7 Aug 2017






address to Homelessness Australia

National Homelessness Week Official Launch




I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respect to their elders, past and present.

I want to thank Jenny (Smith - Chair Homelessness Australia) and Katherine (McKernan - CEO of Homelessness NSW) for hosting us and inviting me to speak to you today, and also acknowledge Dr. Catherine Robinson for her work raising awareness of the experience of the homeless, particularly among very wealthy people.

I am honoured to have been asked to address the launch of Homelessness Week 2017.

I well remember Homelessness Week last year.

I had just been appointed Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness.

I hoped that sometime during Homelessness Week, the government would have something meaningful to say about homelessness; given we had just been through an election campaign in which the subject didn't rate a mention.

I thought a newly appointed Minister for Social Services keen to make his mark, or even the junior portfolio Minister, might want to take the opportunity to say that homelessness was on the government's radar, that they recognised the scale of the problem and that they had a plan.

My hope was met with silence. Not a word, not a media release to be heard or seen. It was a bad omen.

There is no evidence today that the number of people experiencing homelessness is less than it was last year or the year before that, or less than the 105,000 people recorded as homeless in the 2011 Census.

On the contrary, the evidence from the sector, from AHURI showing 1.3 million households are in housing need, the evidence from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the visible evidence of homelessness that is everywhere, says loud and clear to me that there is a homelessness epidemic underway.

Nothing illustrates the growing divide in our society between rich and poor than growing rates of homelessness.

If we are serious about tackling inequality, surely making sure people have a safe place to sleep at night, a secure place to call home, a place to wash and eat, a place to raise a family and be cared for, must surely be a policy priority.

Public discussion of the housing affordability crisis has focused on the challenges faced by first homebuyers in a market rigged against them. This focus has resulted in Labor taking a policy position considered suicidal not so long ago to an election, nearly winning the election and in the aftermath, winning public support for reform of negative gearing and capital gains tax.

Meanwhile, there is very little discussion of the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness; people for whom the whole system seems rigged against them.

People right at the bottom of the housing market and on whom the failures of our housing system inflict the most pain.

To illustrate this, I want to make some observations about the public discussion surrounding two recent, highly visible homelessness “events”.

This year, as we launch Homelessness Week, we are in the middle of another of the  periodic outbreaks of  moral panic around homelessness; calls for crack-downs, for people to be moved on, for the city to be cleaned up.

I speak of course of homeless people occupying a section of Martin Place in Sydney.

I don’t think the irony of them being homeless at the front doors of the Reserve Bank and a few other financial institutions that direct Australian neo-liberalism has been lost on anyone in this room.

In January the moral panic was about homeless people occupying footpaths around Flinders Street station and the temerity of them being homeless during the tennis Open, a time when Melbourne should be at its most tidy and presentable.

The usual comfortably well-off people in the tabloid press, commercial radio and politics say how the unsightliness of it all makes them feel a bit uncomfortable, it's terribly untidy, the police need more powers or …  somebody should do something about it.

Anyone, just get it out of sight!

Next to nobody, it seems, is prepared to take responsibility for the homeless when the stop-gaps and band-aids that will inevitably be applied to reducing the visibility of homelessness in Martin Place will just as inevitably fail to reduce homelessness.

None of the radio blow-hards will take responsibility for the fact that their Tidy Town solutions to the problem are no solutions at all.

None of the tabloid moral panic merchants will take responsibility for the failure of their law and order solutions.

“Solutions” that would directly criminalise homelessness, as if it weren’t sufficiently indirectly a criminal act.

There are many laws that indirectly criminalise homelessness.

They include banning camping in a public space, drinking in public, using offensive language in public, indecent exposure and besetting footpaths.

The problem for people experiencing homelessness is that living and surviving on the streets means these laws are frequently broken.

The justice system, which in many cases will punish the “offence” caused by the behaviours of homeless people, also won't take responsibility for the people whose behaviour is being punished.

After the homeless have been punished and made invisible again, the Premier and her Social Housing Minister, will recover from their discomfort.

