Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Vinnies CEO Sleepout; Homelessness

Program: Rn breakfast Radio National, Fran Kelly


FRAN KELLY:  It’s 24 minutes to seven on Breakfast.  First, though, more than 1,000 business and community leaders will trade the boardroom for a sleeping bag and a few sheets of cardboard tonight when they sleep rough to help the homeless.

It’s the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout which this year has already raised more than$3.5 million for homeless services.  Brendan O’Connor is the Minister for Housing and Homelessness and he’ll endure a long night in zero temperatures when he dosses down at the National Gallery in Canberra.  That’s where the CEOs are sleeping out in Canberra tonight.  Brendan O’Connor, welcome to RN Breakfast.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Yeah, good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:  So, Minister, tell me what you’ll be doing tonight.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, like everybody else I’ll be rolling out a sleeping bag and spending a night out in Canberra’s fine weather which, I guess, is just a tiny glimpse into the sort of experiences that too many of our Australians face every night. And it’s a great thing for two things.  It raises money, but I think even more importantly, by bringing the business community in and having them spend that night out, it just raises the profile of an issue that hasn’t been dealt with, I think, historically in this country as well as it could.

FRAN KELLY:  And I’ll certainly come to that issue but as you say, a tiny glimpse.  You’re at the Art Gallery.  Inside or outside the Art Gallery in Canberra?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Outside.  So, yes, it’s a tiny glimpse.  It’s a tiny, cold glimpse because it’s – I guess if you had to choose a city in Australia you wouldn’t tend to choose Canberra.

FRAN KELLY:  No, I think it’s going to be cold wherever they are, though, Melbourne, Sydney.  I mean, it’s all relative.  I know in past years in Sydney, which is one of the – the capital city where it kicked off it rained all night.  That wasn’t too good for people, either.  As you say, a tiny glimpse of this problem.  Back in 2008 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described homelessness as a national obscenity.

Four years on seems to me the statistic hasn’t changed in the past 20 years.  More than 100,000 Australians are homeless; 16,000 at least are sleeping rough on any given night, many of those children.  There is no sign of this problem going away or even diminishing, is there?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, I think the difficult thing is to identify precisely the figure.  We calculated based on the evidence we had at the time as to how many Australians were sleeping without accommodation, sleeping rough or indeed without any roof over their head.  And we calculated the figure based on the evidence at the time.

What we’ve looked to do since then is actually gather more data, more information, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been looking to work out exactly what that number is.  Our commitment is the same now as it was then, that is we want to halve the rate of homelessness.

We have dedicated literally billions of dollars, working with States and Territories and indeed working with not-for-profit organisations to prevent people being either homeless or at risk of being homeless.  But it is important that we get a true picture of the actual number and that’s not easy, but I think it’s a good thing that we placed a very important goal as a government to do our very best to look after those people who are doing it very hard.

FRAN KELLY:  Having a goal is one thing and it is a good thing, I agree with you and having a goal –


FRAN KELLY:  – of halving the number of homeless –


FRAN KELLY:  – whatever that number is, by 2020 is a great goal but action is what’s required.  How is the Government doing this?  I know you have a bill on homelessness.  Is the key, you know, providing more affordable housing?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, the key – well, it’s a number of things.  Firstly it’s having services that prevent people being placed in the position where they end up finding themselves at risk of being homeless.  It’s also absolutely about dedicating resources to prevent people being stressed by affordable accommodation and being caught in a situation where they cannot afford to pay rent.  So what we’ve done, if you’ve noticed, we’ve invested more money in housing than any government.

We certainly dedicated a lot of resources. For example the National Rental Affordability Scheme has been constructing homes across Australia.  There are up to 50,000 homes that will be built under that scheme.  So far just under 10,000 have been built and there’s about 10,000 that will be built in the next 12 months.  That, of course, relieves not only the stress of affordable accommodation, it also prevents the likelihood of people being at risk of being homeless.  So –

FRAN KELLY:  In these straitened times, though, pressures do come on all these programs and promises.  I think it was the Budget before last where money was cut out of some of the social housing programs.  The money was – might have been a couple of years ago for social housing.

But also in the last Budget the move, for instance, to have tougher penalties for single parents who have children at school, sending them back to work or they get knocked back to Newstart, I mean, those are the sort of moves that could see someone, a parent and their children, ending up homeless, aren’t they?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  No, look, in relation to having people participate either by accessing education or employment, there’s always been a vulnerability indicator.  And by that I mean if there are people that are in a position that cannot access or cannot undertake certain obligations and particularly if they have children they’ve always been given extra support and there’ve been, on occasion, exemptions.

But let’s be very clear here.  If we’re going to prevent people being in a position where they are a candidate that’s likely to find themselves homeless, we have to make sure that they are productive, that they acquire skills for their own good, not just for the country and not just for their family but for themselves.  And so we’ve done that but we’ve always done that.

And I know this, when I was in a previous position as Minister for Employment Participation, we’ve done that, allowing for exemptions when people were placed in very difficult circumstances.  So for example if we asked for a mother to access education so she could acquire skills so that when her child goes to school she can actually get work, if she’s not able to find childcare, for example, she would not have to undergo that obligation.

So there have always been exemptions.  But you’re right, Fran.  It is a difficult situation.  What we need to do is to identify precisely the number.  We also need to work out exactly the nature of homelessness because there are teenagers that are couch surfing, there are increasingly more women and more children at risk of being homeless than ever before if you look at the historical sweep of this issue.  So we need to target the resources for those people that are at risk.

FRAN KELLY:  Okay.  All right, Minister, well thank you very much for joining us.  Good luck tonight and I hope this cheers you up; the forecast for tonight apparently is zero.  It could have been worse.  On Tuesday the forecast – the temperature in Canberra overnight was minus six, so –

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Yeah I sound very lucky tonight.

FRAN KELLY:  Good luck with that.  Thank you very much for joining us.


FRAN KELLY:  Brendan O’Connor is the Minister for Housing and Homelessness and more than a thousand CEOs have joined up including the head of Westpac, Gail Kelly, the head of Commonwealth Bank, Ian Narev, and many others.