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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2581


Senator WATT (Queensland) (18:53): Tonight I would like to talk about one of the major social issues confronting our society, which is the ongoing problems of housing affordability and homelessness. In particular I am going to talk about this government's failure to deal with both of those issues.

There is no doubt that homelessness and housing stress are major social and economic problems and they are getting much, much worse. The 2011 census found that 105,000 Australians, or one in 200, were homeless and that roughly 6,000 people, unfortunately, sleep rough in Australia each night. The federal government's own Affordable Housing Working Group: issues paper acknowledged that the increased cost of housing has had the greatest impact on younger Australians and has resulted in an increased number of people trying to obtain rental accommodation, especially at the lower end of the market.

Housing affordability and homelessness are undoubtedly issues that affect communities right around Australia, but I particularly wanted to mention the effect they have and the impact that is felt on the Gold Coast in Queensland.

As I previously advised the Senate, it is my intention to establish my Senate office on the Gold Coast in the new year. As part of that process, I have been stepping up my discussions with Gold Coast residents and organisations, and the feedback that I have consistently received from people is that, due to the fact that the Gold Coast is currently dominated wall-to-wall by members of the LNP at all levels of government, people do not feel like their concerns are being represented adequately. Housing and homelessness is definitely one of those issues because, despite the image of the Gold Coast as the glitter strip, it is not immune from the housing and homelessness crisis that we are seeing in Australia. In fact, there are particular features of the Gold Coast that make it a real focal point for homelessness. It obviously has a highly transient population, and it does have a great lifestyle and climate which attracts people from all around the country. The fact that it has a large population of people with a New Zealand background is causing issues around homelessness because, of course, many people who come here from New Zealand do not necessarily have access to Centrelink benefits and other benefits that can enable them to put a roof over their head.

Many people are obviously aware that one of the most exciting things that is going to be happening on the Gold Coast in the near future is the Commonwealth Games in 2018. While on balance that is going to be a fantastic thing for the Gold Coast and Queensland in general, we do need to make sure that a big event like the games does not have some negative impacts on the local community, particularly in the area of homelessness. What we have seen when other big events like this have been held in other parts of the world is that unscrupulous landlords take advantage of the fact that people will be arriving for a short-term visit for the big event and really massively jack up the rents that they are charging people. What that can do is displace tenants who are ordinarily renting accommodation there, leaving people without anywhere to live or leaving the tenants who are displaced to take cheaper accommodation, which has that trickle-down effect and eventually displaces much poorer people from their homes. So, while on balance the Commonwealth Games is certainly going to be a big positive for the Gold Coast, we do need to make sure that it does not have those kind of negative, adverse consequences.

There have been some recent reports in the Gold Coast Bulletin about the cost of housing escalating markedly on the Gold Coast. The cost of renting homes continues to soar, with reports of tenants now offering to pay six months rent up-front in order to get rental accommodation. When you think about the fact that most people who rent a property are not exactly wealthy people, if people are now having to find six months rent up-front that is quite a concern about their ability to find a place to live.

Last week on the Gold Coast I spoke at the Gold Coast homelessness symposium, which was organised by the Gold Coast homelessness network, and it was great to see so many representatives from specialist government and allied services all with a common goal of making sure that we put a roof over every single person's head. When I was there, I talked about some ideas about potential solutions to the housing and homelessness problems that we are seeing on the Gold Coast. I think, more than anything, the best solution that we can have here is for this government to finally come up with the funding that is needed to provide social housing and other homelessness services both on the Gold Coast and across Australia as a whole.

As a Labor senator, I am very proud of the work that has been done by past federal and state Labor governments to reduce homelessness. When we have been in office we have invested billions of dollars to deliver new social and affordable housing, we have struck national partnership agreements on social housing and homelessness to provide long-term security of funding and we have established the National Rental Affordability Scheme, or NRAS, which has seen the construction of even more dwellings. That is why it is so frustrating, with that record from Labor, that we are seeing the Turnbull coalition government failing to extend the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness beyond its current expiry date of June 2017. That is just a little bit over six months away. We have the Christmas period coming up where nothing really happens much around government negotiations, and there are a lot of services and a lot of people on the Gold Coast very exposed by the fact that this government has not actually got around to providing the funding and providing a commitment of funding beyond June 2017.

The reason that matters is that this funding under the national partnership agreement performs a substantial part of the budgets for many homelessness services, such as provision of temporary accommodation, social work and referrals to other services. In some cases, funding that is provided under the national partnership agreement forms one-third of housing services budgets.

So what we need is a long-term funding commitment from the federal government to provide certainty not only to homeless people and people who are living in social housing but also homeless services and their employees. It is not very easy to run a community housing service if you are heavily reliant on government funding when you do not know whether that funding is going to be there in a bit over six months time. It is difficult to hire staff, to replace staff and to provide staff with the certainty they need to make a decision about whether they are going to stay in a job or not.

That atmosphere of uncertainty is undoubtedly being caused by the failure of this government to sign a new national partnership agreement. And that comes on top of the Abbott government's previous cuts to capital funding of $44 million per annum for women and children who are fleeing domestic violence. We still have not seen that funding shortfall rectified by this government, and it needs to be done.

Time does not allow me to go into at lot of detail about the other potential solutions for our housing affordability and homelessness crisis. Obviously, Labor took some very strong policies to the last federal election about making current concessions for negative gearing and capital gains tax on housing a lot more equitable. Currently, they are weighted far too heavily towards the very wealthiest in our community, which is depriving the taxpayer of funding that could be provided to more import services; and they are distorting housing prices in the market as well, which particularly for first home buyers is making it even harder to enter the market. And there are obviously many other things that we can do to improve this housing affordability and homelessness crisis as well.

Homelessness is a really clear manifestation of the inequality we are seeing on the Gold Coast, in Australia and right around the world. The election in America gives us all pause for thought about what more we can do to reduce inequality in our community. There is no doubt that that was one of the reasons we saw the election of Mr Trump. There is no doubt that that was the reason we have seen the election of other groups not just in Australia but overseas as well. It is not beyond us to fix this inequality, particularly in terms of homelessness. What it requires is a government that is prepared to sit down with the states and talk about a funding agreement that is going to provide certainty of funding. We have to improve housing affordability, particularly by reviewing negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions.

Obviously, what we need on the Gold Coast is to make sure we have more diversity among our political representatives so that we do not just have wall to wall LNP members, as we currently do, who sit by and allow this housing crisis to continue without a peep and without any pressure being applied to their own government.