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Thursday, 18 September 1958
Page: 1387

Mr BIRD (Batman) .- The purpose of this bill is to authorize the raising of loan moneys totalling £35,800,000 for the purpose of providing finance to the States under the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement. Of this amount, £25,067,000 will go to the State housing authorities, whilst £10,743,000 will go to building societies and other approved institutions. This represents an increase of almost £4,000,000 in the amount allocated to building societies last year but, on the other hand, almost £1,500,000 less than was allocated to the State housing authorities last year. The reduction in the allocation to State housing authorities is to be deplored. This bill will certainly increase the difficulties of the States in providing homes for people in the lower income groups. It has become fashionable in recent years - in fact in recent weeks, in this House - to make slighting and sneering references to State housing authorities and to state that they cannot do the job as efficiently as private enterprise. Somebody has even suggested that the States should vacate the sphere of house-building altogether and leave it to private enterprise. I was glad, yesterday, to hear the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) say, in reply to a question, that it is not the intention of this Government to bring that about. But there are Government supporters who advocate this point of view and, in time, they might be able to exercise sufficient pressure on the Government to cause it to vacate entirely the housing field. If that ever comes about it will be most deplorable.

Private enterprise cannot provide for the needs of the lower income group in the community in as fair and as satisfactory a manner as do the State instrumentalities. I can speak with some authority concerning the housing commission in Victoria. That commission was empowered by the late Sir Albert Dunstan's Government - a Country party government supported by the Labour party - to build dwellings for people who, by reason of their financial circumstances, were in need of housing assistance. In other words, the commission was authorized to assist people in the lower income group.

I cannot stress too strongly the point that housing commissions, in the main, alleviate the difficulties of people in the lower income group. I am afraid, after hearing the contributions of some Government supporters to this debate, that they entirely forget the existence of this section of the people. It is true that, in the early stages, housing commission houses were not the best kind of house. They were of the barrack type, and the rooms were very small. Their appearance was standardized. They caused quite a lot of dissatisfaction, not only amongst the people who went into them, but amongst people who lived in the surrounding areas. But that criticism cannot be directed at housing commission houses that have been built in Victoria in recent years.

Only recently, I spoke to some people who had just shifted into new housing commission houses in my electorate. I was intensely struck with the varied design of both the outside and the inside of the houses. They are well constructed and entirely modern in design. The interior decoration was well up to the standard of that of houses built by other authorities. But what was most satisfying to me was the sheer expressions of delight from the people who are buying them. When I mentioned to a couple of these new owners that Government members of the Commonwealth Parliament thought that the State governments should vacate the sphere of housing, they were very wrathful. They explained to me that they could never have afforded to buy a house other than through the housing commission, which requires a deposit of only £250. There is no private scheme in existence anywhere in Australia under which a person can get a house for a deposit of £250. Only the State housing authorities provide homes on such low deposits.

Not only do the housing commissions in the various States build homes that are very satisfactory for those fortunate enough to acquire them, but also those authorities are proceeding with slum clearance programmes. I can speak of the programme in Melbourne from personal knowledge. It is going ahead by leaps and bounds. Only yesterday, the Victorian Government, in its Budget for the current financial year, provided for the allocation for slum reclamation of '£500,000 of the funds being made available to that State under this measure. I should say that this provision will be hailed with delight by the people of Melbourne. Any one who has been to Collingwood, Carlton, Fitzroy and North Melbourne in the last year or two will have seen large areas where slums have been razed to the ground and excellent Housing Commission flats constructed in their place. This indicates the splendid job that the Victorian Housing Commission is doing. It is true that these flats are not of a luxury type, but there would be a lot of criticism if luxury flats were constructed by the commission. The flats being provided in Melbourne are of solid construction, and roomy, and they adequately meet the requirements of people who like flat life. The Victorian Government is contemplating slum reclamation schemes, in addition to those that I have already mentioned, in Brunswick, Collingwood, Fitzroy, North Melbourne, Northcote, Williamstown, South Prahran, South Melbourne and Port Melbourne. The formula adopted in this bill will not provide the Victorian Housing Commission with ample funds for these schemes, but slums in these suburbs will be a thing of the past when a progressive Commonwealth government provides ample funds for these purposes.

