Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Opening of Richmond Apartments

Location: Bowen Hills, Queensland

It’s very good to be here. I know it’s a cool day for Brisbane, but it’s a warm day for me, so I thank you for that.

I’d like to thank Aunty Valda for a very inspiring, defiant welcome to country. And I’d like to acknowledge some other distinguished guests – Bruce Flegg, Queensland Minister for Housing and Public Works, my federal parliamentary colleague Teresa Gambaro, the Member for Brisbane, and, of course, the many other distinguished guests that are here today. I’d also like to pay tribute to Professor John McAuliffe, the chairman of Brisbane Housing Company, David Cant, the CEO of BHC, and, as I say, other distinguished guests. But most importantly, can I pay tribute and acknowledge the tenants that are in this fantastic new construction, the tenants who are, in the end, the beneficiaries of this initiative and the people that we’re here to really focus upon.

I feel very privileged to be a Minister, and particularly when you’re involved in such great initiatives in partnership with the State Government of Queensland, with Brisbane City Council, with BHC, with all the other partners that make up this great construction.

We have a very significant challenge in this country. There are too many Australians that are homeless, for a wealthy nation, there are just far too many. There are far too many Australians that are having real difficulty paying rent, finding secure accommodation, staying in that accommodation and we need to do more.

We have dedicated more than $9 million for this particular initiative, combined with over $1 million from the Queensland Government and, as Jan said, also the gift from Brisbane City Council to make sure that there are more Queenslanders, more people who live in Brisbane, that are better placed, that are more secure, that are in a position to look after their families, in a position to actually gain full employment or maintain full employment.

I used to be the Minister for Employment Services, and I used to wonder why people couldn’t access employment services and find work. Quite often, they didn’t have a home to live in, so there was no point helping them attend to employment if you didn’t have sustainable accommodation.

The Federal Government when confronted by the global financial crisis made a number of decisions. We made them quickly, so that we replaced private capital that contracted. We made a decision to spend taxpayers’ money on a number of initiatives. The economic decision to do that has left us in the best economically placed country amongst all developed nations in the world.

But we had to still make a value decision as to where we would spend that money and we chose to spend it on education and housing. Much of what we see here today, indeed I think it’s – [checks notes] I’ve got a speech here, I know, I’m supposed to be reading it, but I’m not – [Laughter] – 43 of the 107 apartments that are part of this complex are built out of the Social Housing Initiative – $5.6 billion provided by the Federal Government in response to the global financial crisis. This did two things: it meant that people in Brisbane and people in Queensland did not lose their jobs, it meant small businesses did not go out of business. It meant that we had more resources to look after people who deserve our help.

And the combination of using the Social Housing Initiative and the National Rental Affordability Scheme, and the fact that we also have amongst us in this complex private accommodation is exactly the model that I think we should be implementing across the country. And I was talking to Bruce about this just a minute ago, that I think the combination of having social housing, people who’ve just had some affordability issues and also private tenants in one complex is exactly the way that we should be implementing social policy.

So this complex is a testament to good policy, good partnerships and good work by the builders, by the architects, by government, and by other organisations. We now have almost constructed 18,000 social houses across Australia, and we’ve got more to come. We’ve built now 11,000 homes under the National Rental Affordability Scheme, with more than 30,000 to come.

We need to do that because, as a nation, as I said, there is a direct correlation between housing affordability and homelessness.

I met a woman today at another event who had no contemplation that her family could ever find themselves homeless. Her husband died of cancer. While he was ill, neither could work. They had two young daughters. And he died. And she could not find accommodation. The Wesley Mission helped her out. This was a person who had housing affordability issues. She quickly became a statistic in the homelessness bracket.

So we need to look at these issues, housing affordability, homelessness, as one. On 31 August, Bruce and I and other Ministers will be meeting for the first time at a Ministerial Council called Housing and Homelessness because I think governments have to start understanding that there is a direct correlation to what is happening in the housing sector and what is happening to our most vulnerable Queenslanders, our most vulnerable Australians.

So the reason I’m here today is because I just wanted to pay tribute to those that are here, those that I know have found secure accommodation and I also wanted to pay a tribute to this type of approach by governments and non-government partners because I think this is the way we must proceed in the future to prevent people being stigmatised or deliberately maligned, through no fault of their own.

So can I finish by thanking the other two tiers of government – Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council – can I thank once again BHC for doing such a magnificent job. I’m hoping that this complex will be one of many, many more to come. And I am very confident by the allocation of resources that we dedicated to this initiative, by working more effectively amongst governments, working well with the housing sector, with all of the people that make up the housing sector – the architects, the builders, tradies, all the people that do this work – if we keep doing this, then I think we can not only make it easier for people to be in secure accommodation, which I think is a socially responsible thing to do, but we can also realise an ambitious but quite worthy goal in halving the rate of homelessness in this country by 2020, as we promised when we were elected in 2007.

It’s a difficult thing to do. People say we can’t do it. Good governments should raise their goals high and seek to achieve them, not put them low and seek to achieve them. And I think that this complex is a testament to good government, good partnership and good effort by all.

Thank you very much.