Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Launch of November Edition, Parity Magazine

Location: West Melbourne



Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I also acknowledge

  • Jenny Smith [CEO, Council to Homeless Persons]
  • Toby Hall [CEO, Mission Australia]
  • Adrian Pisarski [Convenor, National Shelter]
  • Contributors to Parity

Thank you for having me here today to launch the November edition of Parity.

The Council to Homeless Persons does tremendous work to end homelessness through your leadership in policy, advocacy, capacity building and consumer participation.

Your magazine, Parity, allows many different perspectives and experiences of homelessness to be heard.

And Parity’s November issue is devoted to a topic that is exercising all our minds.

That is the future funding of our agreements with the States and Territories on housing and homelessness – the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

I would like to thank and congratulate all contributors for their spirited and thought provoking articles.

You all reflect the passion and dedication to tackling homelessness in Australia that has seen us achieve much in the four years since the release of the Government’s White Paper The Road Home.

Several contributors mention the recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census figures which indicated an eight  per cent increase in the rate of homelessness in Australia since 2006.

The headline figure, showing an increase in the rate of homelessness of eight per cent is disappointing, but a more in-depth analysis reveals some promising signs.

The rate of rough sleepers as a proportion of the population has fallen by 13.5 per cent. This is encouraging, particularly as the data relates to only the first two years of the Government’s intensified policy response. And we must keep in mind the population increase from 2006 to 2009.

Across the spectrum of homelessness issues, sleeping rough has the most debilitating health, social and educational outcomes. It is perhaps the hardest issue to address. These people are truly our most vulnerable citizens. I am proud that we are making real progress in addressing one of the core concerns outlined by the White Paper.

The number of people in supported accommodation has risen by 23 per cent from 2006 to 20011. This demonstrates that there is greater access to this important transitional accommodation.

Clearly, our provision of services here is responding better to the needs of people struggling to maintain secure and stable housing. By accessing support services while in accommodation, we are giving people a chance to break out of the cycle of homelessness

The rate of Indigenous homelessness did also fall by 14.5 per cent. That is by no means eliminating the outcomes gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, but it is closing the gap and I am happy we are moving in the right direction.

The biggest increase in homelessness came from people – some 41,000 – living in severely over-crowded conditions.  This group of people represent 40 per cent of Australia’s current homeless population.

When considering these figures, it’s important to bear in mind that this Census was taken barely 18 months after the release of the White Paper.

And during that period we had survived the greatest global financial crisis since the great depression.

As part of our policy to tackle that crisis, the Federal Labor Government made a record investment – $6 billion – in social housing.

That was our values decision. When we invested to stimulate the economy, we targeted that investment towards education and social housing.

Nobody can get back on their feet and stay there without safe and appropriate housing. We have built 21,000 new social housing homes and refurbished another 80,000. I am proud as Minister to say that 10,000 people who might otherwise be homeless are now living in these homes.

That is 10,000 lives. That is 10,000 transformative opportunities.

More than 10,000 homes have also been built under the National Rental Affordability Scheme, with another 40,000 to come. These homes are available to rent by people on low and moderate incomes at 20 per cent below the market rent.

Since 2008, the Labor Government has made a direct financial contribution to one in every 20 homes built across this country. This is part of a $20 billion federal investment in housing and homelessness services since coming to office. Seen in its totality, this is a nation-building and nation-changing investment.

In addition to this record investment, we can take heart from the achievements of programs implemented under our homelessness partnership with the States and Territories.

The level of innovation and the depth of attention given both to preventing homelessness and to breaking its insidious cycle is, by any measure, outstanding.

One of my first tasks as Minister for Housing and Homelessness was to present the inaugural Homelessness Awards this year.

I was enormously impressed by the calibre of all those individuals and organisations nominated for an award.

I would like to acknowledge Mission Australia as a co-sponsor.

Mission Australia’s CEO Toby Hall’s article in this magazine is a plea to ensure achievements like these survive, and flourish.

Among the achievements Toby singles out are services like Mission Australia’s Going Places program in Cairns.

Going Places is a street-to-home service that has helped more than 160 people and families find housing over the past two years.

It has achieved a remarkable rate of 85 per cent maintained tenancies.

Some 95 per cent of people accessing the service have identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

So, as Toby says, the cultural competence of the service is absolutely paramount.

I had the pleasure of visiting and listening to the success stories of those benefitting from this program in March this year.

Another program he mentions is the Inner City Drift Project in Western Sydney.

This program identifies people at risk of homelessness and those who are homeless for the first time.

