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Labor's housing policy [and] National Housing Conference, Brisbane: speech.



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MINISTER FOR FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES Labor’s Housing Policy

Minister for Family and Community Services, Amanda Vanstone, today slammed the Labor Party’s housing policy, saying it offers virtually nothing new.

"Basically all this policy is offering is committees to develop strategies on housing," Senator Vanstone said.

"In other words, Labor has no idea on housing policy and Anthony Albanese says this took him two-and-a-half-years to develop.

"Even worse, Labor’s policy makes no commitment to maintaining the Howard Government’s low interest rate environment - one of the most important policy initiatives to help more people achieve the great Australian dream of home ownership.

"The centrepiece of Labor’s policy is to ‘develop’ a National Housing Strategy through a new Housing Advisory Committee - a Committee which will receive no funding according to labor’s own figures.

"No ideas and no funding. What a contribution to housing debate!

"Another key plank of Labor’s policy - the National Housing Alliance - is nothing short of a sham.

"Labor claims the Alliance signals a new era of cooperation with the States and Territories.

"But as we saw in Brisbane earlier this week, the Alliance isn’t about cooperation with ALL States and Territories - only those with Labor governments.

Mr Albanese continues to claim that the Howard Government is preparing to ‘gut’ public housing. This is absolute nonsense.

"As I’ve told the Community Housing Federation Conference in Brisbane today, via video, the Howard Government is absolutely committed to continuing the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement beyond 2003 when the current agreement expires.

"Mr Albanese fails to acknowledge that the true level of Federal spending on housing is the CSHA plus Rent Assistance which makes housing so much more affordable for so many people."

The CSHA provides funding for the public housing rental market, while Rent Assistance provides funding for low income renters in the private market. Total Federal funding under these two areas has increase in real terms since 1997-98.

26 October 2001

Minister’s Media Contact: Kevin Donnellan 0419 400 078

Following: Copy of Minister’s speech today to Community Housing Federation Conference - Brisbane

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE

MINISTER FOR FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES

NATIONAL HOUSING CONFERENCE

Friday 26th October 2001 - Brisbane

Distinguished guests.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Good morning.

It's a pleasure to be speaking to you this morning, albeit at long distance.

I am sorry I can't be with you in person.

I’ve been told that there’s been a fantastic turn out to the conference and I am sure that you’ve enjoyed hearing from some of the expert speakers from Australia and overseas.

As the Commonwealth Minister responsible for housing, I was only too pleased my department could make a contribution towards the conference.

The exchange of ideas and experiences at conferences like this is valuable. So too is the cooperation and relationships that are built.

The notion of a social coalition - where the different levels of government, the community and business sectors work in partnership - is something that we should all be striving for in the area of housing.

Housing policy impacts upon some of the most vulnerable in our community. Governments and parties of all persuasions therefore have a responsibility to engage in an even higher standard of debate when housing is on the agenda.

The facts, and not political spin, should be the components of any discussion on housing because it is too important to treat otherwise.

Let me clear flak that Mr Albanese has introduced into the debate.

The fact is nobody has any reason to query the Commonwealth’s desire to enter into a new CSHA.

The plain fact is - the Howard Government is, just as I assume the State and Territory Governments are, committed to another Commonwealth State Housing Agreement.

In fact, the process for the negotiations for the 2003 CSHA have started. Departmental officers have met and the process is on track.

I am very concerned that Mr Albanese has also claimed that we are about to ‘gut public housing’. He has no basis whatsoever to make this claim.

The unfounded and untrue claims also have the very real potential to scare and upset the people who rely on public housing - the same people who are amongst the most vulnerable in our community.

Those of us who are really interested in housing issues want the facts.

I will leave you to judge what is the motivation behind Mr Albanese’s statements.

Mr Albanese talks about a National Housing Alliance - an alliance he claims will be made between ‘all State and Territory Governments’. He really means Labor Governments.

South Australia isn’t included in that alliance it’s certainly not inclusive. It’s not a genuine attempt to cooperate. It’s a fabrication for political purposes.

That’s not a terribly secure agreement when you consider that State Governments have a habit of changing their political persuasions.

A safer, stronger, more secure agreement is the CSHA between governments of all political persuasions.

It’s a pity that these types of games are being played. But the examples are not just limited to this instance.

Your local minister, Helen Spence, has spent much of the year seeking to blame the Commonwealth for many of the problems that Queensland is having in the area of homelessness. She tells people that we’ve been short-changing her state.

What she doesn’t mention, of course, is that Queensland received a 32% increase to the Commonwealth contribution to emergency and crisis housing funding last year - and that the Queensland Government failed to match the extra $6 million despite the fact that’s what usually happens under SAAP. She also doesn’t tell people that the Commonwealth has paid Queensland every cent of the money entitled to them under the SAAP agreement - an agreement that Queensland freely signed.

Minister Spence has also been reluctant to tell the public that in a letter to my predecessor, Senator Newman, the then Queensland Minister for Families, Youth and Community Care, Anna Bligh, said (and I quote) that 'The Queensland Government acknowledges its long history of underfunding of community services, including supported accommodation services.'

In the Western Australian Parliament last week, Tom Stephens, also tried to create uncertainty around the next CSHA. But he went further by saying that WA’s remote Aboriginal communities needed some recognition and implied that the Commonwealth was not doing its part.

