BILLS - Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017 - Second Reading

November 27, 2018

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (17:45):   I would also like to make a contribution on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017, and indicate at the outset that I certainly strongly support the second reading amendment moved by the Shadow Minister. This is another example of the government's inaction when it comes to housing affordability. The government love to talk it up—they love to talk about housing affordability—but this is just another example of their inactivity when it comes to dealing with housing affordability. As speaker after speaker on our side have indicated, this bill, really, in terms of community housing, applies to about one per cent of the rental base. But, nevertheless, they actually see this as almost signature legislation for them. I would have thought it would have been far more beneficial for the government to actually address the issue of housing affordability and take a serious view about homelessness in this country.

If this government was serious about homelessness, it would certainly be doing something about mental health, which is one of the main triggers and issues of homelessness. It would also, particularly—as experienced in my own electorate—be doing something about the issues with crisis accommodation, particularly for women fleeing domestic violence. Clearly there are many, many other vulnerable Australians who would be part of this cohort of the one percent that the government is really applying this legislation to capture.

I'd like to read to the House what Associate Professor Lisa Woods from the Centre for Social Impact says in her submission in terms of the intergenerational effects of the failure to invest in people for whom housing is unaffordable or inadequate. She says:

'We see there is a risk of inequity. A lot of people who are homeless have experienced childhood drama. There are many who are experiencing mental health issues. Many of them are victims of sexual abuse, so there are complex cases. These inequities are deep-rooted.'

I think that's right. When it comes to these issues—when you think that 99 percent of all those in social housing are able to meet their rental responsibilities on time—this is directed to that one percent.

On many occasions I've spoken in this place about how I have the very distinct honour of representing what is the most multicultural community in the whole of Australia. It's very colourful; it's very vibrant. We certainly revel in its diversity. But, regrettably, it's not a rich community. As a matter of fact, I disproportionately have, it's probably fair to say, the lion's share of immigrants and, particularly, refugees who come to this country. The bulk of them feature in my area in south-west Sydney, particularly in the local government area of Fairfield.

It is also worthwhile noting that the average household income in my electorate is a tad over $60,000 per annum. That's not the average income; that's the average household income. As I say, mine is not a rich community and, therefore, housing affordability and social housing are very, very big and material issues for the people I have the honour of representing. As such, the issue of housing affordability is something that my office deals with regularly. I am indebted to the great work that is done by the various community housing organisations I have working in Western Sydney, particularly Hume Housing and St George Community Housing. There is also the housing provided by the Gandangara Local Land Council, as I have a large Aboriginal population based around Liverpool. These organisations do a great job, together with various other government funded agencies, in trying to accommodate the essential needs of people—and that is putting a roof over families' heads.

One other organisation I would like to mention—and I spoke a fair bit about it yesterday—is the Bonnie Support Services. Yesterday we spoke in this place about White Ribbon Day and violence against women. Bonnie Support Services is an extraordinary organisation that does an incredible job in providing not only support services and counselling to victims of domestic violence; it also provides crisis accommodation to those victims. So it is something which is just so fundamental in my community when bearing in mind that more than 50 per cent of all assaults reported to police in my community are domestic violence related. I would like to read to you what Tracy Phillips, the Executive Officer of Bonnie Support Services, particularly advised me. She said that:

… there is a clear lack of crisis and transitional housing for women and children, with individuals having to be referred to other organisations on a daily basis, due to their lack of capacity.

These are not figures that are just plucked out. These are things which are happening. I would imagine, in terms of domestic violence, my electorate doesn't stand alone in that. This is something that affects everybody. But I certainly know the impact it has in my community.

Instead of taking steps to rectify housing affordability in this regard, the government are fixated on this automatic rent deduction for social housing tenants and making changes to the administration of the National Rental Administration Scheme. As I said from the outset, this is not a serious attempt to deal with housing affordability. It's just another tick-and-flick process that we've come to expect from this government. They have probably picked the most marginalised community to have a go at. That is what this does. It is clear from the outset.

