is concerned with accountability in the housing portfolio area. Concern is expressed—indeed, I would express concern—about the muscling in of the recommendations in this report between those that appeared first in the draft report last August and what has now appeared. There has been a shift in priorities. Very obviously ministers of the Crown, frightened that they will have to address some budget priorities and areas of accountability, have muscled in on the Industry Commission in the final report. These accountability recommendations have slipped seriously in the priority order. I wonder to what extent there has been subtle intervention by the ministers or departmental officers. I give notice that I will be pursuing that matter in the estimates.

  The Auditor-General has also commented recently on this whole area of accountability. In Audit Report No. 1, 1993-94, volume 6, there are some important issues. They highlight the fact that after a decade of Labor, the administration and accountability of Commonwealth-state housing programs is still in question. The Industry Commission's suggestions on accountability come on top of this very damning Auditor-General's report. In his report, the Auditor-General found:

. . . there remains scope for further enhancement to the Agreement (CSHA) and the manner in which it is administered.

The Auditor-General's comments in the area of housing and planning drew attention to a range of issues and agreements between the Commonwealth and state governments that need addressing in the performance of Commonwealth-state housing agreements. We have had a decade of a federal Labor government. Thankfully, in the last couple of years we have seen the state Labor governments falling over, but very obviously leaving us with the particular problems that led the Auditor-General to raise the questions.

  We now need to ask: where is housing in Australia after a decade of Labor? What rules, regulations and arrangements between Commonwealth and state ministers have been put in place? There is a paucity of results. Billions of dollars of Commonwealth money that has been injected into housing has not met the essential need. I was alarmed at the last round of Senate estimates when officers of the Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services came forward and admitted that they had not responded to the recommendations with any degree of urgency.

  Let us look at the Industry Commission recommendations for the housing industry. As I said in my opening remarks, the recommendations will affect over one million low income households in Australia receiving housing assistance from the Commonwealth and state governments. There are genuine battling families living in cities, suburbs, towns, villages and communities throughout Australia. It is interesting to note that figure of one million low income earners and also to note the current unemployment figure in Australia of around one million. I wonder to what extent there is a comparability and compatibility between those two disaffected groups. Many of these families that I am referring to in the disaffected low income groups have a mother, a father, a brother, a sister or some other relative who is unemployed.

  The Industry Commission's report is a critical indictment of existing housing arrangements and highlights the need for urgent action in some very specific areas. It is a shocking report card on Labor's housing record. The recession has adversely affected large sectors of the Australian community. What on earth has Labor been doing to correct this, seeing that it induced the recession?

  Labor has deserted its own natural constituency in the area of underprivileged housing. The Industry Commission report acknowledges that many people have difficulty accessing appropriate and affordable housing, including people with disabilities, elderly people, young people, women and children escaping domestic violence and family breakdown, sole parents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and migrants. The fact that the Industry Commission reveals that many needy people have fallen outside the traditional safety nets and government spending priorities shows the compounding relationship between unemployment and housing needs and the fact that the Labor government has failed to meet those needs. We need to look carefully at the whole program objectives which link the relationship between the Commonwealth and state areas and how they link up with employment generation in regions of high unemployment.

  It is interesting that the questions we asked at estimates recently showed us clearly that there were regions throughout Australia where the lack of housing and the high level of unemployment go hand in hand. A year after the program commenced the department was unable to adequately inform me of the number of houses built, the number of jobs created, where housing was located, and who in the Australian community benefited from the housing being built. There was $75 million brought forward from the Commonwealth-state housing agreement funds for this program in 1992-93, and although $52.6 million was spent in that year, another $22 million was carried over into 1993-94.

  I can tell honourable senators what the Labor government has been doing in this area—it has been announcing review after review after review. I recently went through all of the budget papers and departmental documents in this area. It is fascinating. I have compiled a list of some three pages of reviews.

