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First Home Owner Grant Amendment Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 13 June 2019

Tags: Homelessness, Social and Affordable Housing, Newstart, Poverty

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise to make a contribution on what will be the last legislation debated before the winter break. It is particularly apt that we are debating a housing affordability bill in a week that has been dominated by questions of the Government and our society's response to housing and homelessness. I can indicate from the outset, as we did last year, we will support the extension to the First Home Owner Grant. It will make a difference to the lives of some homebuyers.

I would argue that in many ways this is window dressing that does not get to the substance of housing affordability and supply issues.

I want to tell a short story about a gentleman I met at Salamanca today. I will give him the name 'Peter'. Peter was sitting down at Salamanca in a high-vis vest and he had beside him a plastic bucket with coins in it. I had gone into the newsagent and I thought, well, I am going to take some money out in order to give this gentleman some money, but I could not because my card was on my phone. I felt compelled to talk to the man and apologise to him for not giving him money but to find out a bit about his story.

Peter, who is probably around 40 years old - although it is hard to tell the exact age sometimes when people have really hard lives and they are bitten by poverty - was an engaging person but clearly flattened by the state of his world. He said he had been homeless for six weeks. He lived out past the northern suburbs and he was reduced to asking for money because he receives a Newstart payment which leaves people well below the poverty line. It is a demoralisingly mean sum of money we are giving to people and expecting them to survive. I am absolutely certain that part of the reason we are seeing an increase in homelessness, housing insecurity and begging is because Newstart has not been lifted for 30 years, it has not kept up with the rate of inflation, and it is not enough money for any person to live on.

The reason I tell this story is because the legislation we are debating today is targeted at those first home buyers who have, as Ms Butler said, spent a long time saving up their deposit, but I do not think someone like Peter is ever going to own his own home. I asked him where he is going to sleep tonight and he did not know. I asked him if he had been to put his name on the Housing Connect list and he said that he did not think it worth it because he could not pay the rent, any rent. I said that Housing Tasmania is there for people who are living at the margins and you can get Commonwealth rent assistance, there are options here. He was in that state; he had given up.

We need to be mindful of these people when we debate this sort of legislation because at the end of a three-minute walk, and a slow walk at that, from the front door of this building, there is a person who is reduced to begging, who does not know where he is sleeping tonight, and whose only warmth is a second coat he has with him. I have suggested that Peter come here and see me but I do not know if he will because I was standing there, talking to him in a nice suit and I think he found the idea of coming to this building intimidating.

When we next have an opportunity to talk about housing in this place, let us keep Peter at the front of our minds and let us make sure we deal with that statute that criminalises begging, which is section 8 of the Police Offences Act, that could see someone like Peter slapped with a $900 fine or be put in jail for six months. The First Home Owner Grant Amendment Bill 2019 is so far from Peter's world, so far it is sad and we have to make sure the law is looking after the impoverished.

I raise that because we have debated this before. In 2016, we brought through an amendment to the Police Offences Act that was not supported by Liberal members. It was supported by Labor members and then late last year, October last year, we tabled a motion to decriminalise begging and to show support for the changes to the Police Offences Act. At that time, again, all Liberal members including, unfortunately, Ms Hickey, voted against that motion. The Police minister committed to undertaking a review of that provision in the Police Offences Act and reporting back to parliament in the first half of this year. Sorry, minister, I do not want to verbal you without the words in front of me. The parliament has to deal with this and, if the response from the minister for Police is not to strike out those provisions of the Police Offences Act that turn Peter into a criminal and potentially put him into Risdon Prison, we will give this parliament the opportunity to do just that. We will come back with the amendment bill to the Police Offences Act.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - I am not sure what the Chair should say but the minister did make comment about that very issue in his summing up yesterday if you would like to go to Hansard.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. I did not watch that but I have been told that he made an update. That is why I said, when he brings that response back, which he has committed to do by 30 June. If the response is more window dressing and it does not go to the substance of how cruel that provision in the Police Offences Act is, the Greens will re-table our legislation and give this parliament another opportunity to do the right thing by Peter and the 1600 Tasmanians who, on any given night, have no place to call home.

Yes, we will support this legislation. The frustration for me, and I am sure Dr Woodruff feels the same way, is the short duration. Why are we only extending the first home owner grant for a single year? Will we back in this building again extending the $20 000 First Home Owner Grant at the same time next year and the year after that? Will it only occur when we are on the eve of an election, or will this Government get serious about structural change that delivers real housing supply, true affordability and protects the rights of tenants?

The Residential Tenancy Act provides too little protection to tenants. It does not prevent landlords from exploiting the incredible housing distress that is making tenants feel afraid to speak to their landlord about the hot water cylinder springing a leak or the maintenance that needs to be undertaken on the house. They are afraid to do that. We know this because I hear it from constituents. I have also heard from the Tenants' Union of Tasmania that tenants are afraid to raise issues with their landlords because they are afraid they will be evicted into homelessness. There is insufficient protection in the Residential Tenancy Act for those tenants. There is nothing in the Residential Tenancy Act that prevents landlords from gouging their tenants and charging higher and higher rents. We know that rents are going through the roof, quite literally. Hobart is becoming the least affordable capital of any city in Australia. It is quite breathtaking. I can almost hear the Treasurer's thought process then, which is: You beauty we've made the economy so strong that we have the least affordable capital in the country and that is a good thing. There is part of your brain that must have gone, 'It is the least affordable because we have changed everything'.

Mr Gutwein - No, in fact, what I was thinking was you actually opposed me for a number of years in terms of the planning reforms, which was all about increasing density ensuring that we could build closer to services.

Ms O'CONNOR - That is not what they were all about. We certainly support increased density.

Mr Gutwein - In large part they were.

Ms O'CONNOR - You said that by interjection and I apologise for misrepresenting your thought processes. We certainly support increased housing density and good planning but the planning reforms that you worked with the Property Council to develop were not about public participation or the public having a role in planning decisions. In fact, the ultimate objective is to minimise to the greatest extent possible the opportunities for consultation and public input. That is why we raised those concerns.

Back to my original point before I wind up. We need structural reform. I acknowledge that some changes have been made that will lead to increased density. We absolutely have to increase the density around our cities, but we need to reform the Residential Tenancy Act. We need to stop landlords from gouging the rents of their tenants and have a look at the model like the ACT where rent increases are capped at CPI, unless there is excellent cause for there to be an increased that falls outside of the CPI. We need to have an integrated approach to increasing the supply of good housing. Not just slap up housing so you can tick a box and say you have built this many houses, but good quality housing that is thermally and energy efficient in communities, that people are proud to live in, and are designed in a way to make people feel safe and secure in their homes.

The biggest obstacle to home ownership for our kids in this place is the federal policy settings, which give more financial reward for a person buying a seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth property than they do to a single person, couple or family buying their first property. Negative gearing and capital gains tax are structural obstacles to increasing the supply of affordable housing, making purchasing a home more affordable and renting a home more affordable. Hey, that is just a product of this 21st century culture where greed is God. Unfortunately, for people like Peter who have been absolutely left behind, there is nothing in this legislation for him. There is too little heart in Canberra for him from the federal government. At the moment the law in Tasmania treats Peter like a criminal and threatens to throw him in jail for six months.