National Rental Affordability Scheme Amendment Bill 2019


Peter Khalil: I rise to speak in support of the member for Blaxland’s amendment to the motion for the second reading of the National Rental Affordability Scheme Amendment Bill 2019. While Labor will support the National Rental Affordability Scheme Amendment Bill, we know that this bill does not entirely tackle the challenges that we have in making sure that everyone has access to affordable housing. I believe, as a baseline, that everyone deserves access to affordable housing. It’s fundamental to a fair go, the most quintessential of Labor values and Australian values. But what does that actually mean?

For me and my family, when my parents came to settle in Australia, a new country, as migrants from Egypt in the early seventies, having access to affordable housing helped them settle and gave them that baseline. Thanks to the policies of Labor governments working to ensure a fair go for all, my parents were able to raise me and my sister in a home that didn’t cost them an arm and a leg, that was affordable. That’s not to say that growing up in public housing as a houso was easy; it wasn’t. But it did give us at least a good start in life. It gave us an opportunity and a chance to succeed like anyone else in Australia. Access to affordable homes, quality education and health care is the key to ensuring that in Australia, no matter who you are, where you’ve come from, your ethnic background, your class or your gender, you have an equal chance to succeed.

But the reality is that this government doesn’t really care about that fair go, as it shows in its actions. This idea that everyone deserves a safe, affordable house or home is really being denied by this government, and it has no real plan to change this. If you look at my local electorate—obviously this issue is personal to me, but it’s also personal to so many of the people that live in my electorate of Wills—one out of three people in Wills is a renter. That’s about 25,000 people, and almost 30 per cent of them are struggling in housing that they can’t afford. That’s almost 7,000 people in our community that are seriously struggling. There are about 770 people in my electorate who are experiencing homelessness. The government has no plan to make housing more affordable for the people in my electorate, and it certainly has no plan to make housing more affordable for people across Australia. If you’re struggling to pay your rent or your mortgage, this government has no plan for you. If you’re shut out of getting into the market to buy your first property because prices are too high, this government has no plan for you. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a home to go to—if you’re someone who’s living on our streets or in your car—this government certainly has no plan for you.

Much worse than that, what’s the contribution of the assistant minister for homelessness, the very person in this place trusted with the responsibility for taking action and putting policies in place to change this? He wants to ‘put a positive spin on homelessness’. What an insult! Australians who are homeless don’t want spin. They want a plan. They want action taken to address the issues that they face every day. But, frankly, it doesn’t matter who you are; the government have nothing to offer, really, on housing. They seem perfectly content to see people paying more and more of their income for housing.

The Productivity Commission, in a report that was released last month, found that rental stress for people on lower incomes was growing. The number of low-income households experiencing this stress has actually doubled over the past 20 years. Two-thirds of low-income households spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, although many would be spending even more than this. This is the commonly used metric for the term ‘rental stress’ that we’re talking about here. The report noted that, in Australia, about 170,000 households have less than $250 available each week after paying rent. So, clearly, more and more people on lower incomes are renting. This problem is not going anywhere. But the government has no solution for it and is hiding from it by putting out ‘positive spin’—whatever that means.

According to the Productivity Commission, one of the reasons that more and more people on lower incomes are renting in the private market is that they can’t access public housing or they can’t afford to buy. As I said, 50 years ago, my parents got access to public housing. We grew up in a housing commission home. Back then, public housing stock as a percentage of total housing stock was some seven to eight per cent. Fast-forward to today: public housing stock in this country is around 4.2 per cent of total housing. We all know that our population has increased significantly since then, yet the percentage of housing that’s public housing has effectively halved—if not more. Compare this to countries like Denmark, which has public housing stock of 20 per cent. France has 46 per cent in low-rent housing that’s subsidised. Even the UK has had, at peak, public housing stock of almost 50 per cent.

These challenges around housing are connected, and pressure in one area means pressure in others. If you don’t invest in public housing, something is going to happen elsewhere. Where is the government when it comes to these challenges? Nowhere. The bill before us in this House is a demonstration of the government’s attitude towards one of our country’s most pressing challenges. It makes some minor administrative amendments to the National Rental Affordability Scheme. It addresses some of the administrative concerns that tenants and investors have raised—I give credit to the government there. It addresses some of the issues around timelines of payments to the investor and the way that below-market rates are calculated, but it doesn’t go much further than that.

This bill is really not about addressing the widespread challenge of rental affordability, that’s for sure. If the government had had their way with this bill, they would have made sure that, if a future government wanted to continue the scheme beyond 2026, it would have required new legislation. It would have meant that, if a future government wanted to continue funding this program, they would have had to pass new legislation. We stopped that in the Senate. That is no longer part of this bill, thanks to Labor senators putting forward an amendment which passed the Senate. But that is a very small victory in the context of this government’s abysmal failure on affordable housing.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme was created by the Rudd Labor government in 2008. We’re proud of this program and that it helps thousands of people by enabling eligible tenants to rent private properties at 20 per cent below the market rental value, but this government has failed private renters who are struggling with rent. While this program is here to help people, Labor’s original plan allowed for 50,000 new homes as part of the program. The Liberal government slashed this to 38,000 homes and has never restored it.

The government have no real interest in continuing this program beyond 2026. The government have not provided any new funding to the scheme since the Abbott government in 2014. So—worse than doing nothing—those in this government are happy to go backwards and reverse the little progress we have actually made. They will start to take people off this program this year, because they have stopped funding it. So about 1,100 people will come off the scheme this year. That’s 1,100 people who will be paying 20 per cent more rent, thanks to this government’s action in this place. There will be another 1,300 people in 2020 and another 3,000 people in 2021. You get the picture. It’s just going to get worse. When all is said and done, this government’s intent is to lower the number of affordable homes in our country. The quantum of that is going to be around 36,000.

As I said when I started my speech, my parents and I got an opportunity when we came to this country because we got access to public housing. We got access to affordable housing in a housing commission home. It was difficult. It was tough. But we were so appreciative of the fact that we were given that equality of opportunity—access to affordable housing, access to education and access to health care—so that we could achieve based on our hard work, our merit and our sweat. We didn’t ask for any big favours, just a bit of a levelling of the playing field—that’s all—and Labor governments provided that. They gave millions of Australians that equality of opportunity. As we debate this bill and the amendments to this bill, the actual fact is: what comes out of this bill is a reversal of that equality of opportunity. Thousands of people over the next couple of years are going to be paying more in rent as they’re going to be taken off this scheme. It’s not just not doing anything, or putting positive spin on the crisis in housing in this country; it’s actually going backwards, and that is a crying shame.