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Homelessness and housing affordability

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 23 Nov 2013

Senator LUDLAM: Some of my questions have been asked already. Who advises the department on housing supply? I spoke to Treasury officials last night and they gave similarly ambiguous answers as to why you just abolished the National Housing Supply Council. So where is the department getting its advice on supply issues now?

Mr Riley: The responsibility for housing supply continues to rest with the Treasury-a parliamentary secretary within the Treasury.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, well they are flying blind now, I am afraid. So, who do you actually-

Mr Riley: There is a range of sources on housing supply that we use. We continue to use the material from the National Housing Supply Council. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report recently that covered some of the relevant issues, and there is a range of Australian Bureau of Statistics releases that are relevant there as well.

Senator LUDLAM: Was the department consulted before the PM, in this whole-of-government decision, axed the National Housing Supply Council?

Mr Pratt: Yes.

Mr Lye: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Hold on: so, one says yes and one says no; I love it when that happens! Was the department consulted?

Mr Pratt: I will retract my 'yes' and defer to Mr Lye's greater expertise on this.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay.

Senator McLUCAS: So Mr Lye-

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, and what was the view when you were consulted?

Mr Lye: We provided advice that the importance of housing supply information, as Mr Riley says, comes from a range of sources and that that was one of the inputs that we use in our work on housing policy. It does not rest solely on the presence of external bodies, and so our advice was on the importance of housing supply as an input rather than the mechanism by which it is derived.

Senator LUDLAM: How many FTEs do you actually have dedicated to housing in the department, and has there been a change since the last budget?

Senator McLUCAS: I did cover that earlier.

Senator LUDLAM: You did? Okay. I will go back to the transcript-apologies for coming a little bit late.
Does this government actually have a homelessness policy? I can put this to you, Senator Fifield, if the officers at the table do not want to venture an opinion.

Senator Fifield: Yes, the government does have policies in relation to homelessness.

Senator LUDLAM: Could you point me to where they are? For example-maybe we should be specific-is the minister committed to the white paper goal of halving homelessness by 2020 and providing services to all who need it? Let's start there.

Senator Fifield: It is probably best that I defer to those officers who work most closely with Minister Andrews.
Senator LUDLAM: It is a policy question, though, but if you want to-
Senator Fifield: Certainly, and those officers who work with Minister Andrews are aware of the policy that Minister Andrews has.

Senator LUDLAM: All right. Please, go ahead.

Ms Black: Maybe I can give you some context as well, which might assist you. The government is supportive of a variety of approaches to assist people who are homeless and people who are at risk of homelessness, and to stop people falling back into homelessness. But it has also been pretty clear that the responsibility for delivering those services is a responsibility of states and territories and the Commonwealth plays able contributory role in that regard. In relation to states and territories, the vast majority of states and territories have their own strategies and targets around homelessness and the Commonwealth's role is to contribute to those. A lot of those strategies leverage off the previous government's white paper, so many of the strategies in that are reflected in those jurisdictional strategies. In relation to the targets specifically, the government has noted that it will be more focused on practical measures than on targets.

Senator LUDLAM: I was enjoying your contribution right up to that point. So the government does not have a target to halve homelessness by 2020?

Ms Black: My understanding is that the government has said its preference is to focus on practical measures around homelessness.

Senator LUDLAM: Were you not focusing on practical measures before?

Ms Black: Yes, Senator. The primary change will be the relationship in terms of the agreements we have in place. The government has noted it is largely supportive of the objectives of the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, but it does have concerns around transparency and accountability in relation to those agreements and has indicated it will work pretty closely with states and territories mapping any reform path and any future arrangements in place.

Senator LUDLAM: We might have just subtly changed the subject, so if I could just bring you back: I am not aware whether the Prime Minister or the new minister has at any time committed to halving homelessness. How are you going to benchmark the processes and the tracking of the states and territories which, as you have acknowledged, play a very important role if there is no target? We could be having this same conversation in 20 years.

Mr Pratt: Senator, I do not want to be argumentative but-

Senator LUDLAM: That is probably my job.

Mr Pratt: I am about to be argumentative. The fact that at this stage the government has not announced a specific target does not mean that we are not able to work on practical measures, as Ms Black has discussed, to reduce homelessness or that we cannot measure success over time. The previous government had a very clear target of halving homelessness by 2020. The new government is yet to articulate what it proposes to do. We are working very closely with Minister Andrews on the issues of housing supply, affordable housing and ways to reduce homelessness but at some stage the government will decide what it wishes to do in those areas and then announce that. As yet, we are not in a position to tell you what that is.

