Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Parity Magazine launch

Location: Sydney


Thank you very much firstly. Can I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I would also like to formally acknowledge Mr Noel Murray, the editor of Parity, Mr Philip Coleman, UBS chief operating officer and chair of 90 Homes for 90 Lives, Ms Felicity Reynolds, the CEO and chair of the Mercy Foundation and the Australian Common Ground Alliance, Mr Doug Taylor, CEO United Way Australia, and Mr Robert Maher, senior adviser UBS Australia; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

May I congratulate the Council to Homeless Persons, Noel and your team for delivering what I believe to be a comprehensive and thought provoking edition of Parity. I haven’t seen it in its final form but I have received the contributions and I’d like to commend you on that work.

And I’d like to commend the Mercy Foundation, which in 2008 decided to make ending chronic homelessness its main social justice target.

So, it really is good to be here today. I hope we’re on time; I thought I was a bit late, so I apologise for that. But I’m happy to be here today to launch the issue of Parity, which I think delves into the very important role that philanthropic, corporate and private sectors have in tackling homelessness across the world but certainly in Australia.

Indeed, the importance of these sectors were identified in our White Paper on Homelessness entitled: The Road Home. In our White Paper, the Government set two ambitious headline goals: to halve the overall rate of homelessness and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who seek it by 2020.

These are ambitious goals but I believe they’re achievable. But in order to do so, that is in order to achieve them, I think we must harness philanthropic and private sector support. It is crucial that we do so because, as you all know, it is unacceptable, in any county.

It’s particularly unacceptable in a wealthy nation like ours, that a mother and child or children should have to sleep in a car indefinitely or that a teenager is sleeping rough on the streets because of possibly fleeing from domestic or family violence or other concerns at home. And therefore, we need to do more.

And I consider that our White Paper is a good plan. It sets out an approach to achieve these goals. It includes improving services, of course, improving – it includes intervening early – much earlier than we have to date to prevent homelessness and supporting people with accommodation to break the cycle of homelessness. How often is it the case that people who work on the frontline in this area keep seeing the same people come to them.

To reach our goals we have invested nearly $5 billion in new funding since 2008 to provide support services and programs to help people who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless. Last year, more than 180 new or expanded services were delivered around the country under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness between the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments.

We’re building more than 20,000 new social housing homes through our $6 billion social housing investment. Now, of those 20,000, 18,000 have been completed and families are already living in 16,000 of them. Eight thousand of those 16,000 were actually homeless prior to being housed, so the change to their life is fundamental.

We’ve also carried out repairs and maintenance to another 80,000 homes, many of which would not have been habitable if we hadn’t. And of course again, many people who are in need of accommodation – sustainable accommodation, a place they can call home, are benefiting from those repairs.

And this was the result, of course, of our decision. We made an economic decision to replace private capital when it contracted and when confronted by the Global Financial Crisis, but as a Government we had to make a value decision as to where we spent the money. And we, I think quite rightly, spent the money on education and education infrastructure and also social housing. It’s not lost on me that it was voted against in Parliament by the Opposition.

Now we are building 50,000 new affordable rental homes around the nation under the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which pays financial incentives to private developers and not-for-profits to rent out properties at 20 per cent or more below the market rate. But that scheme has been – well, it took a while to take off and I think there is still some investors looking at whether it’s the best vehicle, but increasingly becoming very popular, which I’m glad to see.

It’s an innovative approach, in this nation at least, and it’s something I’d like to see continued because it allows Government to leverage its resources more effectively, I think, than before in this area of public policy. And I think it can attract more investment which we’ll need to do because we won’t always – indeed, we won’t be in a position to dedicate the same level of Government resources to build housing.

So indeed, since 2008, the Government has made a direct financial contribution, I’m advised, to one in every 20 new homes built, which is quite an extraordinary proportion. It may not sound extraordinary but it certainly is unprecedented in recent times that a government would be involved in that proportion of homes built.

And that does compare, I think favourably, with the previous government. They had no Housing Minister, no Housing Minister certainly in Cabinet, and no investment in social housing. And the money was taken out of public housing at the Federal level at the time with that previous government. So, I think it’s certainly a point of distinction.

But I think all of us here understand how important it is to have a place to call home. It’s a cliché but it’s the reality that a home is the foundation on which we build our lives. I think we take it for granted, many of us. Without a stable home, people – no matter their age – struggle to live healthily, stay in training or education, or find and keep jobs.

That’s clearly not good for them, or their families, or their communities or for the country. And yet we know that on any given night there are too many Australians homeless. Turning this around has demanded new approaches, new ways of doing things. It requires partnerships between governments, not-for-profits and as I’ve said it before and said in this very good edition, it needs the involvement and partnership with corporate and philanthropic sectors.

Earlier this year, I was able to understand the wonderful results that stem from such partnerships when I presented Kids Under Cover and their longstanding partners, Hocking Stuart Real Estate, with one of our inaugural National Homelessness Services Achievement awards for the most outstanding business or philanthropic commitment to addressing homelessness.

Their partnership offers demountable studios constructed on the grounds of the family or the carer’s home, easing the pressure on families, and providing young people with a secure and stable environment.

For one family I met, the backyard studio had transformed their lives. With their parents lost to drug addiction and violence, two children were living with their grandmother and sharing one small bedroom. There was no room for them to do school work, have friends around or just to play or escape to be by themselves.

