Minister can drive reduced homelessness

Cartoon courtesy Ian Sharpe, Canberra TimesIt’s not often you get a chance to profoundly make the nation a better place, but new Homes and Homelessness Minister Robert McClelland has just such an opportunity. He needs to gather disparate policies across portfolios and stop them pulling in different directions to the detriment of Australia’s downtrodden.

Minister can lead in reducing homelessness

By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia

For the new Minister for Housing and Homelessness to boost the number of houses available and reduce the numbers of homeless, he must change long-standing policy inside and outside his portfolio.

His best option is to uniformly trim all the reins which control housing, rather than allow them to continue to pull hard at crossed settings. To match the hope reflected in his title – more housing, less homelessness – he must convince Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, that tax concessions are prime drivers of decreasing housing availability and increasing homelessness.

Why does this concern Civil Liberties Australia? Because homeless people are among the most disadvantaged Australians. Only in dying do they have an ‘advantage’ over the rest of us, something like 30 years early.

Without a home, you are at the mercy of people who ignore individual liberties and dignity: even police –guardians of our society’s rights – are often nonplussed about what to do with homeless people found in depressing circumstances late at night in inner-city back streets. As for the homeless, how do you give police your address, as the law demands when you are arrested, if you have no fixed abode?

Homeless means no-one knows where or how to contact you. Centrelink payments? To where?  Health services? Where do they send your pathology results? That’s if you can get to see a GP because you have no “local doctor”. It’s not that you can’t have a doctor, it’s that you have no “local”. And so on, across government services. To be homeless is to be sub-society, not looked at…unless the direction is down.

Because the homeless are so metaphorically trodden upon, CLA gave unusual scrutiny to an early pronouncement of the new Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Robert McClelland (until early December 2011, the Attorney-General of Australia). Mr McClelland welcomed the release of the National Housing Supply Council’s (NHSC) State of Supply Report 2011

Before turning to the Minister’s comments, this is what the NHSC said in its December 2011 report:

Key findings include:

  • The production of additional housing stock failed to match increased underlying demand in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
  • The extent of the deficit in the construction of dwellings was moderated by the production of additional social housing funded as part of the economic stimulus package that responded to the Global Financial Crisis.
  • But there was still a shortfall of the order of 28,000 dwellings in 2009-10, producing an estimated cumulative shortage of nearly 187,000 dwellings since June 2001.
  • The shortfall is projected to have extended to around 215,000 in 2010-11.
  • The largest gaps between underlying demand and supply are in NSW and Queensland.
  • The housing ‘sub-markets’ with the greatest shortages are affordable purchase and rental for households on low to moderate income, and subsidised rental housing for low income people.


Ends NHSC comment

This is what Minister McClelland said, about the same report, same facts:

“The Labor Government has done a lot to increase the available housing stock, both public and private. However, as this report highlights, there is still a lot to be done to address the inescapable fact that growth in underlying demand for housing is outstripping supply.”

“The report confirms that access to affordable housing is a challenge for many Australians. We need to make sure housing supply matches the needs of our changing population – that is why the Government is making an unprecedented investment to increase the supply of affordable housing across the nation.

“Initiatives include the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which is providing financial incentives for investors to build 50,000 new affordable dwellings for rental to low to moderate income households.

“The Government has also invested $450 million in the Housing Affordability Fund and provides over $1.2 billion each year to the states as part of the National Affordable Housing Agreement.  The Government’s Building Better Regional Cities program will assist the construction of more affordable homes in regional cities.

“The resulting surge in supply of affordable housing for people on low to moderate incomes over the past two years has been recognised in the report.”

“The report found that while housing supply has increased, it has risen at a slower rate than demand, with the gap between underlying demand and supply increasing by approximately 28,200 dwellings in the year to June 2010. While the report notes that rents have grown faster than wages in recent years, over the last fifteen years wage growth has outstripped rents.

“The report illustrates there are some challenges in the housing market in future years.

“For example, many regions may see a shift in the kind of housing being sought by Australians as demographics change. The report suggests that tackling the housing shortage is not simply about increasing the number of homes being built but about building the right types of homes in the right places.

“Opportunities to address this challenge will be examined as part of the Housing Supply and Affordability Reform agenda.  The Government is working with the states to finalise this examination of supply constraints in the housing market, with a report to be delivered to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) soon.

Ends McClelland comment

In truth, experts tell CLA, the gap between the ‘underlying’ demand for housing (driven mainly by immigration and a long term decline in the number of people per household as a result of the trend towards smaller families, family break-up and population aging) and the supply of housing (completions less demolitions) is continuing to increase.

In other words, for all the money pumped in by government, outcomes are trending the wrong way. Housing stock is declining; homelessness is increasing.

The NHSC began in 2008. Its current (third) report is a little more explicit than its first two about reasons for the growing gap. What is the main problem? Federal government policies are at cross-purposes. For the most part, they boost demand for housing without doing much to increase supply of housing. At the same time, State and local governments, through their land use and planning policies, how they charge ‘up front’ for infrastructure provision, and in some cases how they levy land tax, are holding back increases in the supply of housing.

Minister McClelland is obviously putting as positive a “spin” on the report as is possible – that is, he can’t deny the problem and he’s trying to say, “Well at least some of our policies have sought to increase supply.”

If he is referring to the National Rental Affordability Scheme and the now-finished Social Housing Initiative, which was part of the fiscal stimulus response to the Global Financial Crisis, what he claims has the merit of being true, even if the additional supply procured by these two policies is small relative to the size of the shortfall.

But what he doesn’t acknowledge is the elephant in the room: this Labor Government hasn’t been prepared to alter long-standing (Liberal Government) policies which exacerbate the problem, such as First Home Owner Grants and “negative gearing”.

Minister McClelland has a unique opportunity. He can adjust the reins controlling his twin unruly steeds, paired but pulling in different directions. He needs to build consensus across government for a realignment of government policy, He needs to be continuously in the ear of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, in particular, so that the Government stops penalising the wage earner at the expense of the speculator, and trims – at least – the unacceptable beneficence allowed relatively well-off people at the expense of society’s downtrodden.

Homelessness can be of a person’s own making…and yes, we are all responsible for our actions. But the homeless are not responsible for the actions of governments which effectively put concrete blocks around their feet as they try to climb the first rung of the ladder in The Lucky Country.

Minister McClelland – in what is likely to be his final ministerial portfolio – has a rare chance to leave his mark for the better on the nation. If he does, more Australians will sleep more easily at night.


For an opinion of the effect of negative gearing on Australia, read this – Time to axe negative gearing –  an April 2011 analysis in The Age/SMH by respected economics commentator Saul Eslake.  At the time of writing this article, Mr Eslake was with the Grattan Institute: he is now (Jan 2012) Chief Economist of Bank of America – Merrill Lynch Australia.

…from The Guardian (London), 23 December 2011: Homeless people (in the UK) can expect their lives to be about 30 years shorter than average, with a likelihood of dying at around 47, a life expectancy comparable to that in the Congo, according to a report by the charity Crisis. Homelessness: A Silent Killer reports that homeless people in the UK who suffer the stresses and strains of alcoholism and substance abuse live only a little longer than those in the poorest countries, with the average age of death at 47 for men and 43 for women. This compares with 77 for the general population. The research, by Sheffield University, calculated that drug and alcohol abuse were responsible for just over a third of deaths among the homeless. They were also nine times more likely to kill themselves than the general public, and twice as likely to die of infections.

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