  There is an Australian and urban task force review; a Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act review; support for local government developing regionally based strategies; long term unemployment reviews; local government approvals reviews; Green street program; indicative planning review; a review of residential regulations; a way of looking at ways of reducing the cost structure to the housing industry; a model code for residential development; the better cities program—we all know how that failed; the housing choices strategy; the urban-export strategy; the integrated local areas planning; the House of Representatives report on patterns of urban settlement; the taxation and financial policy impacts on urban settlement and urban transport; the mortgage and rent assistance program; the community housing program; the review of the crisis accommodation program; the government's response to the report we are talking about; research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute; the National Advisory Committee on Housing and Urban Development; the national youth strategy; the youth social justice strategy; studies on domestic violence; the job placement and training program; JPET pilot projects; the national information program informing tenants and landlords in the private rental market of their rights and obligations; and the development of a written code and practice for real estate agents. That is where the government has seen its priorities in housing, yet nothing has flowed from any of that.

  Ministers responding on behalf of the government did not address any of those particular issues. These urban review policies do absolutely nothing for the people living in high density public housing. They have been totally deserted. It was interesting to look at the recent result in the Werriwa by-election. During the campaign the Liberal candidate, Mr Charlie Lynn, was vehemently criticised by Labor Party politicians when he referred to Macquarie Fields housing commission area as a ghetto.

Senator Bolkus —Do you think it is?

Senator TAMBLING —You need to carefully look at the result from the polling booth for that particular area in that by-election. The media reported that the people who lived in Macquarie Fields had waited for years for Labor to fix their housing needs and had returned a 16 per cent swing to the Liberal Party at that polling booth, which says a lot about references to a ghetto and Labor's urban housing policies.

  Labor has no appropriate housing policies. Its policies of the past have not kept up with contemporary housing and demographic needs. All we get is another review from the champagne socialists who live in the better housing areas of the suburbs.

Senator Patterson —Teak tables at the Lodge.

Senator TAMBLING —As Senator Patterson rightly puts out, very expensive teak tables are put on the shopping list of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Industry Commission has acknowledged the failure of government to keep pace with the changing requirements of housing applicants. It is low income housing near employment and training opportunities that must be addressed. The Industry Commission acknowledged the need for greater efficiency from the public outlay of $2.5 billion in Commonwealth and state funds by re-jigging rental to reflect more accurately the income of tenants. The beneficiaries would be the genuinely needy tenants and the more than 200,000 would-be tenants on housing waiting lists around Australia—200,000 tenants who have not been accommodated by the government's policies.

  Many people on low incomes who do not own their own homes and are unable to obtain public housing must either rent privately at high market rents or remain dependant on other family members. I had a constituency representation on that very issue today from my electorate in Darwin involving a tragic situation which brought home to me that particular problem.

  People on low incomes who are not Department of Social Security clients may not be eligible for this important rent assistance. People with low incomes in many circumstances are spending in excess of 25 per cent of their income on private rental housing. Many people on low incomes are in a most unfortunate situation of living in continual financial crisis. That is having a catastrophic effect on Australian families.

  The Commonwealth government decision to defer a response to this important report dealing with the directions for general housing assistance reform until June 1994—after the federal budget—just shows how much clout the current minister, Mr Howe, has in this area. He has admitted defeat before the ERC has even met. Obviously, Minister Howe is a man under siege. It is only a matter of time before Carmen Lawrence replaces him not only as Deputy Prime Minister, but also as the relevant housing minister in Australia.

  I seriously doubt whether any of the recommendations of the Industry Commission's report on public housing will ever be implemented by a Labor government. It appears that they certainly will not be addressed with any degree of urgency in the 1994 budget. By the time the government responds to it—obviously some time later this year, after which we get into the subsequent 1995 budget round—this report will be closeted away, collecting dust on a bookshelf. The people we must be looking after are the people that I believe very rightly the Industry Commission has acknowledged as those in crisis. Dozens of excellent submissions were made, and dozens of recommendations and findings need to be addressed. All we get from this government is another series of reviews.