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Thursday, 24 May 1973
Page: 2662

Mr HOLTEN (Indi) - I think that every honourable member with any sense of feeling for members of the Australian community would share the thoughts expressed by the honourable member for Batman (Mr Garrick) and other honourable members. Every member of all the Parties that are represented in this House of course wants to see ever person, no matter what is his financial position, adequately and suitably housed. But to be quite realistic, there will always be needy people in the community, as the honourable member for Batman implied. Another realistic fact is that there are not unlimited finances, materials and human resources to devote purely to housing. Therefore, there will always be this problem unless some unforeseeable miracle occurs. People in what we might call the very low income bracket will always have a problem in purchasing a home or even in finding a suitable home to rent.

However, the point I want to make is that the Labor Government has no monopoly of concern for and interest in the average person, or perhaps even the below average person, in the Australian community. It is proposed that an amendment to one clause of this Bill will be moved by my colleague the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett). The Australian Country Party will support the amendment that he proposes to move. In essence it is to amend the 30 per cent figure in clause 19 of the Schedule and make it 50 per cent. The Bills we are debating now are complementary to one another and have varying degrees of significance. The main Bill is the Housing Agreement Bill 1973. It contains 4 clauses and a schedule with 29 clauses. The Bill is a continuation of many such Bills which have been introduced in this House since 1945 when the Commonwealth Government first gave assistance to the State governments under an agreement regarding the provisions and use of finance for government housing purposes. These agreements have traditionally been negotiated and agreed to, at least in recent years, each 5 years.

As I have said, the Commonwealth Government has been providing money since 1945. The second Bill authorises the Treasurer to make advances totalling $84.6m to the various States for the first 6 months of the next financial year, from 1 July 1973 to 31 December 1973. New South Wales will get $28.6m, Victoria $18.75m, Queensland $7.75m, South Australia $14.75m, Western Australia $ 10.5m and Tasmania $4.25m. Those figures should add up to a total of $84.6m for the first 6 months of the next financial year. The third Bill amends the States Grants (Housing) Act 1971 so as to withdraw Commonwealth assistance to the States in the form of grants of $2. 75m a year over 30 years in respect of any advance they may make to their housing authorities and their home builders' accounts during the next 3 financial years. However, the basic housing grant of $2.75m a year in respect of State housing activities in each of the last 2 financial years will continue to be paid for the remainder of the 30-year period.

The major Bill, as I said, is the Housing Agreement Bill. It has 4 clauses and a Schedule with 29 clauses. One of the basic things in this Bill is that it asks for the approval of this Parliament for the Minister for Housing (Mr Les Johnson) to negotiate an agreement with the States in accordance with the terms of the Bill and its Schedule. The Schedule contains important terms and conditions which, if this Parliament - that is the House of Representatives and the Senate - agree to this Bill, the Commonwealth Minister will be authorised to offer to the States. There is disagreement among the Opposition Parties in this House - that is the Liberal Party and the Country Party - and also disagreement in every State Government about one particular figure in clause 19 of the Schedule. I shall deal with that more fully later. As is well known, a great deal of controversy, discussion and publicity has attached to meetings between the Federal and State Ministers over this matter, both at official meetings and through interviews with media representatives. To say that there has been considerable dissatisfaction on the part of State Ministers with many fundamental policies and proposals of the Labor Government and the new Minister for Housing would be rather understating the problem. The main reason for this fierce debate and opposition is that certain of the proposals in the Bill represent a complete departure from the traditional and basic conditions of previous Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements.

The Bill, to a certain extent, is not a definite clear cut proposal because it has not been agreed to by the States. Therefore it is difficult for this House to appraise and consider in a realistic way the provisions contained in the Schedule. Nevertheless we are forced into that position. Really the Bill only seeks the approval of the Parliament for the Minister to negotiate with the States. For the first time for some years there has been no final meeting of Federal and State Ministers at which a basic agreement has been reached on a major and fundamental point. This is a very unusual situation. Not only has no agreement been reached; according to my information, the situation is quite to the contrary. It could be inferred from the Schedule that the States had agreed to all the conditions contained in it, but my understanding is that this is definitely far from being the true position.

It is not possible to cover all the details of all the circumstances and policies relating to housing provisions in every State in Australia in the few minutes at my disposal so I propose to confine my comments basically to the circumstances in my own State of Victoria. Other speakers - the honourable, member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett) and the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Bourchier) - have very competently dealt with certain aspects of this position but reiteration may not hurt. The concern of the Victorian Government reflects the general concern of other States. There is a strong and consistent note of genuine con cern - it is a common denominator - about the change of emphasis from State control of State finances and decisions regarding housing finance. The major point of concern is contained in clause 19 (1) of the Schedule which states:

Subject to sub-clause (2) of this clause, the Housing Authority of a State shall not sell more than 30 per centum of the family dwellings . . .

