Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

ABS Homelessness Figures; Affordable Housing; Select Council Meeting on Housing and Homelessness; Royal Commission into Child Abuse

Program: ABC RN PM, Alexandra Kirk

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ALEXANDRA KIRK: Firstly, how do you view today’s figures, snapshot of homelessness and the fact that it’s showing an actual increase rather than a decrease?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, the headline figure is disappointing but there are some promising signs as well and I think we need to take this in a considered manner. Firstly we’ve seen as a result of I think investment by the Commonwealth a reduction in rough sleepers of 13.5 per cent. That’s a very promising reduction in those people that are exposed to the elements and most vulnerable.

We’ve also seen a reduction in those that are at risk of being homeless, a 42 per cent sharp decline [in people living in improvised housing] as it’s outlined in the report by the ABS, and that again I think is indicative of the investment that the Federal Government’s made in social housing.

But there are some worrying concerns and trends regarding overcrowding in particular and that speaks to me about the need for increasing supply of affordable housing and I think therefore we need to continue to do more with State and Territory Governments, with the not-for-profit sector and indeed even with the corporate sector.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Is Labor still committed to Kevin Rudd’s pledge to halve the rate of homelessness by 2020?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: We are committed. I think it’s also fair to say that when you look at the data between 2006 and 2011, you must take into account that for the first three years of that data, there was no investment whatsoever. And then there was a lag time from the investment commencing in 2009.

And whilst of course we’ve seen positive signs because of unprecedented investment, I think it’s fair to surmise that beyond 2006, in fact 2007 and 2008 where there was little investment or new investment, the rate would have been higher than in 2006. And so if you’re looking at that comparison, I know we’ve only got milestones between two ABS data, I think it’s fair to say that there have been things that have been working.

But again I repeat the issue of overcrowding is an increase in 10,000 people defined as living in severely overcrowded accommodation and therefore they’re deemed to be homeless, and I think more needs to be done to increase the stock.

I think the State Governments in particular who have the levers of the supply side of housing must reform the housing sector to increase stock, particularly of affordable housing. Now we provide the States and Territories with almost $1.3 billion under the National Affordable Housing Agreement each and every year. They do not account to us of what they do with that spend, I think we need a bit more scrutiny and accountability of what they are doing with that money.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Do you have any idea within these five-year figures from the Census whether in fact the Commonwealth’s concentration on trying to tackle homelessness from 2009 onwards has had any effect?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It is hard to measure exactly – it’s very hard to do that. I think as a nation we’re It is hard to measure exactly – it’s very hard to do that. I think as a nation we’re catching up on having qualitative data and quantitative data. There’s no doubt because we’ve had an increase in the amount of people who were requiring supported accommodation that people are easier to count now, and I think there would have been times when it was hard to even properly aggregate the number.

But there’s no doubt in my mind in just pure Commonwealth investment, for example the investment in the Social Housing Initiative – we’ve built, not just we will build, we have built 21,000 social houses, and a very significant proportion of occupiers in those houses are of course people who were either homeless or at risk of being homeless.

Now in August last year when the data was taken, there would have been of course a very significant number – much more now though, 14 months later but that’s not what we’re measuring today, we’re really talking about what happened 14 months ago.

So yes, there is clear evidence that because of the investment in social housing and homeless services, there is of course a reduction in people who would have been homeless or those that were at risk of being homeless, and that’s been identified in the ABS data.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Do you think you will meet your target of reducing the rate of homelessness by 20 per cent by next year?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think that’s more challenging and I think again that’s because of the lag time between investment and outcomes.

There’s no doubt, I think we’re on trend to actually see a significant reduction by the end of next year for rough sleepers. To see a reduction of 13.5 per cent is a very promising sign.

But I think it is challenging and I will be underlining this difficulty we will have without significant investment to State and Territory Ministers on Friday at the Ministerial Council.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Apart from the Census figures, is there any way to – will you have any way of measuring how many homeless people there are or what the homelessness rate is when you come to your first benchmark, which is 2013?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It is difficult. We’ve actually invested more in research in this area than ever before because we’re looking to have the best data we can have, not only to work out the exact number for a particular milestone, but also to inform how we invest in the future. We’re looking at making sure we invest in prevention, invest in early intervention, and invest in breaking the cycle of homelessness. And we are informed by really qualitative research.

