25 October 2018

Speech in Parliament: Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017

It’s my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017. The bill introduces the framework for the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. The ARDS enables rent and utilities to be deducted from income support payments and family tax benefit for occupants living in social housing. The bill also makes amendments to the National Rental Affordability Scheme Act 2008 to streamline and simplify the administration of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, or NRAS, until it ceases operation in 2026-27. The primary objective of the ARDS is to reduce the risk of homelessness for social housing tenants, particularly those in serious rental arrears who could face eviction or housing abandonment. We see this as fundamental to ensuring that people facing housing stress have the security of housing which we know is an absolute right in our community and in our nation. I’m very pleased that the member for Mayo is supporting this bill.

The government committed to implementing a compulsory rent deduction scheme for social housing welfare recipients in the 2016-17 budget following a request by the states and territories. As a precondition for participation in the scheme, the minister responsible for housing in a relevant state or territory must write to the Commonwealth Minister for Families and Social Services setting out the social housing policies of that state or territory and how these policies protect tenants from financial hardship.

I really want to emphasise that this is about protecting tenants from financial hardship. The last thing that this government wants to see is people being evicted because they have struggled to pay their rent. This gives them security and gives their families security, and we think that this is an incredibly important measure.

I want to stress that the ARDS deductions are limited to amounts for rent and household utilities only—the absolute fundamentals. Any arrears incurred due to the suspension of an income support payment cannot be deducted from a single payment under ARDS when the payment recommences. Where the tenant is also part of an income management scheme or cashless debit card trial, deductions will only be taken from the restricted portion of the income support payment.

The amendments introduced in this bill also clarify ambiguous provisions in the NRAS Act relating to the power to make regulations and lay the foundation to strengthen and simplify the future operation and administration of NRAS. The amendments provide general regulation-making power to enable the government to make changes to the NRAS regulations to protect investors until 2026 when NRAS ceases operating. The amendments also include specific regulation-making powers to support the operation of NRAS and to further protect investors through changes to the regulations, including requiring participants to pass on state and territory investments to investors in a reasonable time and also giving special dispensation where a tenant is inadvertently charged more than the 80 per cent limit, provided that the tenant is compensated.

While most approved participants in NRAS behave appropriately towards investors, a small number of approved participants don’t do the right thing—which makes life exceptionally difficult for investors—by not passing on incentives promptly and engaging in other undesirable conduct. The government’s amendments will permit the Secretary of the Department of Social Services to accept an enforceable undertaking from an approved participant. It’s really important to emphasise that the government is committed to putting in place measures to reduce the risk of homelessness for social housing tenants and to reduce rental costs for low-and moderate-income households. The bill will do that through the implementation of the ARDS and the amendments to the NRAS Act.

I want to emphasise that so much of what the government is doing at the moment is concerned with addressing the issues of housing affordability and housing security. I had the great pleasure just a couple of days ago in Canberra to make a very important announcement under the Homes for Homes scheme, where some $200,000 has been provided. That great scheme, which is making some real inroads, is supported by a $6 million investment from the Commonwealth. That scheme will address a growing cohort of Australians who are really struggling with housing security, and they are older women—particularly women over the age of 55, who have suffered a relationship breakdown or have reached the end of their working life and they’ve got inadequate superannuation. We’re making a lot of inroads into addressing that for women and giving them additional capacity to save for their superannuation. We are seeing an increase in the number of women who are facing housing stress, and I was absolutely delighted to make this announcement. This particular investment will go towards matching a number of women up in the one house and providing them with very secure housing at a reduced rental, which is capped at some 25 per cent of their income.

Right across the board, the government is working incredibly hard. I do have to say that we are really concerned about some of the resistance on the other side of the House to the amendments and the proposal under our Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. I say this with a bit of regret. I know there are some members on the other side who support this. There are quite a number of Labor members in the states and territories who also support this measure, because they see this as fundamental to housing security. If the rental payments and the utility payments are deducted from overall income, a family then has peace of mind. The risk of falling into arrears is dramatically reduced. There is still scope for a family, where there is particular financial pressures, to raise issues in relation to the deduction and to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. It is really incredibly disappointing that we haven’t seen universal support for this very important measure.

It’s really tough to secure social housing, which provides families with the support that they need at a cost that they can afford. We all know that families come under extraordinary financial pressures. It certainly happens in my community in Corangamite, and I know it happens all around the nation. When there are competing pressures, this really ensures that the fundamentals are provided and that rent and utilities are paid for. It’s really difficult to understand why this measure is not being supported by members opposite, just like all of the consternation with the cashless welfare debit card.

This is another really important measure where there is the opportunity to provide for the basics of life; to make sure there is food on the table; to make sure kids get the essentials in their family; to make sure that money is not spent as a priority on alcohol, on drugs or on cigarettes; and to make sure that the basics of raising a family are dealt with first. This is a measure that has seen so much incredible support, particularly in the communities where it is being rolled out. We heard about this in question time yesterday. It’s really incredibly disappointing to see the resistance from Labor members and also the lack of understanding for many members who may not have spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities. It’s very, very difficult to understand why this measure and measures like this are being resisted.

The other important thing I want to say is that the ARDS responds to the concerns of the states and territories. It works in partnership with the states and territories, the participating jurisdiction, by making the legislation less prescriptive about the form that an agreement can take between a tenant and a social housing provider. It also clarifies that the definition of a social housing lessor includes community housing providers registered under a law of a state or territory. I know there is a lot of support in some states, including some of the Labor states. I reference WA in particular. This stems from some discussions that I’ve had with the Labor government of WA, which recognises how important this is to the people of Western Australia. The Labor government in WA recognises how important this is for families in Western Australia, who are struggling and who need that sense of security.

There is no greater right for many families than the right to have a roof over one’s head. The last thing that we want to see as a government is people being evicted or in severe housing stress with an accumulation of arrears because, for whatever reason, they have not prioritised their utility payments and their rental payments. So I commend this bill to the House. I commend this bill to the House because it is about justice. It is about standing up for families.

In everything we do as a government, we are putting Australian families first. We are putting Australians first. We are standing up for those who most need our help. In my portfolio responsibilities as the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Housing and Disability Services, I am really pleased to be standing up for those who haven’t had, traditionally, a voice. Through a great deal of bipartisanship in this parliament—and I make particular reference to the work that’s being done to bring the NDIS into full scheme, to roll out that incredible scheme for all Australians with disability—I’m really, really proud of the work that this government is doing to stand up for those who most need our help. It’s a bit of a common theme when I meet with my constituents. They might seek some funding support for a particular interest of theirs, and I always make the point that, first and foremost, as a government, we need to be standing up for those who most need our help.

Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, I might add that you and I did a lot of very good work in our parliamentary inquiry into family violence law reform. Again, that was all about standing up for those who have been impacted by family violence, because they most need our help.

So I’m really hopeful that the Labor Party might have a change of heart. They might see the merits of this very important bill, this important measure to stand up for families, to give them the financial security and the housing security that they so need. As I say, I commend this bill to the House.

25 October 2018