That refers to the dwellings built with the money provided. The States are not to sell more than 30 per cent of such houses. Never in the history of Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements has any restriction been placed on the State Housing authorities and this is the burning point at issue: Whether we should agree in this House to a restriction, particularly one of 30 per cent.

The Labor Minister for Housing certainly encountered very strong opposition on this aspect all along the line. From the time that he made his statement on 16 January he has been roundly condemned by all State Ministers - Country Party, Liberal Party and Labor Party - in the various State governments, and rightly so. His original proposal went against all the traditions and birthrights which the average Australian has valued so highly for many years. His original proposal was that this huge amount of Commonwealth money for the States - I calculated that it worked out over 5 years to be roughly about $84m, and probably more - could be used in future for rental houses only. Under that scheme many people no longer would have their traditional right of purchase. Many people in the income group just below the average weekly earning have depended for years on this type of housing to achieve their lifelong inbuilt ambition to own their own home and land. This traditional right is a basic ingredient of the expectation of thousands of Australians who for varying reasons find this type of home is the type that they are most capable of achieving.

Evidence of their appreciation of and pride in the ownership of a Housing Commission house can be seen across the length and breadth of Australia, both in the capita! cities and in the rural areas. Under previous governments formed by the Liberal and Country Parties people felt secure in the knowledge that they would be able to use part of their weekly income for payments towards owning their own home rather than pay rent every week and at the end of each year have no asset to show for their money. They could do this, particularly in Victoria, almost by choice. The objective of the Commonwealth Minister for Housing in January was to take this away from them. This sense of security received a severe jolt with the election of a Labor Government and the appointment of the present Minister for Housing. The first rude awakening came with the bombshell announcement by the Minister on 16 January per medium of a 5i-page Press statement. The bombshell was more or less tucked away on page 4 of that statement, which said:

I also propose that the sale of new homes built by the State Housing Authority after June 30 next be severely restricted, if not entirely prohibited, with sales to continue from their existing stock.

This was the statement that really set the State Ministers of Housing alight and concerned a great number of people throughout Australia. The general theme of the statement was designed to give the impression that the new Labor Government was introducing a big new deal for people on low incomes, that at last here was a government which really cared about needy people. The Minister was obviously unaware of the situation in some States, particularly in Victoria. I will not repeat in detail the statistics that have already been mentioned by the honourable members for Bendigo and Herbert but one figure, I think, is very illustrative of the situation. Until 1955 only 52 out of 15,000 housing commission homes in Victoria were able to be purchased. Since then 34,000 out of 57,000 building units have been purchased at a very reasonable interest rate. The information I have is that there is no need at all to restrict sales in Victoria. However the Minister, by use of what I might term the technique of financial blackmail, has said to the State governments: 'Here is the money. You can take it under the condition that 30 per cent' - it was to be none - 'of the houses built can be sold. You can take the money at 4 per cent. If you do not do that you will take the money all right but you will pay the long term bond rate, which is 6i per cent'. The calculation is that over 53 years the difference in cost to Victoria would be $175m or $3m a year.

So this Bill seems to represent quite a sinister departure from Labor's professed policy of encouraging people on all sides and of all income levels to own their own homes. There have been no final discussions with the States. Many State Housing Ministers are very upset, as the Minister will no doubt ascertain with great definiteness when this Bill goes through the 2 Houses. All States are unanimous, I understand, that they want the figure in clause 19 increased from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. I understand that that was the effect of a motion that was moved, seconded and agreed to by all States in Adelaide recently.

Just briefly I wish to relate this Bill to the situation in rural areas. Presuming that a satisfactory agreement can be reached between the State and Federal Ministers, I, particularly on behalf of the Australian Country Party, make special mention of the importance of the States spending in country areas a fair and substantial share of the $84.6m over the next 6 months and a similar substantial proportion of the millions of dollars that will be available over the next 5 years. If this happens the expenditure in rural areas will be an excellent investment for the Government and for the people of Australia. Extra houses in rural areas would make a tremendous contribution to the successful decentralisation of our population. Ever increasing amounts of money will need to be provided to get more houses in both metropolitan and rural areas. Costs are rising dramatically for several reasons. Lack of skilled tradesmen caused substantially by our reduced migration program, shortage of timber and other materials, rising wages not matched by increased productivity and longer holidays, are all causes of the rocketing costs of building a home. On top of all these causes, of course, the Commonwealth Government supports the stupid proposal to introduce a 35-hour week. This can only add further to the cost and the housing industry will be one of the areas worst affected by the 35-hour week. However the Labor Government apparently could not care less about public opinion or responsible economic management. The Minister for Housing, presumably with the complete support of the Labor Government, has brought this Bill to the House. Whilst there is general agreement with the objective of the Bill to provide Commonwealth-State housing money over 5 years, the amendment that is proposed to be moved by the honourable member for Herbert, which will be supported by myself and the Country Party, is the crux of the matter. It is to the effect that the homes available for sale should be increased to 50 per cent. <

Debate interrupted.

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