Wednesday, 20 June 2012
by leave—It is not acceptable in this country, a relatively wealthy one, that so many Australians are homeless. It is not acceptable that a widowed pensioner cannot find a bed or that a teenager is sleeping rough. It is not acceptable that a mother and her children are living in a car. Everyone deserves a safe and secure home. A home is the foundation on which a person builds their life. Without a stable home, people—no matter their age—struggle to live healthily, stay in training or education, or find and keep jobs. That is not good for them, for their families, for their communities or for the country.
That is why this Labor government has made homelessness a national priority. In 2008, we released the inaugural white paper on homelessness, The road home. The white paper outlines how we will reduce homelessness. It will require a sustained effort by governments, business and the community. To get there, we have set clear targets. By 2020, we will halve the rate of homelessness, and we will provide supported accommodation for all rough sleepers who seek it. We do not resile from these ambitious targets, even though those opposite refused to sign up to them. In 2013 we will be in a position to measure our progress. We will draw on robust census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and use information collected from specialist homelessness services by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This data will be supplemented by the first national longitudinal study of homelessness in Australia, Journeys Home.
We have also spent over $11 million on the National Homelessness Research Agenda to help drive the development and implementation of evidence-based policy. In addition to Journeys Home, we have supported research that, amongst other things, looks at housing and support options for older people, considers how to end rough sleeping in cities around the country, and examines how we best develop a professional workforce. Combined, these facts and figures will give us the most accurate picture of homelessness in Australia that we have ever had. We will better understand how homelessness comes about, and how we can help people get back on their feet. We are confident that, in partnership with states and territories, community organisations and philanthropists, we are reducing homelessness in Australia. Every single commitment set out in the white paper has been concluded or is underway.
We have intervened early to prevent homelessness. As a result of the community-based early intervention service, Reconnect, more than 50,000 young people are back with their families, and are in school or are in training. The Household Organisational Management Expenses Advice Program has helped over 3,600 families to stay off the streets by providing advice and assistance to people who were struggling to pay the rent or keep up with the mortgage during personal or financial crises. Further, we have prevented people with mental illness becoming homeless with the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program, which provides support for people with a mental illness to build social networks, gain employment, learn how to better manage their illness and live independently.
Improving and expanding services:
We have moved towards integrating mainstream and specialist homelessness services by improving the responses from 'first to know' agencies and providers. For example, headspace assists young people with mental health issues who are also experiencing homelessness; Job Services Australia provides tailored assistance to get homeless job seekers into employment; and Centrelink has started making weekly payments to those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
I also know how hard people in this sector work and the passion and commitment they have for their jobs. Attracting and maintaining the best workers possible is essential, and was reflected in the significant pay increases proposed for community services workers by Fair Work Australia. This is a historic decision, and one which this government has rightfully supported and will continue to support by funding our share of the salary increases.
We are breaking the cycle of homelessness by providing integrated support in order to ensure that people leave homelessness permanently, not for just for temporary periods. One such example is Foyer accommodation, which provides homeless young people with stable housing and other supports on the basis they participate in education, training or employment.
Under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, the Australian government, together with the states and territories, has committed $1.1 billion to provide new and better integrated accommodation and support services. The agreement is delivering over 180 new or expanded services across Australia to tackle homelessness as well as 600 homes under the A Place to Call Home initiative. What does that mean for people? It means that since the commencement of the agreement, homelessness services have provided help more than 240,000 times.
Addressing homelessness is not always just about a roof over someone's head, but a roof certainly helps. The government's investment in affordable housing recognises that it is essential, indeed critical, to preventing people becoming homeless in the first place, and it gives people somewhere to go when they come out of crisis accommodation. By increasing the stock of affordable housing we enable people to move from homelessness into stable accommodation and through social housing into the private rental market. This transition, in turn, creates space for other people to access accommodation when they are in dire need.
The Australian government has committed almost $5 billion in new funding since 2008 to provide support services and programs to assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. It is worth remembering that whilst those opposite were in government they did not even have a housing minister, let alone a minister for homelessness. Even now they do not have a specific shadow minister for homelessness. In a time of relative economic munificence they ripped $3.1 billion out of the housing budget. Nonetheless, those opposite do have an opportunity to start to redeem themselves in this area of public policy.
Today, the government tabled its response to the Housing the Homeless report of the former House Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth, which inquired into the proposed homelessness legislation. This committee report has provided the foundation of the Homelessness Bill 2012, which I intend to introduce in the spring sittings. In the absence of express constitutional power, the government has given careful consideration to its response to the recommendations of the legislation inquiry. The government has incorporated the recommendations into the draft bill to the extent possible within the constraints of the Australian Constitution.
An exposure draft of this bill has been released for a two-month consultation period concluding on 3 August and the government will consider the feedback of the sector before presenting the legislation to parliament. It is true that this legislation will not provide a home for anyone; however, it will ensure that the spotlight remains firmly on addressing homelessness. The introduction of legislation provides us with a great opportunity to retain in law the important statements about homelessness; the partnerships, the effort and strategies that are needed to tackle it; and the treatment and support that vulnerable Australians deserve. We believe the Gillard government's legislative response will serve as a lasting reminder of the need homeless Australians have for support, and of the need for partnered, strategic effort between governments, community organisations and businesses.
