Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Doorstop, Brisbane – Queensland Tenant Advice and Advocacy Service, Alan Jones

Location: Brisbane

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m here today in Brisbane to make an important announcement about the future of the Queensland Tenant Advice and Advocacy Service.

This is a service which provides advice and help to about 80,000 Queenslanders and Queensland householders a year – helping them to keep their homes when they are going through a financial or personal crisis, like job loss, illness or relationship breakdown.

Without this advice and help, people can find themselves homeless and on the public housing waiting list. But in July this year, Premier Newman and Minister Flegg announced that they were pulling funding for these vital services for Queenslanders.

No consultation, no negotiation, no alternatives offered – just cutting 23 services across this great state and they were simply told to close their doors by the end of this month. This is cutting frontline staff. These services are not a luxury. They are a necessity. They help to keep people in private rental homes, freeing up public housing and crisis accommodation services for people in greater need.

Yet at a time when he is sacking thousands of public servants and forcing them and their families into housing stress, Premier Newman is taking away Queenslanders’ access to the advice and advocacy which can help them keep their homes.

Now, the Federal Government will not stand idly by and watch these services being ripped away from so many families who are in desperate need of help.

My Queensland Labor colleagues, in particular the Member for Blair Shayne Neumann, has left me in no doubt about the serious impact these services will have on people across the state – from Brisbane to Bowen, from Toowoomba to Townsville.

So today, I am announcing that we are stepping in with emergency funding to keep these services’ doors open. We will be providing $3.3 million to keep the services running until June next year.

We will make continuation of these services a condition of future Commonwealth-State arrangements because these services are a state responsibility, not a Commonwealth one.

And I call on Premier Newman and Minister Flegg to reverse this short-sighted and cruel decision and restore funding for these services. After all, these services – and this is what’s most galling about this decision – these services are largely paid for by tenants themselves, not the Government, but by tenants, through the interest generated on the bonds paid by those tenants to the Residential Tenancy Authority. So, this is nothing more than a cheap grab for tenants’ money.

Premier Newman and Minister Flegg claim that they are redirecting this money to build more social housing, yet the amount of money used to fund these services is so small they would be building maybe 20 homes a year. And so, if it’s a choice between building 20 new homes a year and looking after 80,000 Queensland families it’s a no-brainer.

Premier Newman does not seem to realise that this short-sighted grab for cash may end up costing taxpayers more, with increased strains on the public housing system and more people forced to seek help from homeless services.

So, it’s time for Premier Newman to end his scorched earth policy, his slash-and-burn approach to frontline services and jobs. It’s time for him to reverse this cruel and unsound decision and his unwarranted axing of this service.

And I’m happy now to take any questions.

QUESTION: Minister, after June next year then, would you dedicate more funding if the State Government doesn’t reverse the [indistinct]?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, as I’ve made very clear, there are agreements that go – that are to be renegotiated commencing from 1 July next year with this Government, with the Queensland Government. And I’m making those agreements conditional upon commitments by the Queensland Government to continue this service beyond this financial year.

In other words, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness is to expire on 30 June next year. The Federal Government will make it a condition of any future agreement that the Queensland Government restore services because it is their direct responsibility.

QUESTION: So, how much money does Queensland stand to possibly lose if they don’t play ball on this from the Federal Government?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the people that are losing money here – and that’s what’s really galling about this decision – are those tenants who place their bond in the Residential Tenancy Authority. Remember this money that has been taken from the Queensland Government is money that is the accumulation of interest from the capital invested by the tenants themselves.

This is not even taxpayers money. This is money that is actually derived from the tenants own money and for the Government to take that money, and at the same time deprive 80,000 householders of tenancy advice and advocacy, is an awful decision because it will lead to more homelessness and it will lead to more housing stress.

So, it’s a bad decision. It’s also an unfair thing to do and as I say, I call upon the Queensland Government to reverse this decision.