The Victorian Housing Commission has constructed 35,000 homes and home units at a cost of £84,000,000. These have helped to meet a great need in the community. However, the present rate of building by the commission is not appreciably reducing the housing shortage. On the contrary, despite the construction of 35,000 homes by the commission, the number of applications that it has on hand is increasing. In 1953, there was a waiting list of 11,000. In 1956, the waiting list was 12,000. I obtained the latest figures from the commission last Friday afternoon. The commission at one stage had 18,000 applications on its books, and it sent out a questionnaire in order to ascertain the number of genuine applicants who wanted their names to remain on the list. As a result, the list has been pruned to bedrock, and it now shows that the genuine applicants number 13,340. So that, over a period of five years, the number of applicants has increased by 2,340, for, as I have indicated, there were 11,000 on the waiting list in 1953.

I should say that most of the applicants for Housing Commission homes are people who have no other chance of getting homes. I should say that they are people whose circumstances are such that they can never accumulate, in the foreseeable future, enough money to pay a deposit on a home - even if the deposit required were only £200 or £250 - and their only hope of fulfilling their desires is to seek the help of the Housing Commission.

Mr Fox - What about the Home Finance Office?

Mr BIRD - That meets a need, up to a point, but its funds are much more limited than are those of the Housing Commission. The Home Finance Office was launched with a fanfare of trumpets by the Victorian Premier some time ago. Many people found, on lodging applications with it, that they would have to wait for two years to get satisfaction. I myself made representations on behalf of a number of .people who had heard of the establishment of the office, and who had been told that their applications would be considered in due course. Many people are still waiting for their applications to be considered, after a delay of fifteen months. So the Home Finance

Office is not achieving wonders. On paper, its terms are not quite as good as those of the Housing Commission, because the deposits required are a little higher, but the terms are certainly better than those of any other authority except the commission. And there is still a long waiting list for assistance. Unless the Victorian Government can provide much more money tor the Home Finance Office, it will not be able to do the job required of it. In any event, in my opinion, the Housing Commission should get the greater share of the available funds. It has the necessary machinery, administrative and otherwise, the technical knowledge, and the experience of dealing with prospective tenants and owners. The commission is doing a firstrate job, and I see no reason why it should be pushed aside in favour of another body.

Two years ago, the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement of 1945 came to an end. The new agreement that was then entered into differed in certain particulars. It provided that 20 per cent, of the money allocated to the States under the agreement should go to building societies for two years, and that for the next three years, beginning this financial year, the proportion should be 30 per cent. The allocation of so much of these funds specifically to co-operative building societies will accentuate the problem of people who want their own homes but have a verylimited income. I am not opposed to cooperative building societies. Indeed, I have shown a great deal of interest in several in the municipality to which I belong, and have taken some part in their affairs and helped some people to obtain finance from them. But I contend that the allocation to these bodies should have been additional to the funds provided for the housing commissions. It should not have been taken out of the allocation to the housing commissions, which is already too meagre. An additional allocation to co-operative building societies could have been made at no great sacrifice to anybody. As it is, the money has merely been taken from one pocket and put in another. Very few more houses will be built as a result, although there may be a few more, because the cooperative building societies require larger deposits than are- required by the housing commissions. Apart from this minor result, the present procedure will serve no useful purpose.

At this stage, I want, once again, categorically to nail the lie, which often emanates from people opposed to the Australian Labour party, that that party is opposed to home-ownership. At every stage of Labour's political history, it has encouraged home-ownership. Members of the Australian Labour party in this Parliament, as representatives of the people, realize that the ambition of most Australians is to acquire their own homes. The pride of private possession, and the feeling on the part of a home-owner that he has a real stake in the community, have a very marked effect upon individual and national morale. 1 say now, as I have said a dozen times before in this chamber, that the Australian Labour party would give every family its; own home, if this were possible. Labour believes that every available means, both government and private, should be adopted: in order to enable people to achieve their heart's desire and buy their own homes.

About three years ago, the housing commissions adopted a plan for the sale of homes to tenants. Under the 1945 Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, tenants of housing commission homes could buy the homes that they occupied, but not-, on such easy terms as were agreed upon*. three years ago. Under the new scheme, housing commission homes may be bought on deposits as low as £100, although, inmost instances, the deposits amount to- £250 or £300. In Victoria, Mr. DeputySpeaker, housing commission homes arebeing bought on deposits of £100. Private enterprise cannot provide houses at suchlow deposits. Only government instrumentalities can do it.

