Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Housing and homelessness funding; Royal Commission into child sexual abuse – Q&A at National Press Club

Location: Canberra

LAURIE WILSON: Thank you very much, Minister, for your speech. You mention the fact that social housing is really just one part of the jigsaw, a very complex jigsaw I’d suggest. If we look at the slippery slope that can occur, domestic violence leading to family breakdown, leading to children failing to attain education standards, leading to an inability to attain skills, potentially leading in some cases to mental illness, almost invariably, certainly them becoming prime candidates for becoming homeless.

Now, as you said, it is only one part of the jigsaw. I want to ask about what can be done, and I’m assuming you would take the view that more can be done to integrate effectively services across the whole range of social areas, both federally and state, to address this what is really a much bigger problem of which homelessness is just one component.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Sure. Look, I’m absolutely convinced that you cannot do this without proper collaboration amongst all governments, all nine governments with the not-for-profit sector and, as I said as well, the corporate sector I think who increasingly want to be involved.

It’s also true to say that you can’t operate in silos. We do understand that health policies, education policies have a direct bearing on the way in which we deal with people who might be at risk of being homeless, as do economic decisions we make as governments. So we do need to take a whole of government approach. The best way to do that, in my view, is to be open and candid and clear about what we are doing as governments.

I finished off by talking about the cost to services generally, and I am of the view also that we waste so much money by not dedicating the resources upfront and where they’re needed. And as a result, we’re left having to spend money on other services like correctional facilities, like people going through the justice system, like people accessing services they need because they’ve become so vulnerable and so afflicted by so many issues as a result of their homelessness or the lack of stable accommodation.

And so we shouldn’t be tackling the symptoms, we should be tackling the causes. And I think that we’ve already learned from this current agreement that where we dedicate money in a certain way we get very good results.

One of the problems we have, however, is historically as a country we have not measured this very well. ABS data is an estimate and it’s a broad-brush approach. We need certainly more qualitative data.

But if you look at the information that’s currently held by States and by the Commonwealth, together if we were able to examine that data, I think that would inform future decisions in a way that would provide a better way of how we would respond to what you have just said, Laurie, is a very complex social challenge.

And so that’s my appeal to the State governments today. We provide sufficient funds to them. They also put in as well. We don’t know how much unless they tell us. We need to know what the aggregate total of investment is in these areas and we need to know where it’s spent and that’s why I’m calling upon a more candid approach, a more collaborative approach amongst all governments.

LAURIE WILSON: Question from Andrew Tillett.

QUESTION: Andrew Tillett from The West Australian, Minister. I want to ask you a question with your Acting Families Minister role today. Obviously with the child sex abuse royal commission announced there’s been some discussion today about the confessional and Catholic priests’ obligations not to pass on information gleaned from colleagues who admit to child sex offences in confession.

I wonder what your thoughts are on that and whether the royal commission will sort of look at having powers in its terms of reference or maybe legislation that could compel priests to break the sanctity of the confession box?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the Prime Minister announced the decision to create a royal commission on Monday. The Attorney-General and I, as Acting Minister for Families, are engaging with governments, organisations representing victims, religious organisations, about the composition of the commission and the terms of reference, as the Prime Minister had indicated we would be doing.

We want the composition and the terms of the commission to be determined by year’s end and that will be done, and that’s very important so people are clear. But we shouldn’t be answering all of the questions put to us two days after the announcement.

There are some very complex areas here. You’ve mentioned the issue of the confidentiality of the confessional. There’s also the issue of legal-professional privilege and there are a whole bunch of other areas that are in need of examination by the Government in consultation with all of the bodies to which I’ve just referred.

And also we’re not going to answer all of these questions. What we are asking the commission to do is to provide, I think, a way forward for the nation to respond to what has been clearly a failure – an institutional failure to respond to child sex abuse allegations and child sex abuse.

The commission will be provided significant powers, as you well know, as commissions are. They will be to a large extent in control of their own destiny as they often are, and I don’t think we should be getting ahead of ourselves.

This is a very significant decision by the Government and it’s one that’s very important for many, many people in this country and many people see it as overdue and that’s why we’re going through this process of consultation. But, as I say, before the year is out we’ll have the terms of reference determined and we’ll have the composition of the commission determined.