It provides them with services and keeps them in safe, stable accommodation before they become cut off and ‘drift’ to crisis services in the inner city.

These are only two of more than180 new or improved initiatives funded across the country under the $1.1 billion homelessness partnership.

They reflect a new thinking about homelessness.

“A new generation of services”, as it was called.

They are based very much on the ethos of the White Paper.

Many have not been established long enough for us to be able to measure their full value.

But they do show the progress we are making.

The strong message from this edition of Parity is that we must not lose momentum.

I concur wholeheartedly with this view.

We are, as I said in my National Press Club address last month, too far down the road home to falter now.

The Gillard Government remains committed to its historic targets to reduce homelessness.

But with the partnership in its final year, it is timely to look carefully at both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the future.

We need to examine the ‘what’ so that we know what works and what does not.

We need to know which services are delivering.

We need to know these things so that taxpayers’ money can be targeted effectively and clients get the best possible services.

In terms of the ‘how’, you will all be aware that the Gillard Government has entered negotiations with the States and Territories for an interim agreement for 2013-14.

This will provide certainty to the sector’s tireless workers, and to their clients, while we examine the best means of future funding.

I am heartened by the in-principle commitment by all States and Territories, Liberal and Labor, to negotiate a new funding agreement. Negotiations are taking place at the moment and I have had a particularly positive response from some jurisdictions including New South Wales and South Australia.

I would encourage all of you to keep pressure on your respective State and Territory Governments and indeed on the Federal Opposition.

Only last week we had the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Opposition Leader, Senator Sinodinos, inferring that those who want the historic federal-state partnership on homelessness to be extended are somehow blind to the real causes of homelessness. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it seems to be an alibi for the Federal Opposition to not invest.

Tell me, what commitment do you have from the alternative Government of this country? The answer is next to nothing.

The services funded under the national partnership do much more than just provide a roof over people’s heads. They provide training and health services, they keep young people connected with their families and their communities, and above all they aim to move people from crisis accommodation to long-term, safe and sustainable homes.

The Gillard Government knows this and that’s why we are also committed to negotiating a new multi-year agreement for beyond 2014.

I think we need to be as innovative about funding as we have been with our new programs.

I think Adrian Pisarski’s contribution to this edition rightly speaks of the need to “transform our systems”.

I launched the philanthropic edition of Parity back in July. And it’s the innovative thinking in that edition and the knowledge I collected from my recent US visit and from other services which will ultimately ensure we find ways to dedicate the necessary resources to reach our 2020 targets.

Alongside the specific work being done to reduce homelessness, the goal is for all Australians to have access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing.

And this continues to be progressed under the National Affordable Housing Agreement. You will hear more about my thoughts on the future of NAHA in the New Year.

Parity also puts this agreement under the microscope.

This is as it should be.

It is fair to ask questions about what changes could be made to our housing agreement to make it more effective.

The Commonwealth’s priority is that Australians who are in need of housing support benefit from this investment.

Under current arrangements it is sometimes difficult to be confident that this is happening.

The Commonwealth gives the States and Territories $1.3 billion a year for affordable housing. Yet the States and Territories are under no obligation to report on what the funding is actually spent on, what is being achieved, or what contribution is being made by them, financially or otherwise. Even when I wrote to the States and Territories and asked for this information it wasn’t forthcoming.

With so many challenges lying ahead, isn’t the responsible thing to ask how well arrangements under the housing agreement are working and what the alternatives may be?

I notice several writers raise the issue of transparency.

I have raised this issue myself.

Let’s be clear on one thing: there’s not much point in the Federal Government putting money in if it leads to the States taking money out. So in future I want to inject more accountability and transparency into all our Commonwealth-State agreements.

The public is owed an explanation of where the States are spending its taxpayer dollars.

I also want more co-operative partnerships.

No single government and no single agency can solve the problems of housing and homelessness.

We need the long term, co-operative partnerships between governments, the not-for-profit and the corporate sector to ensure a successful policy response to housing and homelessness.

Thank you all for your input on these important issues.

Both West Australian contributions are graphic reminders that we are a country with mixed blessings.

Our two speed economy has delivered us great prosperity but too many of our fellow Australians are not sharing the benefits.

Especially the homeless.

One contributor compared working to reduce homelessness to a long journey and asked the inevitable question posed by weary travellers “Are we there yet?”

I join with him in answering with an emphatic, “No, not yet.”

But, for as long as I am Minister, for as long as this Government is in office, we will be working to get there.

And now I am pleased to launch this latest edition of Parity, raising as it does an issue of vital concern to us all, Funding the Future.