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Friday, 31 May 1996
Page: 1557

Senator STOTT DESPOJA(2.25 p.m.) —The Australian Democrats will be supporting the Housing Assistance Bill. We will consider the proposed amendments of the Greens (WA) and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Faulkner) when we see those. This bill lays the groundwork for the formulation of the Commonwealth-state housing agreement. With the exception of a few changes, it is basically the same bill that was introduced into the parliament during last session, as Senator Faulkner has said.

We do support this bill, but not without some serious reservations about the current direction of the agreement. The direction, I might add, was well and truly put in place by the Labor government. Our main concern is that this agreement continues to slide away from a strong and solid commitment to public housing.

Even though it may be in the guise of a commitment to `community housing', more rental assistance or a `broader range of options'—the rhetoric contained in this bill—the heart of the matter is that the previous government began a trend, which I think this coalition is continuing, away from building new public housing stock and away from providing public housing. It is all very well for the Australian Labor Party to sit in here and talk about how committed it was to the provision of public housing, but I am afraid that the facts speak for themselves.

Under the previous government, funds for public housing under the Commonwealth-state housing agreement fell by 40 per cent in real terms between the years 1986 and 1995. That is about $100 million which could have been spent on housing for Australians but was not. In the last six years of the Labor government, the number of new public housing units built fell by more than half, from 14,000 to 6,000. The number of families on public housing waiting lists blew out from 200,000 to more than 235,000. Not only that, in last year's budget the Labor government made a decision to cut rent assistance to low income families, a move that the Democrats opposed.

It is not just a question of funding. Every time the Labor government had a chance to increase the money levels available for public housing, it seemed to run away from that as fast as it could. For example, last year in this place my colleague Senator Spindler asked the government whether it would ensure that at least 10 per cent of the Australian Defence Industry site in the inner-west of Melbourne was transferred to the Victorian government for public housing. That was an enormous site, with some 500,000 houses to be built on it. There is a chronic shortage of private and public rental housing in Melbourne's inner-west suburbs.

But we did not see the then government rush to ensure that either five per cent or 10 per cent of the site was set aside for public housing. That is unfortunate. The government washed its hands of that matter and refused to do anything. Apparently, it would not even get on the phone and nicely suggest to the ADI, which is fully owned by the Common wealth, that they might consider that proposal. So we are a little wary when the Labor Party comes in here and talks about how committed they were to the provision of public housing, especially for low income earners.

The fact is that in this area—and in so many other areas—the previous government began a trend and handed to this government on a plate a system that is already depleted of funds, already run down and already close to breaking point. Emergency housing workers, local government social workers, family support workers and youth workers will tell you the same story of how they are unable to find housing for women who are trying to escape from domestic abuse. They will tell you stories of homeless families who are sleeping in shelters because they cannot afford the rent on the private market and cannot get into public housing. They will tell you about unemployed people, aged pensioners, people with disabilities and other low income earners who are struggling to pay the rent in substandard and overpriced private rental properties.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Reynolds) —Gentlemen, could you either leave the chamber or sit down and not disturb Senator Stott Despoja.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I assume that they are discussing the previous government's commitment to public housing in the Commonwealth state-housing agreement.

If you talk to any social worker or youth worker they will tell you the same story. They will tell you about run-down, damaged and poor quality public housing stock which is not being replaced and is not being restored. They will tell you about elderly people trying to cope with life 10 storeys high in high-rise public housing in Melbourne, and in Sydney, because there is no alternative public housing for them. That is what is happening out there in the real world, and I think it is important to get that on the record.

Despite all the nice sounding rhetoric from this government, and the previous government, that is the trend that was begun by the ALP. If this bill is any guide, it is a trend that will be continued by the coalition government. They seem quite happy to go down the same path. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this bill is that the agreement it sets up will operate for one financial year only. The agreements under the previous government's bill—unsatisfactory as the Democrats considered them to be—were at least going to continue for three years. I concur with Senator Faulkner's previous comments.

While I accept that the government needs to keep its budgetary options open, I find this is a bit ominous. It smacks of an intention to further pare back public housing assistance over subsequent financial years and of an unwillingness to commit to an ongoing and significant program of public housing. The other concern I have is that this government seems to think, as with the previous government, that it can boost housing choice for people on low incomes through the private rental market. That might look good on paper but it does not work in the real world.

Senator Panizza —It does.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —It will not work, Senator Panizza, until governments introduce some form of rent control or much tougher regulatory regimes governing rental housing standards.

Senator Panizza —Rent control! What? We'll be back in the forties.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I can't see how it makes much sense to throw subsidies, effectively lost money, at the private market when you could be building a better public housing asset base. It is one thing to involve the private sector in the planning and construction of public housing stock—that is appropriate and perhaps even desirable—but it is another thing altogether to use taxpayers' money to subsidise private involvement when you do not end up even owning stock. I remind the government that if we do not own the stock then not only are we not in a position to manage it appropriately and according to need but also we are not in a position to realise a gain, albeit a long-term one, by selling some stock off over a period to low income earners.

In short, the Democrats have been saying for some time that housing policy in this country continues to be both socially irresponsible and economically short-sighted. I do not see that this bill changes much at all. I call attention to the comments made yesterday by the New South Wales housing minister, Mr Knowles, warning of the federal government trying to cut housing costs by a third, or around $500 million. I notice that the draft agenda for the 13-14 June COAG meeting talks of cost containment in housing. I think that is of concern.

I conclude by noting the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Security (Senator Kemp) in the second reading speech. He said:

. . . this bill is based on the principle that all Australians, regardless of their economic or social status, have the right to affordable, secure and appropriate housing.

I hope that the government's budget commitments, unlike the previous government's, live to up that rhetoric. The Democrats commend the bill to the Senate.