But as to whether we can get an exact number, I think that’s very difficult and there will be arguments about that. The consensus though – and I think that’s important to mention – the consensus within the sector at least is there is a certain way you invest that brings about the right outcomes. We’ve seen it with rough sleepers in using more supported accommodation, we’ve seen it in terms of social housing, but I think that for me, the obvious point is we need a greater level of collaboration with States and Territories to provide greater levels of housing, affordable housing, for people.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Now the crunch time’s coming at the end of this week when you sit down with the States to work out what happens with the funding after July next year. Are you in a position to come to an agreement and to announce what you’re going to do?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I hope so. I made clear at the last Ministerial Council that we had to reach an agreement to invest in funds that are needed to realise the objectives we’ve set ourselves.

So I go into the meeting with a view that we need to continue to commit to this very significant national challenge. It’s not a Government challenge, it’s a national challenge, and I’ll be calling upon the States and Territories to do likewise.

As to the details of the terms of those agreements, of course that will come down to discussions with the States and Territories. But I think nobody’s under any illusion that if we don’t continue to invest, we will not see the reduction, we certainly won’t see goals that we’ve outlined for 2020 to be realised and that would be a crying shame as a nation. I mean, we’re a wealthy nation and there would be no excuse for us not to realise those goals.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The NSW Minister Pru Goward is calling for the Commonwealth to make a recurrent commitment to funding, not just say to the next three or four years but in perpetuity, to have it in the Budget every year. Will you do that?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well that’s an interesting thing coming from a Minister who’s yet to say that she would spend one cent on any new agreement. Let’s see how the NSW Government goes on Friday when I put to them our position. What we want is a partnership. At the moment the current agreement is a 50-50 spend – 50 from the Commonwealth, 50 per cent from the States.

And aside from this agreement, remember, it’s been the Commonwealth that’s built the social houses, all 21,000 of them. We’ve been investing in these areas of housing the homeless and helping people that are struggling with affordability questions, and I’d like to see the States really pick up their game, honestly. But I do believe this – that if there’s a sincerity among other Governments to tackle this social blight on this nation, namely homelessness, then we will see an agreement struck some time soon.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And is the agreement a fixed term, like the last one, four years?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think that’s subject to the discussion. I think we need to be fair dinkum about how we invest. As I say, as a Government we’ve invested unprecedented amount at the Commonwealth level, aside from all other levels of investment in social housing. We’d like to see the States and Territories of course do the same.

At the moment under the National Affordable Housing Agreement, they do not have to account to me, they don’t have to account specifically to the public. I think we need a far more transparent arrangement for housing agreements so we know exactly where the money’s spent and we know exactly what the States and Territories put into housing and put into homelessness, and to date we don’t have that.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: What do you say to the community organisations that you fund to help the homeless, and also to people either without a roof over their heads or at risk of being homeless? Will there be a firm commitment come Friday?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I can only say to them that we understand uncertainty breeds anxiety. I am looking to reach accommodation and reach agreement with the States and Territories as quickly as possible. I think if there’s good will amongst the nine jurisdictions, we’ll reach that agreement and I say to those who work so hard passionately, compassionately for our most vulnerable Australians that the Federal Government supports their efforts and will do everything we can to have agreement.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And what do you say to the calls for a national Royal Commission into child abuse? Do you think there is a need for a national inquiry? And secondly, of the type of a Royal Commission?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, I think it’s very disturbing, the things that have been disclosed in relation to potential cover-ups and allegations that have been made about the conduct of people. And for that reason I think the Government has to seriously consider what is the best response. That’s what the Government is doing – it’s carefully considering the implications of what approach it takes.

We know of course the NSW Premier has already outlined what he’d like to do and the Federal Government is weighing up what options it should take.

In the end, we should be motivated by what is in the best interests of the victims and what will actually prevent likely victims in the future.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And do you think that an inquiry just in NSW will suffice, because, as many people have said, the abusers moved across State and Territory borders.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: And again, I think this is something that the Federal Government has to weigh up properly. The NSW Government has responded very recently. Obviously questions are being put to us. We need to look at the breadth and the scale and the nature of this issue, but we’re in no doubt that there’ve been too many victims of abuse. We need to work out the most effective means to respond to that and that’s what the Government will be doing and we’ll be commenting more fully on that in the near future.