LAURIE WILSON: Katharine Murphy.

QUESTION: Minister O’Connor, Katharine Murphy from The Age.

Just a couple of things out of your speech. How was it that a homelessness agreement was negotiated between the Commonwealth and the States that didn’t require the States to account for the way that they spent their money; first question?

Second question: What happens with the new partnership agreement if the States don’t agree to match the funding?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, there’s two vehicles under which homelessness services are provided. Firstly, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness to which you’ve just referred. There are some requirements, but the requirements are not rigid and in my view they’re not measurable sufficiently. And I think in hindsight, a wonderful place for me to stand, I think it could have been better – the architecture of those agreements could have been stronger, the requirements could have been more stringent.

I think it’s fair to say that there was a sense of a very strong level of cooperation at the outset of these agreements, and maybe it was – and so there was a level of optimism that that partnership would endure.

It’s only now recently through a number of actions by a number of governments that it has called into question that partnership, the bona fides of this collaboration. And I think, therefore, it would be far more effective that we had more stringent means to account for taxpayers’ dollars.

The Commonwealth believes it should explain every dollar it spends in relation to this area. We just think the States should do the same. So, as I say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would like to have been at the outset.

There’s also the National Affordable Housing Agreement, from which also homelessness services money is derived. Again, I would say that there needs to be greater obligations upon the signatories to that agreement to provide more information about where the money is spent.

The States receive $1.3 billion, or just under that, each year from the Commonwealth and they do not report to us on the expenditure of that money in any detail, and I think that is inadequate and I’ve also called for a change to that arrangement.

LAURIE WILSON: Next question Tony Melville.

QUESTION: Tony Melville, director of the National Press Club.

An extension of Katharine’s question. So, the States not turning up at the meeting at a ministerial level; New South Wales, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania. I know you want more data, but you must have an idea of their performance in a State breakdown. Is their non-attendance at that level, do you think, connected to under-performance?

And Northern Territory, Indigenous homelessness, perhaps just a bit more about the direction of that, how that’s going particularly up there?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That was our information as of today that there were jurisdictions not represented by ministers.

I understand the Northern Territory is sending a Member of Parliament. I’m hoping that the jurisdictions will end up all being represented at the Ministerial Council. This is only the second full new Ministerial Council on Housing and Homelessness. I think it’s an awful example of commitment if we can’t have a minister – look, there are occasions where that might be difficult – but certainly a significant representative from the Government to be there to represent the interests of that government. And I’m hoping between now and Friday there will be a greater composition of governments around the table.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that an absence of one particular government is necessarily the reflection of how they’re going in relation to the performance.

In relation to Indigenous housing, I think this is one of our greatest challenges. Minister Macklin has the primary responsibility for that, that is insofar as the decisions and the funding. And after some delays we’ve started to see a greater level of completion of construction of houses in the Territory, remembering that most Indigenous Australians live in large urban centres.

But the challenges in remote communities and regional communities, particularly remote communities, are distinct; they are quite challenging.

So I think it’s fair to say after a delay there’s been some recent positive signs of construction. I think we’re behind schedule but there’s been, as I say, improvement in recent times and I’m hoping we can build on that.

There was a reduction, as I say, but the facts are that the proportion of Indigenous Australians as a proportion of our homeless population is just shameful. And even though there have been signs of improvement, I’m not going to stand here and pretend it’s anything other than that. We need to do more and we are looking at ways we can do that.

LAURIE WILSON: Let me pick up on that point and quote some figures to you, which I just invite you to comment on. In doing some research, that in terms of the Census, the average rate of homelessness is just on 50 per 10,000 people. In the Northern Territory it’s 731 per 10,000 people. That’s 15 times. I mean, that’s staggering.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That’s right and I think that says how – there’s been a fall in that figure which is hard to believe, but it’s been actually quite a significant reduction to 700, but it is shamefully high. So is it going in the right direction? Yes, but there is a long way to go.

And of course, as we know, in the Territory some of the issues that are confronted there are dealing with so many challenges with remote communities and regional communities. But in the last 12 months there’s been some very positive signs in terms of completion of infrastructure. And, yes, the ABS data shows an improvement, but we have a long way to go as a country and no-one in the Government is trying to pretend otherwise. The gap is closing, but it’s not closing fast enough and we’d like to see it close quicker.

