Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Address to the ACOSS Conference 2012, Australian Technology Park, Sydney

Location: Australian Technology Park, Sydney

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I am very pleased to be here today as Minister for Housing and Homelessness.

Housing is essential – it is one of our most basic needs. But it can be easy to forget how complex it is.  Housing means a family home, security and stability, a way to connect with community, an industry that employs thousands of workers, a nest-egg for retirement, something to pass on to the children.

And now we have the housing and homelessness portfolios together in Cabinet, which reflects the importance the Government places on these issues.

The theme of this conference – Sharing the Wealth of the Lucky Country – is timely and resonates with me personally. I know you heard this morning from Wayne Swan, and I think one of the things that Wayne said really summed up this Government’s approach – “a strong economy only matters if we use it to create a strong community”.

That’s what motivates us as a Labor Government – to create a stronger, fairer country where all Australians, not just a privileged few, share in the wealth of the nation.

That’s why we’ve put a carbon price on our largest polluters – so we can lift pensions and allowances and to treble the tax free threshold, taking one million people out of the tax system.

That’s why we have brought in the Minerals Resource Rent Tax – an historic reform to share the benefits of the mining boom. Instead of the proceeds of this unprecedented boom going into the pockets of our wealthiest mining companies, we will use the MRRT to contribute to a boost to the superannuation of more than eight million Australians, including nearly four million low income earners.

And if I can put my other ministerial hat on for a moment, the MRRT will deliver tax breaks for Australia’s 2.7 million small businesses – hardworking people who employ almost five million Australians.

It is a great honour to take on the housing and homelessness portfolios, given this Government’s achievements in the housing arena. I’m proud of the very considerable investments we have made since coming to office in 2007.

All Australians deserve an affordable, safe and sustainable home – a stable environment in which to raise a family; a secure base from which they come and go each day to a good job, and to be connected to the wider community.

But the evidence shows that there is much to be done. We know that we are in the midst of a housing shortage. We know that housing affordability remains a real concern for many Australians and their families.  And we know that there are too many people without a home. Indeed, the last Census showed more than 100,000 people are homeless on any given night.

That’s why we have invested an unprecedented $20 billion in housing and homelessness programs. That’s why we are committed to halving the rate of homelessness by 2020, and why we have invested $1.1 billion towards this goal under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the States and Territories.

It’s why we are building almost 20,000 new social housing homes through our $5.6 billion Social Housing Initiative, and have refurbished another 80,000 homes. These homes are benefitting those who most need our help. For example, already more than 8,000 people who were homeless are living in these homes.

This is just one concrete example of the Government’s commitment to sharing the wealth – to making a real difference in the lives of Australians who need our support; to taking care of our own.

In addition, we are aggressively attacking the road blocks to the supply of housing to make sure that we have enough homes to meet the needs of our growing population.

We are doing this through programs such as the $450 million Housing Affordability Fund, and by working with the States and Territories to address constraints on housing supply.

In 2008, we established the National Housing Supply Council to monitor demand, supply and affordability. And the news is grim. The Council estimates that there was a shortfall of more than 28,000 homes in 2009-10 alone and a total shortfall of almost 190,000 homes between 2001 and 2010 . Further, the Council estimates that we will need more than a quarter of a million additional social and subsidised housing homes by 2030 to meet demand.

This is a significant gap, and it would no doubt have been worse had the Government not made housing and homelessness such a high priority.

Of course, increasing the stock of social and affordable housing is only part of what we need to do to tackle the challenges of housing affordability and homelessness. All levels of government need to do more and work with our community and business sectors to improve housing affordability and to ensure that we have the right types of housing for our population, with the right mix of amenities and infrastructure to support local communities.

We know that there is much more work to be done by all levels of government to make the housing market more efficient and responsive. Communities need infrastructure such as public transport, schools, health care and other services, and this requires action from all levels of government – local, state and federal.

Of course, it’s fine to talk about what the Government is committed to, and what the Government is spending. But this is all meaningless if we are not achieving our objective of actually making lives easier for vulnerable Australians.  And I believe we are, in partnership with many dedicated individuals in the sector such as yourselves.

We are now at the point where we can reflect on the Government’s achievements and ask ourselves – what more do we need to be doing?

While our initiatives have been successful, some are coming to an end. Partnership agreements with the States and Territories are due to expire, and we are reviewing how successfully we can measure outcomes under the National Affordable Housing Agreement.

We have been innovative with new financial options – the National Rental Affordability Scheme which provides incentives for developers to build affordable rental homes is a great example of that.

And in our current fiscal circumstances we have to consider new ways of attracting private finance to the sector.

Many recommendations on how to reform housing have been made recently; the Henry tax review is probably the most well-known.

There has also been some talk about using social bonds as a way of attracting finance. I welcome these contributions.  These are the kinds of options that should be considered as part of the mix. And I really do mean we need to look at all the options and honestly assess them.

We’ve made a huge start and now we – governments, the community and the private sector – are facing fresh challenges for the next raft of reform.

I encourage you to be part of the debate – to explore future options with an open and inquiring mind.

I look forward to working closely with you as we think about what we do next.

ACOSS and the Gillard Government are natural allies. We have so much in common. I know you are all proud of making a difference to lives of great hardship. I am proud of the helping hand the Gillard Government has given too.

We, like you, are passionate in our determination to make this a fair, inclusive and sustainable country where all can participate in and benefit from social and economic life.

I want us to think together, to think originally, and to find solutions. I like to listen, and I know you have important things to say.

And I very much look forward to your contributions as we think about the future.

Thank you.