Senator LUDLAM: I did not find that argumentative at all. That was helpful. Minister, this is to you because it is a policy question: is the Abbott government formally abandoning the existing target of halving homelessness by 2020? It is not just a case of letting it drift. Are you going to abandon that target and that ambition or are you going to uphold it?

Senator Fifield: The government, as the officer at the table has already indicated, does not see a target based approach as the answer. A lot of these responsibilities fall within the states' sphere, so there are limits to what the Commonwealth can expect to achieve on its own.

Senator LUDLAM: Point me to any section at all in the Constitution that indicates the primary responsibility for homelessness rests with the states.

Senator Fifield: I am just saying that-

Senator LUDLAM: That was kind of rhetorical. I know it is not in there.

Senator Fifield: My point is that lots of-

CHAIR: Seriously, have you read them?

Senator SESELJA: If it is not in the Commonwealth Constitution that would suggest it rests with the states.

Senator Fifield: My point is that-
CHAIR: You cannot get out of everything that is not in the Constitution, perhaps.
Senator LUDLAM: The Commonwealth has most of the taxing power, Senator Fifield. If you are not going to resource the efforts of the states, it is not going to get done. These officers have just explained they are working in a vacuum. Is the government formally abandoning that path or not?
Mr Abbott has said he thinks some people choose to be homeless, for example. Now that, to me, sounds so utterly counterproductive that I cannot believe it came out of his mouth, but is that part of this government's policy on homelessness?

Senator Fifield: Is what part of this government's policy on homelessness?

Senator LUDLAM: That people choose to be homeless, so there is no point in eradicating homelessness or cutting it in half.

Senator Fifield: I am not aware of the statement that you are referring to.

Senator LUDLAM: You folk need to keep better notes of what the guy says. Some of it is extraordinary.

Senator Fifield: I cannot add to what I have said already.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness was given a one-year extension last year. Can you provide us with an update on what is going on with renegotiating that?

Ms Black: Senator, at this stage there is no funding in the forward estimates for a National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. However, I go back to my previous comments around the minister's commitment to work with his jurisdictional counterparts and for us to engage at officials level around what any future homelessness funding arrangements may look like.

Senator LUDLAM: Are you expecting anything to move on this before the budget, or not?

Ms Black: That is a matter for government, Senator.

Senator LUDLAM: That is true, it is. What about the overarching NAHA? That appeared to have hit the wall under the previous government; it was not going very far or very fast. Is the new minister going to make an effort to revitalise the NAHA, which does expire next June?

Mr Lye: I will make a couple of comments. One is that the minister gave the speech, which I referred to before, and in that speech he gave some indications in relation to housing policy, and in relation to homelessness, where he sees some of the key issues. Coming back to some of the discussion before, he obviously points to the fact that the supply issue is substantially in the control of state and territory governments. He also made some comments about where he would like to see the NAHA go. So I think that is probably a guide to the future of the NAHA.

Senator LUDLAM: I have not read the speech, so I will track that down. When will the membership of the National Regulatory Council for Community Housing be announced?

Mr Riley: I will just turn to that page in my brief.

Senator LUDLAM: While you are checking, I just wanted to point out that that minister's speech apparently extensively quoted from the National Housing Supply Council. I will just share that moment of irony. I am not sure where he is going to source the data for his next speech.

Mr Riley: The national regulatory system is primarily a matter for the states and territories. The national regulatory council to support that system is also primarily a matter for the states and territories, and the government is considering its position on its future participation in that council.

Senator LUDLAM: There is a bit of a theme emerging that it is none of the Commonwealth's business to be worried about housing affordability. My last question is about the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which has been arguably successful. I do not know that the coalition aggressively opposed it when they were in opposition. What is the minister's policy on the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which has very broad industry support? Will that be continued, and will there be more incentives issued?
Ms Mandla: The minister, in a recent speech at the National Housing Conference, indicated that he understands the important role that NRAS can play in providing more affordable rental housing. However, he has also indicated that there is scope to improve the scheme, particularly in relation to ways of spurring delivery under the scheme, under a 'use it or lose it' approach of exploring where there are requests to change promised delivery dates, locations, dwelling types and also the way that charities receive their incentive-so potentially looking at allowing greater flexibility for charities. We recently had a window where charities could elect to receive their incentive as a refundable tax offset, where they had previously elected cash, where their business models change. The minister has also indicated that before he would progress any changes to the scheme he would consult with relevant stakeholders, including states and territories.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you for not saying that these things are the responsibility of states and territories. I do not envy you folk at all over the next little while.

Senator Fifield: States and territories do exist!
Senator LUDLAM: I am from one of them.


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