I urge the opposition to engage with the government on the bill, and to support it when it comes to the parliament. As our white paper notes, homelessness is everyone's responsibility. The Labor government has recognised this and remains committed to improving outcomes for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Ensuring that people who are experiencing homelessness receive high quality services and get every chance to move out of homelessness or avoid it all together is critical to the Gillard government's policy agenda. Not only does it make social sense to for people to have a home but it also makes economic sense. The cost of having people cycle through hospital emergency departments and mental health services because they do not have stable accommodation outweighs the costs of providing those very same people with a place they can call home.
The welfare and safety of our fellow Australians matters. This is a great and prosperous country but I believe the real mark of a great country is how it treats and assists its most vulnerable. The Gillard government is determined to do all that it can to assist our vulnerable Australians. There can be no more worthy cause than doing all that we can to help reduce homelessness.
I present a copy of my ministerial statement and the government response to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth report on the inquiry into homelessness legislation entitled Housing the Homeless. I move:
That the House take note of the document.
I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the honourable member for Menzies to speak for 10 minutes.
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Mr KJ Andrews speaking for a period not exceeding 10 minutes.
Question agreed to.
The ministerial statement we have just heard was one of the more curious that I have heard in this House, not because the subject is unimportant—it quite clearly is—but because it betrays a sense of talk and discussion and wishing for the future rather than actual achievements. This has become a fairly typical Labor tactic: throw up a minister with a ministerial statement and try to push a story. So today they have thrown up the Minister for Housing and Homelessness and the Minister for Small Business. This is another stunt in terms of the way ministerial statements are being used in this place, and we on this side are bracing for more failures in the homelessness area from a minister who has presided over failed programs, failed policies and other cheap stunts. For example, when Labor was watering down mutual obligation and making it easy for people to get on the dole, he was the Minister for Employment Participation. With a white flag flying high as a sign of surrender to the people smugglers, and while people were being endangered, he was the Minister for Home Affairs. And with the Ombudsman, the National Audit Office and the DPP all noting fraud issues at the Department of Human Services, he was the Minister for Human Services.
Labor stands condemned on the important issue of homelessness. The minister professes his pride not in achievements but in setting targets that we on this side of the House knew were unattainable. At the same time, Labor has allowed five years of the 12 years until 2020 to pass without being able to actually measure any progress in this area. And the government has not committed anything in the budget to the renewal of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which is due to expire at the end of next financial year. Similarly, when I looked through the budget trying to find homelessness money elsewhere to make up for this funding stream that is finishing, guess what? I found nothing because there is no other commitment; there is no other money. That is because Labor's homelessness policy is all smoke and mirrors. There is no substance. There is no plan. There is no direction. They have got no idea.
The question the minister should have addressed today is: will those 180 new or expanded services continue to exist? The minister probably does not know, and the government does not seem to care. Labor endlessly repeats the line that it has committed almost $5 billion to homelessness since 2008, yet it cannot explain where this money comes from or, indeed, where it goes. When we look at the funding we see that almost $3 billion of the stimulus funding went to remote Indigenous housing funding, social housing funding and mental health funding. These are all are very worthy programs, but none is directly relevant to the homelessness program. Labor's approach is that any housing measures can be counted as homelessness funding.
The minister complains about the opposition not including the word 'homelessness' in the title of the shadow minister for housing, yet this is a government that has had three different ministers for homelessness in just seven months. And, of course, the current health minister served as minister for housing without any mention of homelessness in her title. So the minister's comment is nothing more than a cheap attempt to score some cheap points.
There are estimated to be 105,000 Australians who are homeless each night. In 2008-09, data indicated that 61.5 per cent of those who sought crisis accommodation, or 330 people—205 adults and 125 accompanying children—were turned away per day. Indeed, the data estimated that only one-fifth of Australia's homeless were in these services at any one time. A severe lack of affordable housing in Australia, and in Sydney more than anywhere else, is pushing families out of the rental market and onto endless public housing waiting lists.
But homelessness goes beyond whether Australians can afford to rent a roof over their heads, with domestic and family violence and family or relationship breakdown leading to the plight of around a third of Australia's homeless. Such issues obviously are not easy to address. The question is how we, as a society, can ensure that those who do slip through the cracks are taken care of.
We do not believe that there are easy answers to homelessness because almost every case is unique. Homelessness involves a set of individual circumstances for all those people who are, sadly, caught in this situation. And sadly, without wanting this to be the case, there will always be homeless people amongst us. Their presence and our response is a test of our compassion as a society. When it comes to solutions, most of the experts in this area say that a multidisciplinary approach is required. We need to do more than give the homeless a bed for the night and a meal. We need to give them a pathway out, one step at a time, solving one problem after the other.
While we must always help those who are homeless, we should aim to address the root causes to help prevent struggling families and individuals from slipping into homelessness in the first place. A key focus is addressing Australia's structural housing shortage, which results in less homes being available for those who need them and higher prices at the lower end of the market for those who can least afford them.
The coalition went to the last election with a homelessness policy based on taking practical measures to ensure the states and territories achieve tangible results, and on helping homelessness service providers focus on the work they do rather than on the administrative burden so often attached to government funding. We are in the process of refining our policies in this area, but an overarching approach will be to address and prevent homelessness by improving housing affordability. Our approach is to solve problems. Labor's approach, it seems, is to create problems and pretend they are fixing things up when they themselves have broken some of them. Only a change of government will deliver positive change for those Australians unfortunately living rough.