Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Homelessness Bill, People Smuggling – Doorstop, Sydney Town Hall

Location: Sydney Town Hall

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It’s really good to be here today at this very important event – Homeless Connect. This is a great example of the corporate sector engaging in what is a very challenging issue for Australia.

We have 100,000 Australians homeless. And the Government has dedicated itself to ensure that we halve the rate of homelessness by 2020. That is a commitment we’ve made, and we’ve dedicated $5 billion to provide to States and Territory governments to ensure that we fulfil this very important goal.

But today’s event really is fantastic. It’s a one-stop shop, if you like, for those people that are homeless or at risk of being homeless. They can come here. They can get professional advice. They can get clothes. They get fed today, and they’re provided other types of services.

And I want to thank the agencies, the not-for-profit organisations and, most particularly, the volunteers who’ve taken time – their own time – to provide help for their fellow Australians. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

And, finally, I’d like to say today that we are releasing the draft legislation on homelessness. We gave a commitment that we would legislate to ensure that we put a spotlight on this challenging issue, this blight for such a wealthy nation. We’ll be releasing the draft legislation for consultation for two months, and I hope then we’ll be enacting that, we’ll be introducing it into the House in the Spring sessions.

JOURNALIST: What do you hope to gain by changing the definition of homelessness?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, look, I think, firstly, it’s important that we have legislation because it allows for debate in the Parliament. It allows for the Parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate – to discuss what is, I think, a challenging issue.

And I do believe the chance of enacting legislation properly recognising all of those people that are homeless in this country is important.

Of course, we have, currently, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, but this will supersede that. This is a contemporary piece of legislation and it broadens the definition of homelessness, recognising all the different facets there are about this social challenge.

JOURNALIST: What will the definition [inaudible]?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: The definition will be broadened to include, under the legislation, if accepted – it is out for consultation – but it will include caravan parks and it will include boarding houses. There’s no specific definition of those two matters in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, but this is out for consultation. We expect there to be some contributions by the not-for-profit sector and from the corporate sector and others about this legislation.

Again, it’s an important piece of legislation. It’s a fulfilment of a goal that we set ourselves, and I’m looking forward to engaging with the community about this important issue.

JOURNALIST: How many extra new people are expected to be covered by that new definition?


JOURNALIST: Extra new people, extra new homeless people.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, insofar as the way in which the calculation of the population of homelessness is concerned, that has historically been determined by the ABS. We’re waiting on the ABS data on the last Census so we can look at how we have travelled since our commitments to reduce homelessness in this country. So we’re still awaiting that data.

But I think it’s very important for the legislation to have a definition so people fully understand the nature and the complexity of this social issue. There are people who are not even aware of their own state of homelessness. They might think, for example, that they might couch surf from home to home to home and think that’s not homelessness.

But if they have not a place that they can say they belong without the invitation of another; if they’re constantly moving from one place to the next, not being able to access education, not being able to access and sustain employment, then there is a real challenge. And without fixing homelessness we cannot attend to their other issues, like getting an education, being fully employed. These other issues need to work hand in hand with dealing with homelessness.

JOURNALIST: Is $5 billion enough? One homeless person I spoke to said I mean we send money into space but we’re not looking after the people here on Earth.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m not sure Australia’s sending anyone into space but certainly we’ve increased the resources for this area. We work very closely with State and Territory governments. I think there are better ways of dealing with this challenge and I think we’ve found some innovative ways.

And only today we’re seeing the corporate sector being involved; people volunteering their time; people taking time off work to work and help their fellow Australians. So I think it’s not just about Government expenditure, it’s about a philanthropic approach as well, getting resources from other areas of society. This is a challenge for all Australians, not just for State, Territory and Federal Governments.

JOURNALIST: When it comes to homelessness though, it is a matter of Government expenditure. We’re talking about the need for thousands more homes, not just in Sydney, but tens of thousands more homes around Australia. And every charity group in there has spoken of the need for that. What can the Federal Government do, realistically?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, as I say, we’ve actually dedicated more resources than ever before to deal with this issue. We’ve actually invested more than $5 billion in social housing. We’ve actually constructed more dwellings as a Federal Government than any previous Federal Government. And we’re spending money dedicated to providing services for homeless people. And we’re working very close with States and Territories.

This is a partnership, if you like, amongst governments and, indeed, other organisations to ensure that we reduce the rate of homelessness by half by 2020. That’s our commitment. We have seen some very good positive signs. We do await the ABS data to see how we’ve travelled, because it’s that indicator that provides us the answers to how well we’ve gone to date.

But I know, from getting around the country, talking to people, that there’s certainly been some innovative approaches which have meant people who were once homeless are now productive members of society again, and that’s a wonderful thing.

JOURNALIST: What other parts of the legislation, other than changing the definition of homelessness, are you bringing in, and the funding?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the actual draft itself goes to a number of areas to deal with homelessness. We are looking at ensuring that there are sufficient strategies in place to deal with homelessness. This has not been prescribed before in legislation. This does allow community debate and parliamentary debate on these issues.

