Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Opening address to the Homelessness Australia 7th National Homelessness Conference

Location: Melbourne


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

Thank you Narelle [Clay] for your kind introduction.

And, thank you Aunty Margaret Gardiner for your warm welcome to country and to Jesse Gardiner for playing the didgeridoo.

I’d also like to welcome all our local, interstate and international guests – thank you for coming to Melbourne to share your knowledge and experiences with us.


The theme for this year’s conference – ‘Making it Home: The Real Issues in Homelessness’ – is a reminder to us all that the way we approach and respond to homelessness needs to be as diverse and as individual as the causes themselves.

There is no single reason why people become homeless. The stereotype of the bloke with a drink or drug problem living under a bridge or sleeping on a park bench is a common or conventional perception of homelessness but that is not the reality for many.

We have people leading perfectly normal, ordinary lives one year who find themselves, due to a variety of unforeseen circumstances, suddenly homeless.

I met a woman whose husband was diagnosed with a serious illness. He had to stop work. She had to stop work to care for him. They had two young children – just an ordinary, decent family whose lives were turned upside down by a tragedy. After he died, she found herself at Wesley Mission needing help as she and the kids had no home.

Too many Australians find themselves in this position. Too many families are sleeping in cars, too many teenagers are couch surfing or sleeping rough, too many elderly people are without a home.

Everyone deserves a safe and secure home. Without one, how do you cook a healthy meal? How do you find and keep a job without a fixed address? How do you keep the kids in school if you are moving from place to place every few weeks? Where do they do their homework if the whole family is sharing the spare room in a friend’s house?

That’s not good for individuals, for their families, for their communities or for the country.


That’s why in 2008 the Labor Government committed to making a difference. We made homelessness a national priority. And it was enunciated in our inaugural White Paper on Homelessness: The Road Home.

We saw there was a problem facing many of our communities, our mums, dads, kids, neighbours and friends. We set ourselves two ambitious goals – to halve the rate of homelessness and to provide supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who seek it by 2020.

We are committed to those goals. We have invested an unprecedented $5 billion into support for homelessness services and programs since 2008. Another $15 billion in housing programs. Between them, we have made a direct financial contribution to one in every 20 homes built since 2008 – because we know that preventing people from falling into homelessness is better than picking up the pieces on the other side.

We’ve been working with States and Territories, business, charities and the community through the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. That’s a $1.1 billion Agreement – half from the Federal Government and half from the States and Territories – to deliver more than 180 new or expanded homelessness services. I know many of you here today are involved in those services and I thank you very much for your commitment to assisting our fellow Australians. I also understand the keen interest in this room in the future of the Agreement beyond next June.

Last week I had a very productive meeting with the States and Territories about what we do about housing affordability and homelessness. While we did not come to a determination in any detail on replacing the Agreement, there was a concerted view that we need to continue to tackle homelessness, and an agreement in principle to continue to dedicate resources to that challenge.

I understand the need for certainty and we do have to reach agreement very soon about the nature of the approach we take from 1 July next year, as well as the quantum. I’m sensitive to the fact that many people rely on this funding, not just the people who need these services but also those of you who work in the sector. Quite rightly, you want to know what your future holds.

It’s no secret that we as a Government are in a fiscally challenging environment. We’ve made clear that we are returning the Budget to surplus. That’s important. It gives us a buffer against global uncertainty. It gives the Reserve Bank room to further cut the official cash rate, and, in turn, this eases housing affordability.

We remain, however, committed to realising our ambitious goal of halving homelessness and the Government will settle on our position as soon as we possibly can. Can I remind you, however, that this is a Partnership and we expect the States and Territories to do their part as well. This is not helped by the Queensland Government cutting the Tenant Advice and Advocacy Service, nor is it helped by the NSW Government increasing rents in public housing. And, for that matter, the Victorian Government cutting funding to the Social Housing Advocacy and Support Program.6/09/2012 10:44 AM

We also need evidence about which programs have worked best and what approaches are required for different situations.

ABS methodology and definition

We must remember, however, that to deliver sustainable solutions which reduce homelessness, we need an accurate base of knowledge from which to work.

In Australia, for the last 15 years we have relied upon the trailblazing work of Chris Chamberlain and David McKenzie, who were first in the world to use census data to estimate homelessness.