That was until Kids Under Cover put the studio in the backyard which provided much needed space for the children. And I saw first hand how much this meant to the kids and to their grandmother. So, it was – I guess, this one personal story or stories of those people involved underlying the need to do such good work.

A lot of great work is already being done by the corporate, philanthropic and private sectors. For example, organisations including the Sidney Myer Fund, the Mercy Foundation, Street Smart, the Caledonia Foundation and the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation – to name but a few – are already successfully channelling philanthropic donations into preventing and responding to homelessness.

Philanthropy Australia has set up a national network of its members to support targeted and effective distribution of grants to reduce homelessness. There is a lot to be gained.

The Productivity Commission estimates that six years ago, the not-for-profit sector received $7.2 billion from philanthropic sources and this is growing, I’m advised, by eight per cent every year. The challenge for the homelessness sector is how to best position itself to gain a share of this.

One such strategy being canvassed by Philanthropy Australia includes appointing philanthropic ambassadors to promote the issue across their networks, highlighting the significant societal benefits of working to end homelessness.

Part of the challenge is getting the most accurate picture possible of homelessness – how many people it affects, and how the experience changes their lives. To do so, the Government will draw on robust Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and use information collected from specialist homelessness services by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This data will be supplemented by the first national longitudinal study of homelessness in Australia entitled: Journey’s Home.

Now, the Government has committed just over $11 million on the National Homelessness Research Agenda to help drive the development and implementation of evidence-based policy.

In addition to Journey’s Home, we have supported research that, amongst other things, looks at housing and support options for older people, considers how to end rough sleeping in cities around the country, and examines how we best respond to children in specialist homelessness services.

Combined, these facts and figures will give us the most accurate picture of homelessness in Australia that we have ever had and we will better understand how homelessness comes about, and how we can help people get back on their feet.

It is pleasing to see businesses are increasingly viewing social responsibility as integral to their corporate strategies. That is apparent in the increasing numbers of business people taking part in Vinnies CEO Sleepout every year.

I made the mistake of taking part in Canberra weather. Actually, it was a great event and it was happening in cities right around the country. And it just gives you just the tiniest of glimpses – that’s all it is but – into what far too many Australians go through every night. And I got to meet, of course, some quite outstanding people – heads of public agencies but many people from the private sector who were there.

One night out, raise a bit of money – it’s not going to change the world but to me it was an indication of the increasing interest the private sector is showing, the corporate sector is showing in these types of matters.

And I said to John Falzon, from Vinnies’ that wouldn’t it be good to get people back, not for just the Sleepout but why not talk to the CEOs who slept out that night in every city – why don’t we just get them together and talk about what their companies could do beyond the sleep out? Why can’t we do something? Because I think through their leadership there’ll be a great opportunity to do more with companies who want to take that direction.

So, it is – I think it was a great event and it can lead to so much more and these types of things have to ensure that we increase the interest and increase the investment from the corporate sector.

Work commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Council on Homelessness has found that businesses are keen to be involved in addressing homelessness. Partnerships and collaboration have a critical role to play in providing innovative housing and services. A good example is the Camperdown Common Ground, which has provided a home to 62 homeless people, completed with on-site wrap-around support and tenancy services to make sure they stay housed.

The Mercy Foundation, among other community organisations, has been a strong advocate for the project. Grocon provided the construction at cost, I’m advised – good on them. And the Australian and New South Wales Governments jointly funded the project under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

Now, I think it’s a wonderful example of what partnerships can look like and achieve, each contributing their particular skills and expertise.

Another good example is the Woolloomooloo project, 90 Homes for 90 Lives. Woolloomooloo has the highest density of homelessness of any suburb in the City of Sydney. The 90-90 project is a voluntary collaboration established two years ago and dedicated to reducing the number of rough sleepers in Woolloomooloo and the inner-city.

It involves non-government, corporate and philanthropic partners including UBS, the City of Sydney, United Way, Freehills, Colliers and Way2Home.

Its approach includes sourcing housing stock, reviewing options to convert boarding houses which are closing, and looking at new development opportunities to reduce homelessness. Already, the results are evident.

In August last year, the City of Sydney’s Street Count showed the number of people sleeping rough in Woolloomooloo had been halved to 45 since the project’s inception in March 2010 which means the 90 for 90 Woolloomooloo Project is halfway to its goal.

I hope that’s not too simplistic but – it sounds very, very simple doesn’t it -45, 90 but it sounds… It certainly means, I think that there’s been a great – there’s been great work done and with such fantastic results.

Numbers like these are important. Increasingly, the corporate and philanthropic sector wants to invest in high-performing community projects that achieve practical and measurable results. [Coughs] I’ve got a terrible cold, so I apologise for coughs.

Not only does it make social sense for people to have a home but it also makes economic sense. The cost of having people cycle through hospital emergency departments and mental health services because they do not have stable accommodation outweighs the costs of providing those same people with a place they can call home.

Finally, I want to take the opportunity to again stress the importance of strategic, cross-sector partnerships and leave you with this proposition. We know that corporate and philanthropic support is available and we know that ending homelessness requires a joint effort, so let’s act together.

So, without any further ado, before I lose my voice altogether, can I thank everyone for this fantastic event today and can I thank all those that have contributed to this magnificent edition of Parity. I am very pleased to officially launch it.

Thanks very much.