QUESTION: Is there any other funding agreements that could be threatened if the Newman Government doesn’t revisit this tenancy funding?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, it’s not a question of threatening agreements, it’s about making sure you [indistinct] with your – to your responsibilities as a Government.

Now, this advocacy service has been in Queensland for many a year, has provided very important advice to householders who are under difficulty. It may well be that they’re dealing with job loss, it might be family breakdown, they may have all sorts of issues and they seek the advice of council of this service.

Now, this is not a reduction in the service, this is an absolute cutting of these services across Queensland – not just Brisbane but regional Queensland. That will deprive many vulnerable Queenslanders from such a service and it is unwarranted and it needs to be reversed.

Now, what we’ve made clear is because this decision will have such a great impact on so many people, the Federal Government has found the resources to continue the service for this year. But any future negotiation between Queensland Government and the Commonwealth in relation to housing will have to ensure that there is an ongoing commitment from the Queensland Government to provide such services.

QUESTION: So, how much is the National Partnership Agreement on Housing between Queensland and the Commonwealth actually worth?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: The National Partnership on Homelessness is a $1.1 billion agreement over four years with all states and territories and indeed, with the Federal Government. So, it’s a significant agreement federally so it runs into significant sums of money – tens of millions of dollars with Queensland and with the Federal Government in terms of that proportion of what they may put in.

There’s also a $1.3 billion expenditure under the National Affordable Housing Agreement per year provided by the Commonwealth to state and territory governments. Now, if we’re going to deal with housing affordability and homelessness it is absolutely absurd to rip away at services that will prevent people from becoming either homeless or at risk of being homeless or placing them under housing stress.

This is an absurd decision by the Government. We’ve stumped up here to respond to this decision but we would expect the Queensland Government to re-institute 1 July next year.

QUESTION: So, you’re considering withholding some money from Queensland?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: We will be entering into negotiations with the Queensland Government to renew the current National Partnership on Homelessness and we’ll make a condition of that agreement that these services are restored beyond 30 June next year.

QUESTION: But if not what happens then?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, we will make sure that there is a condition of that agreement – so, never mind what will happen. What will happen will be, I believe, that the Queensland Government will realise that this decision, this cruel decision that they’ve made is affecting thousands of Queenslanders and they’ll come to their senses. That’s what I would expect.

But in the meantime, because this decision has been made and it’s a very cruel and heartless decision, we have stepped up to provide those support services to Queensland householders.

QUESTION: On something else, is it surely time now for the Government to move on from Alan Jones? It’s been three days, four days, since this has been a controversial topic.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well look, Alan Jones made some very heartless and cruel comments and of course, I guess he’s now suffering the criticism that the public feel for him as a result of those comments.

QUESTION: But he’s apologised so should the Government lay off him now?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I think firstly some people question the sincerity of the apology. An apology should have some sense of contrition. I think many would say there was no sincereness in his apology. But in the end, as I say, we will do what we have to do which is focus on governing for Australians and focus on the more important issues.

What is important of course, is what Tony Abbott does. He hasn’t condemned, I believe, in any sort of – in strong terms, concerns he should have for the comments made by Mr Jones.

QUESTION: So, you’ll be boycotting his program?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, Alan Jones doesn’t invite me on his program so it’s a pretty easy thing for me to boycott. He – as you might understand, he tends to invite Tony Abbott on his program and Tony Abbott usually agrees with everything Alan Jones says.

QUESTION: Jenny Macklin has come out today and said that she’s concerned that the Queensland Government’s cuts to the public sector could actually put in doubt Queensland’s ability to deliver construction of new homes under the National Partnership Agreement. Is that something that you’re concerned about as well?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well look, there’s no doubt if you take funding out of housing there’s going to be impacts. I think Minister Macklin was referring to closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and made the simple point that if you reduce the services, it’s going to be harder for us to close that gap.

Thanks very much.