Mr Barnard - No deposit is required' for a housing department dwelling in Tasmania.

Mr BIRD - I am glad to hear that. It is a very desirable state of affairs. But deposits of even £200 or £250 are not excessive.

Mr Barnard - They are reasonable.

Mr BIRD - That is so. A married manwith two or three children, who has not been able to save much before marriage, and who- receives a wage of £15 or £16 s- week, cannot, with prevailing living costs, save enough to pay a deposit of £800 or £1,000 to buy a home through a cooperative building society or some other kind of housing society. No other class of housing authority will accept deposits as low as those required by the housing commissions. This scheme has given complete satisfaction to thousands of people, and I cannot understand why this Government claims that the housing commissions should spend less.

As a matter of fact, this is a time when we should be building more houses, but because this Government has a fetish that everything should be left to private enterprise, and because it does not believe that any good purpose can flow from any State authority, it believes that home ownership through a government instrumentality should not be encouraged. Supporters of the Government believe that the less we can do from that point of view the better, even though the housing commissions are providing houses for persons who could not get one otherwise.

I cannot understand the logic of the Government supporters, because we must realize that there are many persons in the community who will never be in a position to buy a home. We have to make provision for those who can buy only on a small deposit as required by the housing commissions, and for those who cannot buy a home at all. We must ensure that that section of the community has attention. Before the depression, homes could be rented for about one-fifth or one-quarter of a worker's income. A home could be rented for 20s. to 25s. a week, but after the depression, private enterprise did not cater for the lower-paid workers with properties that could be rented. As a matter of fact, private enterprise vacated the field of home building after the depression. There were many reasons for that change which were acceptable from the point of view of private enterprise, but the result was that a vacuum was created. That was the reason why the Housing Commission was established in Victoria about 1937, by the Country party government supported by the Labour party. I strongly suspect that it was done at the behest of the Labour party. The government had to fill the vacuum, and that is why we have in Victoria now a State housing authority.

We must recognize that while private enterprise is not in a position or a frame of mind to provide rented premises for the lower income group, somebody else has to do it. Only government authorities can do that. There is a need in this community for an acceleration of both housing commission and co-operative building society activities. They should not operate as rivals, but should run together in double harness, because they are both serving a very useful purpose for the benefit of the most deserving sections of the community. Cooperative building societies have a splendid and proud record in providing homes, but unfortunately their rules provide for a deposit of £800 or £1,000, and many persons in the lower income group cannot find that money. There must be realization of the fact that the accumulation of £800 is beyond tens of thousands of persons who are seeking homes. The allocation of money for building societies this year is to be increased. Last year, 80 per cent, of the allocation went to State housing commissions, but this year they are to receive only 70 per cent. The reduction of the allocation will cause grave distress to many persons whose only hope of securing a house rests with the housing commissions.

I direct the attention of honorable members to the annual report of the Housing Commission of Victoria for 1956-57, which is the latest available. Reference was made in the report to the new housing agreement, and I cite this report to show how the number of houses to be erected by the Housing Commission in Victoria will be reduced. The report stated -

The new agreement has resulted in a substantial reduction in the number of housing units constructed by the Commission and after making provision for the allocation to the Services of 242 units, resulted in a net total of 2,338 units being available to eligible families as compared with 4.152 in the previous year.

In other words, about 1,800 fewer houses were to be built. That was bad enough, but this year, instead of 20 per cent, being taken by co-operative housing societies, they will receive 30 per cent. Therefore, it is safe to say that, for the Housing Commission in Victoria with 13,340 waiting and only 1,800 or 1,900 homes to be built, the situation will be aggravated. Is this a positive contribution to the housing problem when the

Housing Commission in Victoria, with a long waiting list, will have to build fewer houses?

In Victoria, unfortunately, the housing situation has deteriorated. Eviction notices granted by the courts are increasing. Every week when I go home, I can be sure that two or three unfortunate citizens will come to my door and tell me that they have been served with an eviction order granted by the court giving them a few weeks or months to get out. They have been to the housing commission. They have had their names on the list for a year or eighteen months, but they are told by the commission that they have no chance of getting a home for at least three years from the date of their application. Until a few years ago, emergency housing was provided in Victoria. I admit that it was not of the best type. I do not approve of Camp Pell or Fawkner Park, but those emergency housing settlements did provide some temporary accommodation until the occupants could acquire housing commission houses. Now, there is no temporary accommodation and the commission is building fewer houses than ever.

