On Monday 22 May 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the Government's failure to address the housing crisis, and the urgent need for the Government to build public homes now. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.
E WATSON-BROWN: We all know that the biggest pressure on the cost of living right now is housing. This requires urgent practical action. But how much direct funding has the Labor government committed to tackle this housing crisis? Precisely zero. They found plenty of direct money for the stage 3 tax cuts, for submarines—almost a trillion dollars—yet no direct funding for the housing crisis.
It's not a novel or radical idea for governments to directly fund and provide public housing. All over the world today there are housing commissions and housing bodies building significant numbers of quality, well-designed houses to meet the needs of their communities. We've had successful housing programs too, right here in Australia, in the past.
Here's a little history lesson. During and post-World War II, Australia was in the midst of a terrible housing crisis. Construction had slowed due to the diversion of materials and labour to the war effort. In that case, the Australian government, a Labor government at the time, wanted to tackle the scale of the housing crisis, so they established the Commonwealth Housing Commission in 1943 in the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement in 1945. That was an agreement with the states to establish and operate public housing funded by the Commonwealth through cheap loans.
The Housing Commission promoted housing as a right for all Australians and had a very clear directive—that it provide as many homes as possible for as many people as possible in the shortest time possible. And it worked. At the peak of this public housing bill, in the late sixties, around 80,000 homes were built over a five-year period. That's when the population was half of what it is right now. So, in today's terms, the Commonwealth contribution to these homes was $8 billion. That's almost four times what this government is proposing today, if the fund makes any money at all.
Central to the workability of the traditional model of public housing—in operation all over the world and still existing, to a degree, in some schemes here in Australia—is government ownership of those houses. They're public assets. They generate a return in the form of rent, set at 25 per cent of the tenant's income, and accrue value in and of themselves. They quite literally pay for themselves over time.
One of the many irrational elements of Labor's proposed Housing Australia Future Fund is the complex and contorted arrangement to subsidise the private market and private providers through the private for-profit system. The government has no equity in these homes, so not only does the bill not stack up in terms of the scale and the urgency of the housing crisis we are currently experiencing, it doesn't stack up in a financial sense for the government. What could possibly be the reason for this government's reluctance to simply build public homes and retain them as public assets for years to come? One explanation could be that it might stop house prices and rents from climbing at the absurd rate that they have been for so many years now. This slowing down of the housing market is exactly what we do need to tackle the crisis, but it could put a real dent in the bottom lines of the big banks and the property developers who fill the government's coffers come election time. When it comes to building publicly owned nuclear submarines Labor can easily find half a trillion dollars of direct investment. But, on the other hand, when it comes to building publicly owned, genuine, affordable homes for people who need them Labor cannot find a cent.
Call me old-fashioned, but when people are sleeping in cars and tents across the country, when we have a shortfall of 640,000 affordable homes, when thousands of people are at risk of eviction because their rent has spiked, I really feel that the government should just build houses, not gamble money on the market and possibly use the returns to subsidise private providers to maybe deliver some slightly less expensive housing for a small number of people. Just build houses. Just build beautifully designed, sustainable, affordable public homes for everyone who needs them. We've done it before in this country. The government should just build houses.