The ABS has now developed a new, expanded definition that recognises homelessness is not just going without a roof over your head.

The new definition recognises that a person could be homeless if they have no choice but to live in a dwelling that is not fit for human habitation; or to reside in a place without tenure; or to stay somewhere where they have no privacy, or personal space.

Next week the ABS will release revised estimates of homelessness by applying the new definition to the 2001 and 2006 Census figures. By applying the same definition to Census data in 2001, 2006 and, later this year 2011, we can make an accurate assessment about how far we’ve come over the last decade.

The ABS is an independent body. The Government did not ask it to do this work. We did not seek to influence how it defines and counts homelessness. We only said that the ABS consult with the sector as it developed the definition and methodology.

Using the new definition to come up with a number is something I’m happy to leave to the independent statisticians, but I can say that whatever the estimated number, it won’t diminish our commitment to halving the rate of homelessness.

The ABS, in the paper it released earlier this week, admits it doesn’t have all the answers. Homeless people are amongst the hardest people to count. There will be undercounting and overestimating, which – unfortunately – I’m advised don’t cancel each other out.

While the ABS estimate will be an important piece of data to help us measure our progress, it will not be the only piece of data we use. We will also use the more dynamic and timely information collected from specialist homelessness services by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and we will use Journeys Home, the first national longitudinal study of homelessness in Australia and possibly the first of its magnitude in the world.

Combined, these facts and figures will give us the most accurate picture of homelessness we have ever had. We will lead the world with our sophisticated understanding of homelessness. The ABS’ work is just a component of this.

Importantly, we will better understand how homelessness comes about, and how we can help people get back on their feet.


As we all know, both locally and internationally people who are homeless are probably the hardest group to find and collect information from, which further emphasises the need to draw from different sources.

That’s why the Government has invested $11.4 million in the National Homelessness Research Agenda – to investigate the needs and challenges of different groups of homeless people.

A mother may need a safe place to stay with her children immediately after leaving a violent relationship. A single dad needs somewhere suitable for his children to live or visit. A teenager may need support and help to stay in school or training. Others may need support from mental health services or treatment for chronic health concerns.

And the link between unemployment and homelessness cannot be overstated. Today, I am pleased to be launching the final report carried out by the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University and the Hanover research services, Finding Work: Homelessness and Employment.

This study highlights the very real need for early engagement between employers, job services and clients to create more flexible and secure pathways into employment.

We know that one of the key factors to exiting homelessness is finding and keeping a job.

Flinders and Hanover have now worked through specific strategies to help people facing these barriers.

Their study provides us with the stepping stones to look at new and innovative policies to address the themes developed in their research – and so will the many ideas raised over the three days of this conference.

We know there is no quick fix for homelessness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but it can be done. It’s been done in Finland, where they’ve halved homelessness over the past 25 years because they made homelessness a national priority.

Creating change is not easy but it can be achieved. In Australia we have the benefit of robust research to help guide us and we also benefit from a hard-working, highly skilled homelessness workforce.


The Gillard Government is very conscious of your enormous contribution, and we thank you for it. We value the dedication of the social and community sector, working long hours in often difficult situations.

These are not just words. I am proud to be part of a Government which is contributing $3 billion towards the historic pay rise decided by Fair Work Australia earlier this year.

As the Prime Minister said in July, when this rise is fully phased in, a worker on $50,000 will earn an extra $18,000 a year.

This meets a promise we made to the social and community sector in 2007. We are very proud to have achieved it, especially for those of you who – day in and day out – work with the most vulnerable in our community.

The Government understands the substantial challenges you face and the increasing complexity of the issues with which you deal.

Homelessness is not an issue that we can sweep under the carpet. We need to address it head on. The number of people here today clearly shows the sector’s commitment to do just that and I’m here to tell you that the Labor Government is with you.


This Conference is an opportunity to share and learn from each other and our international colleagues. As I’ve said, I look forward to hearing the ideas and innovative thinking that come from it.

I assure you, the Government is committed to working with you in tackling homelessness and strengthening the approaches used to help the members of our community who find themselves without a place to call home.

I wish you well in your deliberations.

Thank you.