Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

CEO Sleepout, Homelessness

Program: PM Agenda, Sky News, Ashley Gillon

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  Tonight some of the most important and influential people in the country will get a taste of what it’s like to sleep on the streets.  Business leaders, politicians and community leaders will be roughing it tonight for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

The event is in its third year at a national level and hopes to raise awareness and donations for over one-hundred thousand homeless people across Australia.

Joining me now is the Minister for Homelessness, Brendan O’Connor who is taking part tonight and also the Vinnies CEO, John Falzon.

Hello to both of you.  John, can we start with you?  How many people are sleeping out in aid of this program tonight and how much are you hoping it will raise?

JOHN FALZON:  Well, we’ve got over a thousand CEOs across the country sleeping out and really pitching in with an effort to not only raise much needed funds to address the causes of homelessness but to raise awareness of the fact that this is something that lies underneath the surface of prosperous Australia and something that we really need to address together as a nation.

We’re hoping to raise five million.  At the moment we’re past the four million mark and we’re doing very well.  We’re very grateful for the wonderful support that we’re getting from the Australian community and hats off to – not only to those who are sleeping out but to those who are supporting us in whatever way they can.

It’s a terrific effort by all involved.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  Minister O’Connor, it is a symbolic move here.  There is a call – there have been calls for big companies doing more to tackle this issue, but isn’t it really a problem that’s yours in Government to deal with?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  I think it’s a societal challenge.  Certainly it’s the responsibility of Government but I think it’s a responsibility of us all and that’s why I pay tribute to the senior public servants and the CEOs of organisations and companies that are actually joining in on this very important event that St Vinnies puts up.

I think it’s now the seventh iteration, the third national event. Because it’s not just about the raising of the money, although it’s a really great effort, there’s almost five million being raised. It’s about, I think, getting the corporate sector more engaged on a very important social issue.

We have too many people homeless, we have too many mothers with their children sleeping in cars, we have too many teenagers sleeping rough and being in very vulnerable situations. We have too many Australians homeless. And therefore we need to dedicate more resources to this issue and we’ve done quite a lot in recent times. But we also, I think, more importantly must focus on prevention – Preventing people being at risk of being homeless or ending up homeless and that’s why this is such an important issue. And for a wealthy nation it’s inexcusable.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  John, I know you’re sitting right next to the Minister there. If there’s one thing you could convince him to do to make this problem less of a problem, what would it be?

JOHN FALZON:  To be really honest with you, I’m happy to say that I don’t believe the Minister needs convincing of the seriousness of this blight on Australia.  It’s nothing less than shameful that a prosperous nation like ours has this level of homelessness.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  Surely more resources though would help, wouldn’t it, John?

JOHN FALZON:  Oh absolutely, and as I say, I don’t believe the Minister needs convincing of that.  He would certainly agree with my organisation and the many organisations like mine that we need more resources, more social housing available, more services for those who are already experiencing homelessness.

But I’d like to say something about the longer term view, and that is if we want to be a fairer nation, a nation where nobody is left out or pushed out – and let’s face it, homelessness is one of the worst manifestations of being left out – if that’s what we want and if we want to be a smart nation, a productive nation, then we’ve got to start investing at the other end long before homeless occurs.

And, that’s why I certainly encourage the Government to embrace the Gonski Reforms in education.  That’s something where we can – if we decide to put decent effort into particularly resourcing public education and education for people experiencing disadvantage, we will really succeed in pretty much preventing many of the causes of homelessness in the first place. Not all, there are many other aspects, but that’s the kind of thing that we should be looking forward to and to me that’s a very positive thing.

I’d also like to say that this really shouldn’t be a party political issue.  This is something that deserves bipartisan support and that’s why the St Vincent de Paul Society has always said that this is something that both sides of politics should agree on. That in a country like ours we just simply shouldn’t be having this level of homelessness, but more to the point, we should never fall prey to that terrible temptation of blaming people for their own homelessness.

Nothing is more offensive and nothing more incorrect.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  Brendan O’Connor, when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister he made some pretty ambitious targets when it came to – comes to cutting the levels of homelessness.  There’s no way those are going to be reached, is there? And what are the new targets?  Do you have some?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, the goal is to cut the rate of homelessness by half by 2020 and it’s a goal that we are certainly looking to realise and it won’t be easy.  It’s an ambitious goal.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  It’s not really on track though, is it, surely?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Look, well we’ll get more information on the progress of that when the ABS releases its own data and compare that with the previous census, but we do need to continue.  I think for people to be so cynical to suggest we can’t actually reach a goal by 2020 is really to give up on a very important issue and that’s not something that this Government will do.

We believe in partnership with State and Territory Governments, with the not-for-profit sector who do such great work helping people in need, and with the private sector, I think we can as a nation reach this goal. I’m not really going to join up with the naysayers and say it’s difficult so it can’t be done.

I think it can be done and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve released draft legislation on homelessness.  I want this issue to be debated in the Parliament.  I want there to be public discussion around this social challenge. And as John said, it’s not just a social challenge, it’s an economic one too. Because it’s not just about looking after the – and quite rightly – looking after people in need, but it’s actually making this country more productive.

So there are good economic and social reasons to deal with this matter and realise that goal and we are going to put every effort in we can to make sure that that happens.

ASHLEIGH GILLON:  We wish you the best of luck for it, John and Minister, appreciate your time.  Have – I shouldn’t say have a good time tonight but do – we hope you raise the funds that you’re after this evening.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Sure. Thanks, Ashleigh, yes.

JOHN FALZON:  Thank you.  Thanks.