LAURIE WILSON: Peter Phillips.

QUESTION: Minister, Peter Phillips, one of the directors of the National Press Club.

You’ve given State and Territory Governments a bit of a touch-along today in your address, and perhaps deservedly so. But I wonder whether it would be too cynical for your audience and for commentators to regard this as being perhaps another tile in a mosaic where the Government with polls improving, facing coming into a new year which contain a Budget and an election – not necessarily in that order – at a time when some of your colleagues are taking initiatives to stick it up the States, particularly the States with Coalition Governments along the eastern seaboard on education and Gonski, NDIS, royal commission on child abuse, engagement with Asia. Would it be too cynical to regard this initiative of yours today as just being another part of that, of really sticking it on the Coalition Government to state a position, not just across the States but nationally?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, some of the examples I actually referred to in that contribution I just made goes to the efforts of governments that are Liberal governments. And I talked about where we work together we do very good work.

I’ve said that certain governments have said they’re not going to provide information, others have said they will. have to tell you, I would rather see governments of all persuasions saying they want to work more fully. I don’t want to see a divide on political lines on something as important as homelessness; I do not.

I’ve made an offer. And by Friday I’d like to see all governments – I don’t care of what political persuasion – agree to commit and respond to the offer I’ve made today.

People will think what they will. Do I think there’s enough cynicism in this country to think what you’ve just raised? Yes, probably there is. But we are genuinely committed to the investment. And never mind what I say, just look at what we have done.

As I said, we’ve contributed to the construction of one in every 20 homes in this country since the election in 2007. That is unprecedented in modern times. We have built 21,000 social housing homes, we’ve renovated 80,000 homes most of which are public houses under the ministration of State Governments, and we’ve built 10,000 homes under the National Rental Affordability scheme, admittedly with some contribution from the States there; 25 per cent contribution.

But the investment we’ve put in literally into the infrastructure of homes that will house those that are homeless or at risk of being homeless is unprecedented.

The question then is begged, what are we doing as a country wrong if we’re not able to tackle some of these issues? And I think the best way to uncover that is to be open about where we’re spending the money. To date, I do not have a full audit of expenditure, and I don’t mean for me to have it. I think that all governments should share that information and discuss those issues. And I hope the reason why they don’t want to disclose such information is because they’re withdrawing money, but they’ve made recent public announcements about cutting tenancy advocacy and advice services which is just a ludicrous economically and socially stupid thing to do. They’re not things I’ve made up. Those things have happened. And I would, therefore, appeal to them because we are a wealthy nation. Whatever challenges we have, if we cannot reduce homelessness along the lines of the objectives of the white paper then I think we fail as a nation.

And that’s all I guess I’m wanting to do today, to impress upon those other governments that we want to work with them, that partnership is critical and we just want to reduce that rate down working with the not-for-profit sector.

LAURIE WILSON: A question now from Misha Schubert.

QUESTION: Minister, Misha Schubert, vice president of the National Press Club.

I wondered if you could elucidate a little bit more on what you think is actually happening in the homelessness population? So, in your speech, you talked about the amount of investment that the Commonwealth has made, a pretty significant amount of dollars – $6 billion – 21,000 new social housing homes, a bunch of other schemes, the National Rental Affordability Scheme and yet the headline figure as you acknowledged of homelessness in our country has gone up by eight per cent.

What is actually happening underneath the surface of those figures? Is it that more people are becoming homeless at a faster rate than that investment has allowed you to build new homes and refurbish others? And, if so, what more needs to be done to stop people becoming homeless in the first place? Do you think the level of the dole, for instance, has any role in people moving into a situation of homelessness?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think – as I said earlier to Laurie’s question I think decisions you make across the spectrum have bearings on homelessness.

But if I can just talk about what’s happening in homelessness. I think it’s very important for us to note – I mean, these are estimates from the ABS, and I’m not trying to walk away from that at all, but I think it’s important to note a number of things. Firstly, the data is from 2006 to 2011. The investment of this Government really didn’t start to kick in, particularly infrastructure, until late 2009. The White Paper was out late ’08, the investment really didn’t start to manifest in any material way I think until ’09.