The position has deteriorated in two ways. Because the State Housing Commission cannot accommodate people, their goods and chattels can be put on the footpath and the commission cannot even find them accommodation. This is a dreadful state of affairs in a civilized community. While eviction orders are increasing in Victoria, the number of houses built by the Housing Commission is decreasing. The complacency of this Government towards housing is fantastic. Despite reminders by social workers, building industry executives and State housing Ministers, this Government contends that the position is well in hand. I cite the opinion, not of a member of the Labour party, but the Minister for Housing in Victoria, Mr. Petty, a member of the Victorian Liberal Government. As Minister for Housing, he has directed the attention of the Commonwealth Government to the housing position, particularly in Victoria. He has been worried about the increasing number of persons who want homes that he cannot supply. This report appeared last week in the Melbourne " Herald "-

The Minister for Housing, Mr. Petty, called on the Federal Treasury to-day to make money available through the Commonwealth Bank to finance an Australia-wide house building program . . .

The only reason there was a housing shortage to-day was that the building industry and people wanting to build or buy houses could not borrow money.

The Federal Treasury should be realistic in its approach to the house-building problem.

Experienced builders and an abundance of materials were available.

But house-building was being held up because the public could not get money to build or buy and co-operative housing societies were starved of funds, Mr. Petty said.

Financial organizations would not lend money for housing when there were more lucrative fields of investment such as hire purchase and other public companies.

The Federal Treasury should release immediately special funds to be restricted to house-building for the people, especially those in the lower income group.

The Liberal Minister in the State Government of Victoria has added his voice in protest against the meagre amounts of money that are doled out for housing. If the Government is not prepared to take notice of members of the Opposition in this House, surely it should take notice of the man who has been entrusted by the Liberal Government in Victoria to deal with the housing problem. From that statement by Mr. Petty, it is quite obvious that the Victorian Liberal Government is entirely dissatisfied with the Commonwealth Government's approach to the whole housing problem.

I should like to understand the extraordinary frame of mind of the Government in relation to housing, because the figures issued from year to year show a marked diminution in the number of houses being built. All the factors point to the need for an ever-increasing number of houses. In 1952, 79,000 houses were constructed, and in 1955, 78,000. In 1956 the number took a nose dive to 70,000. In the year ended 31st December, 1957, 67,000 were constructed. Over a period of five years, from 1952 to 1957, the number of houses erected annually dropped by 12,000, despite the fact that the population had increased in that period by 800,000. Our population is now increasing, by immigration and by natural increase, at the rate of 2.5 per cent, per annum. The important fact that is apparently overlooked by the Government, in its complacence over these alarming figures, is that age groups that will be seeking homes will increase at a greater rate in the next ten years. The numbers in the age group from 20 to 24 years will increase in ten years by 55 per cent.

These are the facts that are facing the Government. It can verify these figures from the Commonwealth Statistician, if it disbelieves me. At present, there are 1,400 marriages each week, but only 1,300 houses and flats are built each week. Immigration is proceeding at the rate of 1,660 a week, and deaths number 1,800 a week. Babies are being born at the rate of 4,000 a week. Therefore, it requires no great mental effort to realize that the present rate of construction is altogether inadequate. The problem will become even more acute in the next decade, because of the increase in the numbers of persons in the marriageable age group.

Knowing these facts, the Government should have made plans to meet the state of emergency. Construction should have been stepped up by a mobilization of men and material. But what do we find? In June, 1951, 123,000 people were employed in the building trade, but in June. 1958, the number had fallen to 117,000. The incontrovertible fact emerges that there has not been an increase in the number of workers in the building industry, quite apart from any increase commensurate with the large increase in the work force generally throughout the community. The proportion of the value of new private dwellings constructed to the value of fixed capital equipment produced each year has declined. In 1948-49, the percentage was 22 per cent.; in 1951-52, 23 per cent.; in 1953-54, 23 per cent.; and in 1956-57 it was 20 per cent. From whatever angle one looks at this subject, there is an unanswerable argument that the construction of new houses has lagged in recent years.