But they won't take responsibility for the fact that dealing with homelessness by punitive means costs taxpayers far more than efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing and supported accommodation.

They will continue to ignore research which shows that once housed, chronically homeless people need $13,000 less in government services each year.

And on what better authority should we proceed with punitive means to deal with homelessness in Martin Place than the NSW Police Commissioner?

Commissioner, Fuller, was reported in the Australian newspaper on Friday calling on the Sydney Lord Mayor to “step up” and remove what the paper called a “tent city” from Martin Place.

Commissioner Fuller summed up the awful situation in Martin Place with all the nuance and appreciation of a complex social problem you might expect of a career policeman, telling reporters:

“At the end of the day (Sydney City) council has the power to remove their property. If you don't have a bed, if you don't have a tent it will be very difficult to stay there long term.”

So that takes care of that then. Another case solved!

I’m sure Mr Fuller is a very fine police officer with a distinguished record of service.

But why would we seek his advice (why would he even offer it) on a complex social problem that is clearly beyond his area of expertise?

It would seem the reason is because it is almost impossible to have a public discussion about high visibility homelessness other than as a municipal hygiene problem or a law and order problem or a problem of homeless peoples’ own making.

That’s the story the tabloid journalists want to tell. That’s why they ask the Police Commissioner for his opinion.

To do otherwise would mean that journalists and more than a handful of politicians would have to start to take responsibility.

They would have to explain that one of the causes of homelessness is the same housing market dysfunction that is hurting first homebuyers.

We must never forget that the loss of a job, a marriage break up, ill health, mental health problems, lack of superannuation can result in people on the streets or couch surfing.

Many of you have raised the particular circumstances of older women and young people exiting out-of-home care.

Unlike first homebuyers, whose utterly conventional home ownership aspirations are almost universally shared, there is empathy in abundance.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to elicit empathy for people who have complex problems, for whom life is a series of unfortunate events and who after years on and off the streets look different, behave differently and do things differently to the rest of us – just to survive.

So media reporting of high profile homelessness promotes suspicion.

Suspicion that homeless people might not be genuine – whatever that might mean.

Suspicion that they are getting it easy.

Suspicion that they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Suspicion that they are law-breakers.

Suspicion that they might be political activists of some sort.

To her credit, the Lord Mayor is resisting the calls on her to use Council's punitive powers against homeless people. She has told the NSW government that Council won't move anyone until it is assured long-term accommodation will be provided.

Her position is hard to fault.

It is a choice to pursue a solution which is not only kinder, but is much cheaper than the punitive measures favoured by the Premier and the Police Commissioner.

It also helps to change the narrative of homelessness from one of blame and suspicion to one where someone has to take responsibility. That means taking responsibility on behalf of all of us, as citizens who want to take responsibility and expect our elected government to do so.

We know the numbers.

We know how many people were recorded as homeless in the 2011 Census.

We know how many people were unable to be provided with SHS assistance in 2016.

We know how many kids coming out of care are vulnerable to homelessness.

We know how many women escaping family and domestic violence have nowhere to go.

And we know the numbers are getting worse.

The numbers are a national disgrace.

We are a rich country, with the resources of an entire continent and the talents and skills of millions of highly educated people available to us. We live in the most technologically sophisticated society ever seen.

Yet every night we can’t find shelter and a bed for thousands of people who need one.

I cannot accept that, and I know you don’t either.

Our housing system isn’t working.

We are seeing the collapse of home ownership for people under 40, and subsequently a squeeze on affordable rental accommodation which ends up hurting the vulnerable the most.

I fear it will contribute to a sharpening of intergenerational inequality, as noted by Prof Duncan MacLennan and Dr Julie Miao at the University of Glasgow in their paper Housing and Capital in the 21st-Century. Their work builds on the work of eminent economist Thomas Piketty to highlight the significance of housing inequality in the overall increase in inequality. 

It is not a fair and equitable society where property is passed on to the lucky few while increasing numbers of low and moderate income earners are forced to rent in an expensive and insecure market.