So two things have happened. One is, in other words, it is my view and the view of many others that the 2006 figure was quite considerably lower than what would have been the figure before our investment two and a half years, three years later, 2008. That’s the first thing I’d say.

So the second, as I say, is the investment has only just started.

And the third thing I’d say is we know that a lot has happened even since August last year. For example, the proportion of homes that were built in the last 14 months and accommodating tenants has increased significantly since the data of 2011.

So this eight per cent headline is an estimate between six and 11, I don’t disagree with that. But I think we have to take into account that it’s now the end of 2012 and indeed the 2006 figure does not resemble where we were at when we were elected and we were starting to invest.

Insofar as the broader picture, as I say, the rough sleeping data is good; that is a significant reduction. Where we’re clearly in need of responses at a Federal and State level is tackling severe overcrowding. As you know, homelessness is defined by a particular level of overcrowding and indeed that was the most significant rise, from six to 11. There was a 10,000 increase in severely overcrowded accommodation.

And so it says to me, notwithstanding the fact we’ve built 21,000 social housing homes, 10,000 homes under the NRAS, and other homes through supported accommodation, we need more modest and affordable accommodation for those people in crowded premises because that, by far, is the most significant increase between those two mileposts, and I think we need to do more there.

That means, yes, we’ve been putting in unprecedented amounts at the Commonwealth level, but the levers of the supply of stock in this country are largely determined by State governments. Again, we’ve put in the dollars, but there are decisions to be made about how we increase housing stock. That has to be a joint arrangement.

And, look, when I talk about our investment I say this is what we spent, this is what was built. I can actually point to those things. I don’t have the information as to what they’ve done with the housing affordability money that’s been provided to them since 2008. I don’t have the – and I’ve asked for it and they’re saying – in many cases jurisdictions are saying they won’t provide that to us. That’s a problem.

But getting back to the last part of your question, all decisions around providing income and social services will always have a bearing on these matters. You have to look across government.


QUESTION: Minister, Ken Randall from Media Monitors.

Can I ask you a couple of questions touching on things that you’ve mentioned so far, including the last question.

How far off do you think we are in getting an accurate picture of just how big the homelessness issue is? You’ve, this year, seen the adoption of a new definition and you’ve been studying these studies of Indigenous people’s movements. What sort of difficulty does that present in defining the issue?

And that leads on to the issue of the cost of providing housing and the social issues providing housing in remote communities. How far have we got with all that?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, you can imagine how hard it is, at least in relation to data – of ABS data. I mean, how is census data accumulated? Most often it’s by providing to the door of the home a form to fill out.

My view is that – and so the methodology that is new – there was some questions about it and we have no say in that. The ABS, as is proper, determines these matters – although I was getting questions about somehow my or the Government’s involvement, if there was any in the redefinition of homelessness, and there wasn’t. And, clearly, the re-definition has led to an increase as redefined. So if I was involved I’m pretty hopeless at intervening, aren’t I. But I wasn’t and the Government wasn’t.

Look, it is hard. My view is because there are greater people now in supported accommodation, we are I think able to find more people, but in the end this is an estimate. There are estimations. Now, those people involved in the methodology are experts in their field. I do defer to their capacity to come up with an estimate, but in the end it is only just that. The most important thing in terms of ABS to me is that you use the same definition when you’re making comparisons from every five years.

But that’s why I said I think it’s still too crude a picture and therefore, we’ve invested $11 million in qualitative research and quantitative research. For example, we’ve recently released information about certain people costing literally millions of dollars going through services, but not actually getting themselves back on their feet really; going through justice systems, correctional facilities, all sorts of services.

And so I think we need to continue to do more qualitative research, we need to do more longitudinal research on these issues so we can inform future policy decisions.

But ultimately the Government doesn’t determine the methodology of the ABS. We can involve ourselves at least in investing in research from eminent people who are involved in this policy area, and we do that. And we do need to bring together I think the data from the ABS and indeed other research to make our determinations.

There is no simple way of doing it. I mean, you point to the obvious, that people are homeless. It’s not easy to track specifically down people, but we think we have got a reasonable picture.

