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Monday, 24 November 2008
Page: 9

Senator WORTLEY (12:48 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the National Rental Affordability Scheme Bill.

The Government’s housing initiatives, among which is the National Rental Affordability Scheme we are discussing today, are significant and will have considerable impact on many in our community.

The Rudd Government is delivering on the promises it made prior to, and since the election 12 months ago today.

As we all know, our predecessors squandered that trust and confidence over twelve long years.

Let us not forget, among so many other examples, lack of action on climate change, the no-choice WorkChoices legislation, non-core promises, Tampa, children overboard, the savaging of education and training programs, disinvestment in infrastructure to the detriment of our economy, and the slashing of funds to the States under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement.

And it is this last example of the former government’s casual disregard, that so resonates today, as we discuss the National Rental Affordability Scheme Bill.

That phrase ‘working Australians have never been better off’ sounds very hollow, now. Very hollow indeed, and very arrogant too when we consider the plight of so many, as a direct result of the former government’s housing policies.

When speaking earlier in this session about the First Home Saver Accounts, I reflected on the deep importance of housing in our lives. Those remarks were made in the context of home ownership, but are quite universal in a sense when it comes to the hierarchy of need.

I said on that occasion that the enjoyment of shelter from the elements, and of those essential feelings of security and community with family and friends, is part of us - and part of the way we want our children to live, too. Communities of people living in houses share the advantages of stability, inclusion and social cohesion.

The availability of affordable housing impacts at the most basic level on a person’s ability to access work, education or training opportunities.

Regions and cities where jobs are more plentiful generally have high house prices and high rental rates.

Poor housing can obviously affect a person’s health, well-being, and ability to provide for a family.

The Government’s $2.2 billion affordable housing package will assist Australians to share the advantages of stable, secure housing.

To access affordable rental accommodation.

To save for their first home.

To decrease the cost of housing infrastructure.

And to provide new homes for the homeless.

It’s the first of these - affordable rental accommodation - that we’re here to talk about today.

It is truly shocking to find that 1.1 million Australian households are experiencing housing stress, meaning that they pay more than 30 per cent of their gross income on recurring housing costs.

And of these households, nearly two-thirds or 700,000 households are renters - many of whom are low- to middle-income earners.

Many of these people are experiencing housing stress to an extraordinary degree. Not only is there insufficient stock - BIS Shrapnel has estimated that at the end of June this year Australia’s housing stock was about 56,000 homes - less then the number required - but rents in the private sector are growing ever higher.

I believe that rental vacancies in most capital cities are now at two per cent or less. This is unprecedented.

For many, it’s a struggle for people to keep a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table.

Not to mention clothing, power, school and transport expenses, health requirements… we are all well aware of that lengthy list.

The situation may well have been different for people on low- to middle-incomes had the Howard government not slashed funds to the States under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement.

But Labor is acting to fill the breach. Labor will keep its compact with the electorate.

Some of the key features of the National Rental Affordability Scheme are as follows:

Institutional investors and other eligible entities will be offered an annual incentive for up to ten years as long as certain conditions continue to be met.

These conditions include the meeting of an income test by a prospective tenant, and that the rent is set at least 20 per cent below the market rate.

The value of the incentive will initially be $6,000 per dwelling annually, and the incentive may be exemption of capital gains from tax; a tax offset or payment to the investor, and/or the non-assessability for tax purposes of contributions to the investor by the relevant State or Territory.

Where the investor is liable to pay tax, the tax offset would apply.

If the investor is not liable to pay tax - an example would be a not-for-profit housing body - a Commonwealth payment would apply.

State or Territory governments will also contribute an annual incentive by way of financial or in-kind support, the value of which will be $2,000 per dwelling annually for up to ten years.

Both Commonwealth and State or Territory contributions will be indexed to the rental component of the CPI.

Also involved will be the not-for-profit charitable sector, which knows at first hand how difficult circumstances are for many in our community.

And significantly, this legislation will operate retrospectively, with eligibility to be acknowledged from as early as 1 July 2008.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme is an innovative plan which will assist those in need - low- to middle-income young people and families, those saving for a deposit for their own home (many via the First Home Savers Account initiative), age and disability pensioners, those on public housing waiting lists and, so importantly, those 100,000 who have no home at all.

It represents an opportunity for truly co-operative collaboration between investors, developers, all tiers of government, not-for-profit organisations and others in the welfare sector.

Significantly, this bill provides for the making of the Scheme by regulations, which will confer the necessary flexibility to manage a number of variables including the mechanism for the determination of market rent, eligibility criteria, tenancy tenure, and acquittal and other reporting requirements.

And of course, review provisions will apply so that the measures I’ve outlined can be evaluated. We intend to ensure that resources are being consistently targeted towards those in our community who are experiencing housing stress.

The Rudd Government has moved quickly and decisively to address housing problems, including rental affordability.

The Rudd Government’s reform program follows many years of neglect and disinterest by our predecessors.

The principles on which our package of interconnected, coherent reforms is based are fourfold:

  • security for working families,
  • adhering to our commitments,
  • investment for the future and
  • fiscal responsibility.

The bill we discuss today goes directly to these principles.

It looks towards security for working families - not only those who will find reasonably-priced, secure rental accommodation through the scheme, but also those many thousands of Australians who will be directly employed in the building sector.

It will give security through work to those many thousands more who will be indirectly employed as a result, providing materials, other goods, and services to those building, equipping, residing and provisioning those new dwellings.

Building houses stimulates the economy in so many ways, and that’s exactly what is required in the present global climate.

It adheres to the commitments made in consultation over many months with an enormous array of stakeholders, from the Housing Industry Association, the ACTU, ACOSS, National Shelter and the Community Housing Federation of Australia to representatives of welfare and charity organisations and numerous other groups and individuals.

It represents, clearly, investment for the future.

For the future Labor envisages in its every grassroots meeting, its every industry consultation, its every policy initiative, its every new piece of legislation.

It is economically responsible, and has been formulated so as to ensure that all Australians have access to basic accommodation regardless of income and circumstance.

This is the least we can do for our fellow Australians.

As I’ve said before in this place, the Rudd Labor Government is determined to act on this country’s needs now and for the future, and the measures outlined in the bill truly represent that determination.