What are the future requirements? At present, even Government members admit that there is a shortage of 100,000 houses. The latest figures show that the number of houses constructed this year will be between 67,000 and 70,000. The current rate of demand is 53,000. Taking into account the increase in numbers in the marriageable age group, it is estimated that the current demand will be 60,000 in 1961, 65.000 in 1965, and 80,000 in 1970.

Surely the Government, recognizing these facts, should have made efforts during the last three or four years to reduce the lag, because even when the lag is reduced we shall have a man-sized problem on our hands in meeting future requirements. When any suggestion has been made for additional money to be channelled into the building industry, the Government has advanced two main reasons for saying that that is not possible. The first is that any increase in money would mean a rise in labour and material costs, that is, that an inflationary position would develop. The second is that an acceleration of home building to clear up the backlag would weaken the future position of the building industry. That is a unique argument that I have heard advanced by some honorable members opposite.

I want to answer those two contentions by saying, first, that the decline in the general level of employment, brought about in the main by a decrease in our income from overseas exports, gives an opportunity to plan for an increase in home construction. This will not bring an increase in wages. Sufficient men are available, because there is at present unemployment of fairly large dimensions in the building industry. Secondly, on the testimony of Mr. Petty, ample material is available, and there will be no decrease in that amount. In 1952, during an inflationary period, we built almost 80,000 houses. This year when, we are told, the inflationary trend has been arrested, we shall build 67,000. Surely we could attempt to reach the 1952 figure, as from two points of view conditions are better now. According to Government spokesmen, inflation has been arrested, and men and material are available.

What is required is a national approach to cover present and future requirements. It is high time that the Government gave attention to this problem, instead of drifting along from year to year, cutting down allocations to Government authorities, and making appeals to private authorities to lend additional money. I read recently in the press that £2,000,000 or £3,000,000 had been granted by private banks for homebuilding purposes. But that is only looking at the problem, not tackling it.

Mr Duthie - Is that for the whole of Australia?

Mr BIRD - I think the figure will be £4,000,000 for the whole of the Commonwealth. It is only begging the question. In support of a national plan, I submit for the consideration of the House, first, that the housing problem is still a vital issue. The number of people requiring homes is still as high as ever. Secondly, there will be a rapidly expanding demand for new houses in the immediate future, because of the increase in population and the increase in the mimer in the marriageable age group during the next five or ten years. Thirdly - this is a most important factor - if immigration continues at the rate of 1 per cent, per annum, the work force will increase from 3,940,000 in June, 1957, to 5,370,000 in June, 1967. That increase of 35 per cent, in the work force will have a dual effect upon housing. It will provide labour for an expanding housing programme, and it will set up a demand for a steadily increasing number of houses from those who constitute the work force. The correct course for the Government to adopt is to build to meet both the current and the prospective demand, and also to make up the shortage over a reasonable period. I put it to the Government that the lag should be entirely overcome within the next five years. If that is not done by 1962, formidable problems will face whatever government is in office in its attempts to deal with housing. The Government's duty is clear. This bill is only tinkering with one of Australia's greatest social problems. If the Government wishes to come to grips with it, it has to do far more than introduce a nominal bill of this character. It must do something far more practical. This bill will have the effect of reducing the amount available to State housing authorities with which to build houses for people in the lower income groups. It will make the position of the housing commissions untenable. It will also aggravate bad feeling existing within families which is largely due to the fact that they cannot obtain homes.

I suggest that if we allow the present system to be perpetuated we will only cause a worsening of the social problems in the community. All honorable members will have had experience of cases of broken homes. The wife and a couple of children may be living with her mother, or the husband and a couple of children may be living with his parents. I know of several cases of that kind. But this bill will not improve that position. The housing problem strikes at the very root of family and social life. I hope that the Government will realize that this is not a problem which can be tackled by pious attempts to induce men in authority to put more money into housing. We know perfectly well that lending authorities are far more inclined to invest in more lucrative fields such as hire purchase.

This bill is a disgrace to the National Parliament. Instead of providing more money for the housing authorities it will have the opposite effect. We cannot oppose the bill in principle, but we feel that because it reduces the finance which will be available to housing, authorities the Government ought to be thoroughly ashamed of it.

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