Thursday, May 10, 2007

Who Listens To The Radio

Two ministers, same day, same radio station - you probably heard it at the time, or not. Make of this what you will.

Question: Mal Brough joins us now. Minister, the question of housing, you want to know where all the money has gone, how much money does the Federal Government put into public housing and why have you got concerns about it?
Answer: Well, I do. There’s been another report out this week which is called The National Shelter and it’s pointing to the fact that we do need more public housing and low cost housing options and there’s no disagreement from me about that. But having been in this portfolio for over 12 months, been to a couple of Housing Ministers’ meetings, I started to scratch the surface and discovered that over the last 10 years the Commonwealth has provided to the state governments just under $10,000,000,000 and the total public housing stock in that time around Australia has in fact reduced by 13 in total but in South Australia the situation is much more parlous. Back in 96/97 you had about 60,698 public houses, today you have 51,628, almost exactly a drop of 9,000 homes. And the only conclusion that I can come to is the State is selling those properties and not reinvesting the money in more public housing but putting it into consolidated revenue and for other purposes.

Question: The State Government explains that it’s selling the houses to pay off Housing Trust debt, a long term debt.
Answer: Extraordinary comment given that there’s something in the order of I think $60,000,000,000 worth of housing stock out there around the country and the debt to the Commonwealth for that is a little over $1,000,000,000 or thereabouts, it’s nothing. Look, I think that if you’re going to whinge and say that there’s a problem about public housing, then I don’t think there’s one South Australian outside the South Australian Labor Government that could not invest the money that’s been provided plus the rent that’s been collected and come up with more houses 10 years later, not less. I mean it’s a phenomenal outcome of economics to spend so much money and end up with fewer homes. I think that it is just economic vandalism for the people who can afford it the least who are so desperately dependent upon governments to provide low cost housing options.

Question: But Minister we’re regularly told from our State Government that the Federal Government has been starving public housing of funds and they’ve been left to try and keep the system ticking over.
Answer: Well $10,000,000,000 is hardly starving anyone and of course what they really want is they’d like to get their hands on the Commonwealth’s rental assistance money, the money that we pay directly into families’ hands to help them offset the cost of normal mainstream rental properties rather than public housing. And we will not do that under any circumstances, families depend upon that direct assistance, and of course to assist people to get off the rental market we also have the first homeowner’s grant. So when you put the three together we are making a real contribution to additional first homeowner’s real homes, people getting into their house in the form of rental assistance. But I’ve got to say the investment that we’re making with the states does not stack up when you look at the amount of money and the results that the public are getting for it.

Question: Minister how does South Australia compare in your opinion with the other states in terms of its treatment of public housing, in its retention of public housing and its sale of public housing?
Answer: It’s the worst. The only one that comes close is the Northern Territory in terms of percentages but in raw figures South Australia stands out like a sore thumb. It’s, as I said, about 16% of its total stock has gone in the last 10 years after this massive investment. Tasmania’s lost about 2,000 houses, a little under that, the ACT about 600 houses and the Northern Territory has managed to lose about 2,300 houses but South Australia are certainly the standout performer in spending money and ending up with less. It’s quite an extraordinary achievement.

Question: Jay Weatherill is the Minister for Families and Community Services and public housing is in his area. Where’s the money gone?
Answer: Well, I just can’t believe that a Federal Minister could be that spectacularly ill informed. I mean we’ve had the largest public housing stock in the nation, almost double the national average, and we’ve been starved of Commonwealth funds and punished for the fact that we’ve had such a large public housing stock, and a 31% in Commonwealth monies and a reduction in rent revenue because we’re now having to house the most neediest people in our community. So our subsidy of each individual tenant just climbs and climbs and climbs and so the housing that’s been sold has gone to basically balance the books, it’s gone straight back into the housing system and he should know that. It’s ill informed for him to suggest otherwise.

Question: Why haven’t we seen such a spectacular sell off in other states?
Answer: Because they haven’t had the same size stock.

Question: But just because we’ve got more houses doesn’t mean we need to sell them does it?
Answer: Well it does when you get starved of Commonwealth dollars. See we get punished for the fact that we have a very large public housing stock because we would otherwise be having those people in private rental attracting Commonwealth rent allowance.

Question: Well the figures that he’s released say that in 1996/97 New South Wales had public and community rental housing stocks of 133,675. We had 60,698. So in fact there’s much more public and community rental housing stock in New South Wales, as you’d expect because it’s a bigger population, but they had in real terms more buildings and they’ve managed to keep them, in fact they’ve got more, they’ve got $138,000 now whereas we are down to 51,000.
Answer: And the proportion of their total housing stock, it’s much less than ours. I mean as a proportion of our total housing stock South Australia has always been a very large proportion of that stock and we’ve been consistently punished by the Commonwealth for having that large stock and a 31% reduction. I mean, this is one of the most ill informed remarks I’ve ever heard a federal minister make. The reason why stock is being sold, and every cent of it has been reinvested into the housing system, the reason it’s been sold is simply because we don’t get enough revenue in from either the Commonwealth or our tenants because most of our tenants now, almost 90% now, are on some form of Centrelink pension. So we’re bearing a greater burden and that was a Commonwealth policy to require us to target our housing to the people in highest need. Now what we need is a Commonwealth Government that is serious about affordable housing. We’ve gone to National Housing Ministers’ Meeting time after time asking them to sit down and negotiate a national affordable housing agreement.

Question: Why do we need so many houses? Do we have more people on welfare per capita than other states?
Answer: No, but historically we have provided for low income and moderate income housing. One of the great success stories of South Australia is that we’ve actually seen public housing as more than welfare housing and we’ve gone into the areas of low income and moderate income housing and we’ve been punished for that policy. Every other state has tended to have a welfare housing authority and we’re being forced by the Commonwealth into that model and now they turn around in an act of complete cheek to say that because they’ve been punishing us and because they haven’t been funding us enough to maintain that stock and we’ve had to sell it to pay our bills that somehow they’re criticising us. I mean it is the height of effrontery for them to be levering this criticism at us. They’ve had 10 years in Government, we’ve now got an affordable housing crisis in this nation that everybody now recognises and it’s because of an abject failure by the Commonwealth Government to take an interest in affordable housing.

So who is to blame? What this tells us is that we're selling off stock because we have no choice, that the Federal Government, by their own admission, is starving the state of funds designed to assist and protect people into private rental so they won't be dependant upon the state in order to survive, but then the same Federal Govt also won't free up any funds to maintain or build new stock. Where's the beef? The Commonwealth’s rental assistance money that the Federal minister talks about is the rent assistance that people are paid via Centrelink. I'm sure what people would like to see is greater assistance in that department, not that it'll happen, and eventually that'll be cut. Still the minister is the expert, he's been in the job for nearly 12 months and has gone to a couple of meetings, so by know he'd be a right Noah. As for debt, watch tonight's news. Let me tell you right here, right now, that's far from being the worst damaged house that we've had to deal with. At least that one is still standing. It'll cost us to fix that and remove the garbage, but we won't recover a cent in the long run, and that happens each and every day.

I wonder what the Federal Government would say if Adelaide were a real marginal seat. I'm expecting an announcement any day now, especially now that we're in an election period. It'll make no difference though.