Australia has to develop a larger, more skilled and capable social housing sector. The spiraling numbers of people in housing stress and the number of people on public housing waiting lists make it an imperative.

The government has announced moves to establish a bond aggregator, a policy Labor supports, to facilitate easier, cheaper finance for the development of more social housing, modeled on the UK’s Housing Finance Corporation.

The concern I have, and this has been expressed to me by a number of people who know the sector well, is that a bond aggregator alone will not be enough.

Even with a bond aggregator there will be a gap between the cost of providing a home, including the cost of the land, the buildings, the maintenance and the loan repayments, and what a person on a very low income can pay in rent.

The establishment of the bond aggregator cannot be used as an excuse  not to continue to provide ongoing public subsidies to social housing.

I want to take just a little time to talk about Labor’s record on homelessness and social housing during our last period in office. It is a record of which we are proud. It is record of which my friend and colleague Tanya Plibersek is particularly proud and I can assure you, Tanya remains a firm friend of your sector.

In 2008, the Rudd government made an important policy shift, through its White Paper, The Road Home, from managing homelessness to reducing and eventually eradicating homelessness through a large increase in funding and a partnership agreement with the states that was properly funded, programmatic and focused on outcomes.

The Social Housing Initiative was a schedule to the National Partnership Agreement on the Nation Building Jobs Plan which in turn was a response to the global financial crisis.

The main aims of the Social Housing Initiative was to stimulate the construction industry, increase the supply of social housing and provide long-term accommodation for homeless people and people at risk of homelessness.

Around 19,700 new social housing dwellings were built.

The repairs and maintenance element enabled approximately 80,000 existing social housing dwellings to benefit from an upgrade. This included major renovations to over 12,000 social housing dwellings that were vacant or would have become uninhabitable without this work.

Nearly 80 percent of new dwellings constructed incorporated minimum Universal Design elements to make properties more accessible to people who are ageing or live with disability.  These features include grab rails, wider corridors and step-free showers.

Labor introduced the first direct supply side financial incentive scheme for the supply of new affordable rental housing through NRAS.

NRAS has provided 38,000 new affordable rental homes and was on track to deliver 50,000 before it was capped in the Coalition’s first budget.

Labor would have continued and extended NRAS.

Labor provided greatly needed capital funding for temporary and emergency accommodation, especially for women.

It still beggars belief to me that in its first budget after the 2013 election, the Coalition effectively cut that funding from the National Partnership Agreement funding.

I said at the beginning of this address that I thought the failure of the government to even acknowledge Homelessness Week last year was a bad omen.

That is to misstate the position. It was merely business as usual from the Coalition.

Inequality increases the demands and costs on our health system, our education system and our social security system.

Inequality denies opportunities to the disadvantaged, the working class, the working poor and the middle class.

Labor is determined to reduce inequality in this country.

One of the most significant drivers of inequality is housing inequality.

Labor is the party that truly makes a difference when in government and when in opposition we shape the debate.

Labor will restore the $44 million per year cut to homelessness support in the disastrous 2014-15 Coalition budget .

I am determined to work with my Labor colleagues to address the issues raised in the Farmer review in the UK that identified inefficiencies in the UK residential building industry.

I want to examine reducing the costs of building homes in Australia by examining, as the Farmer Review has, the inefficiencies in our cottage building industry, the need to develop a cost effective, high quality, prefabricated home building industry in Australia.

This would create manufacturing jobs, produce well designed energy efficient homes and increase supply. This is fundamental to helping pensioners, low income and unemployed Australians into homes that reduce the energy costs that cripple the budgets of low income families.

I will also, in the next few weeks, along with Shadow Minister for Small Business and Financial Services, Senator Katy Gallagher convene a round table with the community housing sector, and the industry superannuation funds to discuss how we increase investment by the superannuation industry in social housing.

I hope that today and throughout Homelessness Week we can take the discussion  about homelessness away from a discussion about who to blame and who to punish and turn it into a discussion about how we can all take responsibility for this most complex and intractable of social problems.

I want to continue to work with you to make it happen.

Thank you.