And whatever the variations there are on people’s views and different methodology, we do know it’s a sufficiently big enough problem for us to continue to battle and to make sure we reduce the rate of homelessness.

LAURIE WILSON: Another question now from Andrew Tillett.

QUESTION: Thank you again.

Just to go back to the royal commission, can you say what your personal view is priests’ obligation in terms of confession? I understand you say you can’t have an answer two days after the [indistinct] about the Government’s view, but what’s your own personal view?

And, secondly, just on your speech, you mentioned how homelessness should be a bipartisan issue for parties to tackle. Why do you think it isn’t?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m sorry, the last part? I missed the last part.

QUESTION: Why do you think homelessness isn’t bipartisan in terms of getting a solution?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Okay, look, in relation to the first matter – look, I haven’t had a set view. I think there’s nothing new about the confidentiality of the confessional and crimes in this country. And so I think what’s more important – and so there’s nothing new about that issue, as there is nothing new about legal-professional privilege and what should be disclosed in matters and where ultimately what should prevail in these competing interests; people’s rights to privacy, people’s rights to privilege, people’s rights to confessional.

But I will say that of course we need to – and this is what the commission is about – put the interests of children first. I, as Minister for Justice, introduced legislation on working with children in 2009. I was asked not to include the need for people who work with children to disclose charges, because it wasn’t fair because they hadn’t been convicted. And I understood that unfairness – what was being levelled was the person wasn’t convicted so to have to disclose the charge that didn’t proceed to a conviction may have affected the career of that person. And I understood that fully. But I, in the end, said well, that’s true and I don’t want to see a person’s professional career diminished because they have to disclose a charge that never led to a conviction.

But ultimately we’re talking about children. And ultimately I in that case, as a minister, weighed up the competing interests between children and the career of people and I chose children. And I would imagine many decisions we’ll be making will be putting the interests of children first.

In relation to the second part of your question, the reason I say that we don’t have a bipartisan approach, but I call for one, is because there has been no commitment to support the levels of investment in housing to date, and that Tony Abbott and others voted against the increases in social housing investment in the Parliament. So it’s not about his rhetorical flourishes, however inconsistent they might be from time to time. I’m talking about what he did in the Parliament when he voted against the package that led to the construction of 20,000 homes and led to the reparations and renovations of 80,000 social housing homes. And I’m hoping that he and others in the Opposition would agree that we have an obligation as a nation to do better.

To date, I have not seen any policy outlined by the Opposition that goes to any economic investment that’s needed to reduce the rate of homelessness in this country.

LAURIE WILSON: Final question now from Maurice Reilly.

QUESTION: Minister, just picking up on the issue of children, and homeless children.

I read recently, I think last week, about only 40 adoptions in New South Wales. And I’m wondering whether a much more gentle, much more socially progressive adoption scheme across Australia would assist in homelessness for children?

And if time permits I’ve got a second question.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Okay, look, I’m not fully across the sort of way in which the adoption process occurs in New South Wales. Again, I guess it touches upon the way in which we, as a country, think about the best approach to looking after kids and what care they should be in. I think they’re really fraught questions. We know these are difficult decisions.

The classic case is if a child is in state care, why are they taken away from the family. If they are with the family and something happens, why weren’t they taken away from the family. These are really difficult – and each case should be determined on the merits. I can’t go to the specifics to which you refer.

LAURIE WILSON: Let’s finish there. Oh sorry, you’re going to follow up.

QUESTION: Sorry, Laurie.

LAURIE WILSON: No, go right ahead.


QUESTION: If you have trouble with the States, as part of this federation that we live in and it’s difficult and I appreciate it, but perhaps the role – what’s the role with local government if we can’t do a deal with the States?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, local government – we do, we have partnerships with local government in other areas of housing – the Housing Affordability Fund where we, for example, have built infrastructure and partnered the local governments so that they can get the developers to increase housing stock. We’ve done that. It’s a $400 million investment.

We do have partnerships with local government, but in the end the State Governments are the primary vehicle for providing homelessness services in this country. All that’s happened in recent times is we’ve evaluated this issue as a national priority and have done so with unprecedented investment. We just want the State Governments to continue to do the lifting with us.

LAURIE WILSON: We will finish on that point. Thank you very much Minister.