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Estimates Reply - Minister Jaensch

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Tags: Housing, Housing Crisis, Short Stay Accommodation, Child Safety, Tenants Union, Tenant Rights, Supreme Court, Poverty, Evictions

Ms O'CONNOR - I thank Ms Standen for her contribution. It was, as ever, well considered and very informative.

I rise to speak on Mr Jaensch's Estimates. Dr Woodruff and I both had the dubious pleasure of sitting across the Estimates table from the minister for various parts of the day. I was there early and we were talking about the child safety budget, the out-of-home-care budget and the fact that the Premier during Estimates had made it very clear that the tourism marketing budget would be quarantined or inoculated from the efficiency dividend that is embedded in the Budget and why was the child safety budget not also inoculated from those efficiencies?

The minister did not have a straight answer for that. If he was organised, what he would have said is, 'I understand that it is vital that every cent that is allocated to child protection in Tasmania remains and I will continue to fight for more money. I will fight to make sure that the child safety budget is not impacted by the efficiency dividend'. He could not do that. That is a matter of great regret.

Because of the reform process that this Government has been involved in for five years, there is a surge in the budget allocation that runs out next year for child safety services. The answer we got from the Treasurer and from the Minister for Human Services is that there is a reform process underway.

In question is $17 million that has been allocated to the reform process. I asked the Treasurer whether he was seriously saying that the review and reform process will come back and say extra resources are not needed and that explains the flatline Budget allocation. Again we have dodgy language from the Treasurer.

Mr Jaensch is not quite so clever with his attempts to conceal information. Mr Jaensch's response to that was not satisfying because it is clear that any sound strategic considered reform process in child protection will say there are obvious systemic issues in the child protection system. There is obviously a growing need for a good child protection system in Tasmania. We will recommend that more money goes into the child safety budget. That is what any good review process will do. We cannot do a proper root and branch reform of child safety within the same funding envelope. We expect to see a stronger allocation against child safety next year.

Serendipitously Mr Jaensch was at the Estimates table the day after the full bench of the Supreme Court found against Housing Tasmania for evicting a tenant with an intellectually disability, Mr Gregory Parsons. Mr Parsons had lived in his Housing Tasmania for nearly 12 years and had never missed his rent. In about October last year, Housing Tasmania served Mr Parsons with an eviction notice. When he asked why he was being evicted from his home of 12 years the only response he could get was that his lease had expired. I understand it was Mr Bacon who helped guide Mr Parsons to see the Tenants' Union of Tasmania, which took on his case. The full bench of the Supreme Court found that Housing Tasmania must be a model landlord, that it must afford its tenants natural justice, give them reasons and a right of review and, importantly, it upheld that critical section of the Homes Act of 1935 which makes it clear what the role of the director of housing is in relation to Housing Tasmania tenants. That is to enable people to reside in residential accommodation that is safe, secure, appropriate and affordable. That is Housing Tasmanian's job, the full bench of the Supreme Court has upheld that. The Premier and the Minister for Housing should just accept the umpire's decision, stop wasting public money on legal appeals, and invest that money into building new home.

What we heard from the minister this morning is that of the target of 900 new homes by three weeks from now this Government has built 316. Ms Standen is right about raising expectations through your language that can only get broken.

We have had it from the Minister for Health who said he was going to fix the health system. It is in a worse state than when he arrived in the job. The Minister for Housing, the new minister, said he would build 900 homes by 1 July 2019. Of course he cannot. What he did was raise expectation in the community that those houses would all be delivered.

What we know from other answers from Estimates is that this Government spent $440 000 of public funds trying to reopen tracks through priceless Aboriginal heritage in the Tarkine. They are still at it; an election promise from 2014 that they have broken. We are delighted that they have broken it and continue to break it. It is a concern that nearly half a million dollars was spent on that effort. Then $355 000 was spent defending the Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act 2014, one of the most draconian and undemocratic pieces of legislation that has gone through this place. That is nearly $800 000.

The Government, through a manipulative and I think subversive process, is joining the appeal against the Central Highlands Councils decision in relation to Lake Malbena. That will cost tens of thousands of dollars, presumably, in legal counsel. Now the Premier and the Housing minister are seeking to uphold what they believe is Housing Tasmania's right to evict through an expensive appeal to the High Court. Here we are in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis. We have people sleeping on the rivulet, in the streets of Hobart, we have people sleeping on the Domain. They have been banished from the lawns of parliament because it was inconvenient for some members of this place to see them sleeping there, but that does not mean they found a home.

We know that the statistics, the most recent Census says 1600 Tasmanians on any given night are sleeping rough or in unstable, insecure accommodation. I believe those figures are worse. I believe they are getting worse every day because of a chronic neglect of the Housing portfolio for the first term of the Hodgman Government. He had the federal government hooking money out of housing and then the state government underinvesting in housing while they let short-stay accommodation listings go through the roof. This is a time when, instead of engaging in an expensive appeal to the High Court, this minister should just put that money into building new homes.

One of the other issues that has come up in this House a couple of times because the Greens have brought it on - and it relates specifically to the homelessness issue - is that we have twice tried to have the Police Offences Act fixed so that people are not punished for being poor. There is a crime of begging in Tasmania with penalties of up to $700 or six months in jail. In 2016, we sought to have that law fixed, and then late last year, we brought our amendment bill back into this place.

The minister at the time, the Police minister, made it very clear that he would be reporting - and this is what he said in October last year after voting down our very straightforward amendment bill to decriminalise poverty. He said he would be reporting in the first half of 2019. He has two days to come into this House and tell the House what he is doing to deal with people who are so poor that they feel they have no other choice but to ask others for money. We live in an evolved, reasonably wealthy society relative to other parts of the world but you have a law on the statutes here that punishes people for poverty at the same time as you have a homelessness crisis. This is simply wrong, and we need to see Mr Ferguson come into this place sometime this week and explain to the House what this Government will do to decriminalise poverty. That is, remove the crime of poverty from section 8 of the Police Offences Act.

The other issue I want to briefly touch on is the Commonwealth/state housing debt. We demonstrated in our alternative budget that it is possible to prioritise absorbing that debt into the public account. Paying that $15 million a year to the Commonwealth out of the public account as part of general government sector debt, unburden Housing Tasmania of the Commonwealth state housing debt and let it just get on with building homes. This call has been reinforced in recent times by Shelter Tasmania and the Tasmanian Council of Social Services. If this Government can spend $1.6 billion on infrastructure, it can relieve Housing Tasmania of the burden of its debt.