By Hal Pawson
The Westminster Coalition Government might be fairly accused of turning a Nelsonian eye to Britain’s housing problems. But spare a thought for a country across the globe where, despite troubles aplenty in this realm, housing no longer even rates a ministerial position in the national government. Along with Climate Change, Disability Reform, Mental Health and International Development, Housing and Homelessness got the chop in PM Tony Abbott’s new ministerial line up announced last week.
This isn’t merely a case of housing being relegated through pairing with another portfolio (my favourite being the former Queensland State Government’s designation of ‘Minister for Housing and Racing’). More likely, dumping housing matters into the new Department of Social Security marks a return to the complacent thinking of the 1996-2007 John Howard Federal government. Then, as now, housing was denied a ministerial voice in Canberra.
In part, the Abbott stance reflects a view about the Federal Government’s role under Australia’s constitution where the States are primarily responsible for direct service provision (including public housing) and for planning policy. Especially for a party (named Liberal, for which read Tory) trumpeting a belief in small government, you can see the logic. In reality, though, the vast bulk of effective government housing expenditure and policy leverage in Australia (tax and welfare regimes) is in Federal – not State – hands. And, as recognised by the 2007-13 Labor Government (at least under its initial Kevin Rudd-led incarnation until 2010) any serious housing policy reform will happen only with national leadership.
Another Abbott defence to the housing policy downgrade might be the traditional Liberal line of ‘Not our job – the market will provide’. Locked out of home ownership by high prices and inadequate housing supply, tens of thousands in ‘Generation Rent’ might beg to differ. As in the UK, younger adult home ownership rates have been plummeting. And in the overheated rental market which results, affordability is becoming a bigger and bigger problem in the country’s large and growing private tenancy sector. By 2009/10, 60% of low-income private renters were paying rents equating to more than 30% of gross income. For 25% of this group, rental expenditure was over 50% of incomes. Especially because Australia’s housing allowance (Rent Assistance) is so miserly by comparison with UK Housing Benefit (even in its increasingly emasculated form), high rents are increasingly pushing tenants deeper into poverty.
Also, in a country with over 100,000 homeless people (2011 Census) the claim that ‘the market will provide’ is an evidently wobbly argument. Whether the new government will sign up to the 2008 Rudd pledge to ‘halve homelessness by 2020’ is uncertain. Under Mr Abbott’s ‘policy lite’ approach there were no formal pre-election commitments on any aspect of the housing agenda from Liberal/National Party Coalition. However, when asked about homelessness policy ahead of polling day the then opposition spokesperson (and now DSS junior minister) reportedly said ‘the Coalition’s homelessness plan is to abolish the carbon tax, pay down Labor’s debt, generate one million jobs in the next five years and increase our collective wealth so all of us – individuals and charities – have the capacity to help the homeless and those most in need in areas where government is not always the answer’. Sadly, it seems that this was a straight faced comment.
Then there is the increasingly dire state of Australia’s neglected social housing, where the major constituent – public housing – is locked into an unsustainable financial system in which the books are balanced only by cannibalising the stock through asset sales, and by indefinite deferral of overdue maintenance.
There is a growing industry consensus that public housing salvation can only lie through mass transfers to ‘community housing providers’ as Australia’s housing associations are known. Queensland’s Liberal government has recently announced a planned 90% transfer of that state’s public housing by 2020. But our soon to be published research on the topic shows that success here will be conditional on major policy and financial reforms calling for active commitment from both levels of government. The same could be said for the aspiration – widely shared across the policy community in Australia, just as in Britain – to unlock institutional financing of rental housing. It can only be hoped that such aspirations are not thwarted by the absence of a housing minister in Canberra.