We will support modest amendments to the National Rental Affordability Scheme, particularly in Schedule 3 of the bill, which actually brings the scheme back in line with what our targets were when Labor formally introduced them. However, we still, as I say, hold great reservations about Schedule 1 and Schedule 2, which impose a mandatory automatic rental reduction scheme.

In trying to dig through this I sought the advice of the Parliamentary Library, a great asset we have in this place in terms of research capability. That advice shows that 86 percent of public and social housing tenants voluntarily use the Rental Deduction Scheme. The Parliamentary Library also was able to indicate that, in terms of the rental collection rate, 99 percent of all social housing or public housing tenants are able to pay their rent on time. Hence we get back to the one-percenters. This time we're not talking about the bikies, who those opposite like to talk about. The one-percenters in this case are the most vulnerable in our community, those who are, perhaps, age pensioners, people on a disability support pension or carer payment or people on family tax benefit—not to forget those on Newstart and Youth Allowance.

This may not be a big thing for those opposite, who have more-affluent electorates than the one I have the honour to represent. I've said my electorate's not rich, but it's certainly not uncommon for Members, whether they're on my side or the other side, to have pockets of disadvantage. Perhaps my pockets, in areas of Western Sydney, are just a bit larger. These are matters that really go to the heart and soul of a community. Through this bill we are going to marginalise those least likely to be able to assist themselves without support—those who are suffering from mental health issues, those who are suffering from domestic violence, as I've mentioned, and the many, many age and disability support pensioners that my community supports.

The Senate inquiry into the bill heard overwhelming evidence that rental arrears is not the main cause for evictions from social housing and that homelessness in Australia cannot be tackled without assessing the issues of mental health, domestic violence and the lack of affordable housing. The Joint Committee on Human Rights noted that this bill appears to disproportionately negatively impact women, people with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I think that captures much of what I said earlier about the way I see this being applied in my electorate to those at the sharp end of this Liberal government legislation. A Labor government will tackle the holistic aspects of homelessness and ensure that the causes of homelessness and housing insecurity are addressed—not just issues around rental arrears but the underpinning issues—so that we can help people effectively break these bonds which link them to disadvantage.

We've got to actually listen to real people. There is no doubt some whiz-bang person, whether a consultant or otherwise, within the department thought, 'This is a good way that the government can retrieve a bit of revenue. It sounds really good out there in the public domain. We're going to get tough on social welfare. We're going to get tough on those who use and rely on social housing.' But, realistically, this is not what a government should be doing. A government should not have as its central aspect a signature policy that demeans the most vulnerable in the community, but that's what's occurring with this legislation. We'll be moving amendments to ensure there are appropriate safeguards to protect tenants and ensure the scheme does not place them in undue financial hardship. We see ourselves as the alternative government, and as the alternative government we have a responsibility to help lift people out of social welfare dependency. We need to help people to be able to raise a family. We need to be able to help people overcome issues of mental health. All these things go to what this bill strikes down.

I don't know what credible research the government want to pin this on. They're not going to make an arm or a leg that's going to affect the fiscal outlook of the country. This is not going to change the fact that they're going to rush to bring down the budget a month early next year so they can work out where they're going to throw the cash before the next election. Clearly they're not going to throw anything to assist people at the margins and the people that this bill is designed to negatively impact.

This is legislation that is retrograde for the parliament. It's certainly retrograde for anyone who wants to hold their head up and say they're a Parliamentarian representing a community.

Professor Richard Holden, a Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales, referring to the last budget, said that the biggest disappointment

… of all was the absence of any measure whatsoever to address negative gearing and CGT exemptions for rental properties.

This mob opposite want to fudge around and say they're doing something about housing affordability, so they just pick on the most marginal but don't do anything about the root cause of issues affecting housing affordability or, in particular, in this instance, homelessness. This is something that they should hang their heads in shame about. We have a real privilege in this place to do things for the benefit of the community. This is a piece of legislation that does the opposite.