Mr Wilson (7:22pm) — In the time that remains, I want to say some pretty clear and simple things about the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. It’s not impressive in itself. I don’t think there’s much evidence that it’s going to do anything to address homelessness or help people at risk of homelessness in this country. It points to the glaring absence of policy and program action by the government in this space.
We know that homelessness is a pressing issue in Australia. Despite the government spending a lot of time talking about how great the economy is, there are a lot of people who are not experiencing that, and that has got worse for people who are experiencing homelessness or facing circumstances of insecure housing.
Earlier this year, Homelessness Australia pointed out that there are 195,000 Australian households waiting for social housing, there’s a shortfall of nearly half a million affordable homes across Australia, and each year 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services for help. So there is a desperate need for action on this front, and yet the government bowls up with this bill that really is fundamentally punitive. It will make the ability to apply mandatory rental deductions available to state and territory jurisdictions, even though there’s no real evidence that that will achieve anything.
In material from the Parliamentary Library, which the Senate inquiry considered, it said that for the five years from 2011-12 to 2015-16 national rent collection rates averaged over 99 per cent across public housing, community housing, and state owned and managed Indigenous housing. Eighty-six per cent of all households that currently live in public and social housing are already making use of voluntary rent deductions. There’s no great gap to be addressed in terms of the use of rent deductions where it’s appropriate; there’s no revenue problem as far as the return of rents from public, community and social housing; and rental arrears in themselves are not a significant cause of homelessness. All the evidence to the Senate inquiry and all the evidence that we’ve seen from sectoral stakeholders in recent times shows that the causes of homelessness are things like mental illness, substance abuse, family violence and so on. So, there’s already a mechanism in place for people to opt in to rental deductions if that’s going to help them stay in housing, and there’s no evidence to suggest that mandatorily making that the case is really going to deliver any significant change.
What would, of course, deliver some significant change is increased funding to address all of those things I mentioned before. I mean, 300,000 Australians attend homelessness services each year. Last year, 66,000 people were turned away from homelessness support services, and yet earlier this year, when the government came along with what I termed at the time the ‘N-HAHA’, the national housing and homelessness agreement bill, it really just maintained the status quo as far as the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness are concerned. There was no growth funding to support social housing growth, nor was there any growth funding when it comes to the services that actually support people facing homelessness.
More than that, in terms of its wreckage and relentlessly negative agenda, the government that will come to be known for the things that it damaged and got rid of, will be known in this space for getting rid of the Housing Help for Seniors pilot, for defunding homelessness and community housing peak bodies and for abolishing the National Housing Supply Council. That’s the record of this government. And it turns up here, late in 2018, in the face of that aching need and the gross inadequacy of the Commonwealth when it comes to meaningful action to deal with homelessness and provide better services and more affordable housing, and instead proposes something that’s more punitive: to mandatorily extract rent from people when they have the opportunity to opt in to that if they like. There’s no evidence to suggest that, if it’s imposed upon them, it’s going to do anything meaningful to help them in their circumstances.
That’s why Labor has flagged a series of amendments that would mean that you would only even contemplate the mandatory application of rent deductions when you had already ensured there were proper counselling and financial services considerations. You’d only do it after there was a substantial period of rental arrears; you would cap the amount that could be deducted; and you would ensure that it would only apply to rental arrears and arrears in relation to utilities, and not to property damage, because there is evidence that, if you go down that path, you will cause harm and damage to people who are already disadvantaged. I make the point—and my colleagues would know—that it’s passing strange that you’d even look at something like this when you’ve got no appetite for dealing with consumer leases and no appetite for dealing with payday lending. If you really wanted to look at people who are in difficult financial circumstances, the last thing you’d go and do is just whack on this additional punitive measure when you’re doing nothing to address the causes of homelessness, you’re doing nothing to address an increase in social housing stock and you’re not looking to get out the shonks and the predators in payday lending and commercial leases.
I finish by saying that, on the day that the Minister for Women was trumpeting the statement that’s supposed to look to provide financial security for women, they have withdrawn funding under the Women’s Safety Package, which supports family and domestic violence programs in Western Australia. They might start by focusing on those practical things rather than the production of glossy pamphlets.