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Speech by Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone

National Homelessness Conference Opening, Brisbane

Location: Brisbane

Thank you Narelle Clay for your kind introduction.

I am pleased to be here with you in Brisbane to officially open the third National Homelessness Conference.

This conference has brought together a broad cross-section of delegates from the community and public sectors to discuss the continuing problem of homelessness in Australia.

A wealthy nation like ours should not have a significant problem with homelessness.

However, the fact that we have an estimated 100,000 homeless Australians is a matter of concern to all of us.

It is of particular concern to the government.

Our approach to solving the homelessness problem has focussed primarily on early intervention programs, and funding for emergency and crisis assistance.

Later in this conference, you will hear from my Departmental Secretary, Mr Mark Sullivan, who will detail our existing services and our continuing efforts to prevent homelessness.

You will also hear from Ms Sue Vardon, CEO of Centrelink, on the excellent work done by that agency to help people in housing crisis.

I will not reiterate what they have to say, other than to point out that finding workable solutions and refining existing programs is a high priority for my department.

Both Mark and Sue’s presentations will clearly demonstrate our ongoing commitment to finding better solutions.

As you know, the Commonwealth spends billions of dollars each year on a multitude of programs to help people with the costs of their housing.

We wholly or partially fund substantial assistance measures such as:

  • The First Home Owners Scheme that helps young people to get over the deposit gap to buy their own home.
  • Rent Assistance for people on income support who do not own their own home.
  • The successful Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, and
  • The Commonwealth State Housing Agreement that supports the states’ efforts to provide public housing.

We fund early intervention programs, particularly in the Family Relationships area, and we are funding numerous pilots under the National Homelessness Strategy.

We collect data from services and hold conferences like this one.

We exchange ideas on what works and what doesn’t work.

We know, for instance, that better care and support for children at early ages can prevent problems later on.

We know that helping people develop relationship skills can prevent family breakdown.

We know that people who complete their schooling are less likely to suffer social disadvantage later in life.

We know that stronger communities are crucial to the delivery of flexible, locally-based services.

We have listened and we have learnt much from each other.

Unfortunately, we still have a distance to go before we can claim victory over homelessness.

This morning I would like to outline some of the reasons why I think we are still having difficulty solving the problem.

One of the things I have noticed in this area is the failure of the states to seriously come to grips with their responsibilities.

For those of you who are interested in finding out what the states do, you can spend time digging information out of user-hostile state budget papers and annual reports.

I recently asked Access Economics to look at the transparency of state budgets.

The report card they prepared for me on the states gave most a dismal fail.

State budgets are opaque and in some cases quite misleading.

If experts like the economists at Access cannot make head nor tail of the programs, how is the average citizen meant to understand where the money is spent?

A first step must be better accountability and transparency in state budgets.

That aside, we all know how little the states are doing to encourage home ownership and to reduce the waiting lists for public housing.

The states, as you know, collect billions from stamp duty on the sale of homes each year, not to mention the billions from gambling revenue, land taxes and revenue from public housing rents.

Is this money returned to their citizens to help overcome housing crisis?

The answer is only a token amount of this revenue is spent to alleviate the problems faced by many who are homeless or in housing crisis.

Not only that, the states themselves contribute to the problem of homelessness by:

  • Poor planning of public housing – putting people in areas of low employment prospects.
  • Completely failing to provide adequate and affordable public transport services to families in outer suburban areas.
  • Perpetuating disincentives for existing public housing tenants to increase their earnings from paid work.
  • Not lifting the burden of stamp duty for low income earners to buy their own home.
  • Not providing satisfactory mental health, disability, problem gambling and other community services to support people who are likely to be at severe risk of homelessness.

In addition to the manifest failure of the states to meet their responsibilities, there are the added complexities of individuals’ lives that make solving the homelessness issue more challenging.

There are some key factors that are predominant in our homeless population: family breakdown, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling addiction, unemployment, mental health, and disability issues.

In addition, we are seeing a higher prevalence of homelessness among our indigenous population.

In most cases, there is a combination of factors in a person’s life that need to be considered.

A holistic approach – looking at the whole person – is more likely to be successful in solving the homelessness crisis.

There is little point in simply giving someone who has an unresolved drug or gambling problem more cash to pay rent when, in all likelihood, they will spend the extra cash on drugs or at the pokies.

Some will argue that it is beyond the scope of government to solve all these complex personal problems.

Indeed, it is very hard, if not impossible, for government agencies to put families back together again, or to prevent domestic violence.

Of course, we can play a role in education, counselling and prevention, but if that fails, people are very reliant on crisis assistance like SAAP.

I am pleased that we are providing these services, and we will continue to fund these programs.

There will always be people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in temporary, severe housing crisis.

Society has a responsibility to help those people get back on their feet.

Homelessness is not necessarily a result of a shortage of houses.

Indeed, there are more homes per head of population than ever before. We are living in larger homes and smaller family units.

Our problem is perhaps our limitless material aspirations. Everyone wants more as individuals. This has placed in turn, greater demands on society’s resources.

This materialism is a key generator of many of society’s current problems.

Individuals in families are more likely to walk out on an unsatisfactory situation than stay and try to work things through.

All too often, the community looks to government for solutions to problems that governments can’t solve.

No local, state or federal government can make us more prepared to get along with each other, to make concessions or to take more individual responsibility.

What governments can do however is to ensure that services are efficient and equitable.

One of the dilemmas is that scarce resources are not always going to those in greatest need.

When people don’t do all they can to help themselves they are not taking something from the taxpayer so much as taking something from people in greater need.

Therefore, our approach to welfare reform is to encourage more people who have the capacity to find paid work, to do so.

We recognise that people who have been out of the workforce for long periods will need extra help and specialised assistance to find work.

We have recently been successful in passing our Australians Working Together Bill through the Senate. That legislation will provide significant extra assistance to the mature aged unemployed and sole parents.

It contains the new Working Credit scheme that will allow people to keep much more of their earnings from casual and part time work.

There are new programs like the Personal Support Program that focus on helping people with barriers like homelessness, drug and alcohol problems, domestic violence and so on.

We know that there are no easy solutions – if there were, we would have already adopted them.

I believe our focus must continue to be on early intervention – to try to help people before problems get out of control.

It is always better to be able to avert a crisis than to have to come in later to pick up the pieces.

This conference will provide an excellent opportunity to explore new ideas in this regard and to highlight the success stories to date.

I look forward to hearing of your deliberations and I have pleasure in officially declaring the conference open.