I think what we have failed to do in the past is fully debate the issues, or the strategies we require, to resolve this difficult issue. What we haven’t done before is set down the best approaches, the integrated approaches required to deal with homeless Australians.

This legislation, in draft form, will allow for community consultation for two months, and then we’ll have a parliamentary debate. I think this brings the issue under the spotlight, if you like – focused on that issue. And I think that’s a good thing because if we do not do this, then it’s quite easy for it to be forgotten. Now, we want to put this at the centre of public debate, and I think we can do that using the vehicle of this legislation.

JOURNALIST: So what concrete things are you doing though?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the concrete things that we’re doing, even without the legislation, is engaging in a National Quality Framework with State and Territory governments about a national approach to homelessness, dedicating more resources than ever before for homelessness services, providing more dwellings for people who are homeless.

So they’re the concrete things.  The resources on the ground, provided to not-for-profit providers and other agencies to provide support for people who are at risk of being homeless, or, indeed, are homeless.

They’re the things we’re doing.  But I think the legislation also allows a greater public debate about this issue we’re putting at the centre, if you like, of public discourse so that we can focus on this issue so all Australians can be aware that this is a challenge that we’re serious about and it’s a challenge that they can assist their governments in resolving.  And I think that’s the thing.

And the one thing I got from today was you see today, people volunteering their time.  It’s not just government agencies.  It’s not just not-for-profit organisations.  There are volunteers here helping their fellow Australians, a great example about how you fix a societal problem.

JOURNALIST:  Minister, how…

JOURNALIST: But doesn’t it show a huge failing, even in just something as simple as our health system, that you would have to have a special day like this where people can come in and people I’ve spoken to, people coming in with health ailments that they need to get addressed?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think that there are issues.  You know, Australia has to confront these challenges.  We are a wealthy nation.  We’re very well placed, despite all of the global challenges there are, we have low unemployment, we have low inflation.  We have the lowest official cash rate than at any time under the Howard Government.  We have a strong economy.

But, even with all of those good things, we have some challenges that have been around for decades.  And this government has committed itself to resolving or solving many of those issues.  And we do that in partnership with State and Territory Governments and other sectors of our country.

That’s what we need to do, work in partnership, make sure that this issue is not forgotten, not pushed under the carpet like I think it once was, but focused on.  And if we do that, if we do that as a country, and if we do that as governments in partnership with other parts of our society, I think you will see some wonderful results.

JOURNALIST: How responsible do you feel for the processing of six people smugglers as asylum seekers during your time as Minister for Home Affairs?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m sorry, I didn’t get the question.

JOURNALIST: How responsible do you feel you are for the processing of six people smugglers as asylum seekers in 2010, as your time as Home Affairs Minister?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the first thing is, these are allegations that might be made about people and until they’re determined by a court of law I think it would be hypothetical to answer that particular question.

I might say this though.  I was aware, as Minister for Justice, that the person that was facing the most charges, over 80 charges for people smuggling, was determined to be a refugee under the Howard Government.  So it’s easy for people to start picking out isolated instances.  But the person who has actually been charged and, indeed, has been charged for the organising of the vessel that sank off the coast of Christmas Island was made a refugee under the Howard years.

What we call upon the Opposition to do is to embrace the Malaysian solution.  It is the one arrangement that’s been advised by our agencies as being the most effective way to break the people smuggling model.

But the problem is we have, in the leader of the Opposition, the most negative Opposition leader in our history, a person who wants to see more vessels come to this country.  He’s happy when more vessels arrive and he does that because he does it for his own personal political motives rather than the interests of this nation.

So, you know, it’s easy to actually argue one thing or another.  Under the Howard Government they determined a person to be a refugee. That person is now currently facing 85 charges for people smuggling and he is facing our courts in due course.

JOURNALIST: But how do you justify a people smuggler getting public housing and his family in Canberra and there’s people here who can’t even get housing?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, these matters are yet to be determined by a court and I think it would be wrong for people to determine an allegation until those matters have been resolved by a court of law.

But can I say this, that of course we will continue to do what we can to bring people to justice, for any particular federal crime.  We have toughened up the penalties for people smuggling.

We introduced into the parliament and, indeed, enacted the law that has meant that people who provide support for people smugglers domestically can actually face up to 10 years jail. That was done under this Government and we’ve done that to ensure that we make it very clear to people that live in Australia that if they engage in this criminal activity and if they are prosecuted for the charges against them they will go to jail.

JOURNALIST: Will you be doing an investigation in the Housing Department of how that came about?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, in terms of ACT Government I don’t actually engage in – I don’t have a housing department.  The Departments of Housing are run by State and Territory governments.  But again, can I say this, of course, if people are committing offences, if that is the case and if that’s proven by a court of law, then of course they will face justice as they should.  But that has to be determined, not by a politician, not by the media, but by a court of law.