The plain facts are that the Western Australian government has just cut millions of dollars from its indigenous housing program. In contrast, the Howard Government has just put an additional $75 million into indigenous housing.

I’ll leave you to judge why Tom Stephens has said what he said.

Commonwealth Interests in the CSHA

The Commonwealth comes to the CSHA with vital interests at stake. The people most in need of housing

assistance, the most vulnerable, are generally receiving income support from the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth has a powerful incentive to see that their needs are not ignored. That’s why the Commonwealth has boosted funding for emergency and crisis housing.

That’s why our new national homelessness strategy has a focus on preventing homelessness. It is underpinned by the themes of early intervention, crisis and transition support and, once again, working in cooperation. Since then, some of the States have followed our lead and produced their own homelessness strategies, which reflect our directions.

Under our strategy, there is $1 million dollars for research into innovative prevention and early intervention strategies on homelessness that work.

On a larger scale, we are also spending $5 million over three years on pilot programs to find out more about family homelessness and how to prevent it.

In August, I also released a report by the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Homelessness called Working Towards a National Homelessness Strategy. This has been followed up with community consultations across Australia about the report. If you missed out on these, it is not too late to put in your written comments. In fact, we welcome them.

Welfare Reform

Affordable and quality housing has important links to the Howard Government’s plan for welfare reform. You are probably aware that the Government recently announced the first big steps in our welfare reform agenda. Called Australians Working Together, the package represents some of the most far-reaching and important reforms of social security and employment assistance in decades.

With the new $160 million Personal Support Program in particular, we will do much more to help unemployed people overcome serious problems like drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and homelessness, before they need to do some other activity in return for their social security payments.

The importance of housing to economic and social participation will be an important element of welfare reform and we hope to do a lot more work on the interactions between the two in the months to come. For instance, we need to find out more about how poor housing acts as a barrier to people's active involvement in work and community life.

Research

Research has a vital role to play in targeting the joint efforts of Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments.

In particular, we look to AHURl's research program to make a vital contribution to developing coordinated and well-targeted housing policy. Their work will feed into the negotiations on the next Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement.

Issues that research will need to address include aging of the Australian population. As the Baby-boomers age, the number of people aged 65 and over will reach historic proportions over the next few decades. Apart from the pressure on our health, pension and community support systems, there are huge implications for housing, as well.

Older people will be more likely to have disability-related housing needs and many may not have enough retirement income to pay for appropriate housing.

We need to good research to start planning for this now, in every facet of housing policy.

The low standard of Indigenous housing is another pressing issue. This needs an urgent national effort. While we can never hope to have the complete answers, in May this year, State and Territory housing ministers joined the Commonwealth in an unprecedented and joint commitment to work together on this. I only hope that the spirit of cooperation that was present at the Ministerial Council in May returns to those ministers who appear to have misplaced it over the last week or so.

As you know, the Agreement gives a massive billion dollars each year to the States and Territories for public, community and Indigenous rental housing, as well as for crisis accommodation.

It is a very substantial and important investment in our social fabric. It therefore requires an honest, factual and well thought out debate throughout the negotiation process.

Housing is too important to be treated any other way.

I know as you do, that there is rarely ever 100% agreement on any policy made by any Government. The battle of ideas is never ending and I welcome it. But the politics of misinformation is something a debate about housing can’t afford and Australia doesn’t need.

Wider Economic Framework

People who lost their houses in the Keating recession would also appreciate that housing cannot be separated from the wider context of economic management.

In 1996 when the Howard Government came into office, we inherited $ 96 billion of government debt. That level of debt was unsustainable. It also meant that $ 8.5 billion a year was needed to cover the interest payments alone.

Reducing this debt and restructuring the Australian economy was a priority for this Government. It involved some very hard and difficult decisions. But we didn’t do it to please the economists. We did it because that debt was robbing the Australian people of money that could be spent in the future on things like housing, education, roads and health. The longer the debt was there, the longer we would pay for it down the track.

With sound economic management, and, in particular debt management, we’ve achieved low interest rates and that has put home ownership within the reach of more Australian families. Compared to when we came to office in 1996, families are saving nearly $330 a month on a home loan of $100,000. The contrast is even more stark if you compare today’s record low interest rates against those when Mr Beazley was Finance Minister.

The First Home Owner Scheme has helped many thousands of families buy their first home. Since the commencement of the FHOS on 1 July 2000, approximately 150,000 grants have been paid to eligible applicants across Australia.

The funds we put into Rent assistance are also important. Rent Assistance boosts the housing market but the $1.7 billion a year in Rent Assistance paid to over 1 million Australian makes a substantial difference

to affordability - reducing the proportion of customers paying more than 30% of income in rent from 69% to 33%.

What’s more, there’s no queue for Rent Assistance. It’s help that is immediately available and it can move to where the jobs are. Something Government and community housing cannot do.

In conclusion, those of you who know me understand that I welcome robust and rigorous debate. I welcome practical and workable solutions. I enjoy the exchange of ideas. I believe that in the negotiation of the next CSHA, we will all need to work together in an open and honest way to make Australia’s housing better. The Howard Government recognises that the Commonwealth has a vital stake in housing and it is committed to doing this. I hope that the commitment is shared by the State and Territory governments.

I hope that you’ve had a great conference and the time remaining is also enjoyable. Thank you.

Ends