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Homebuilder Grants Bill 2020


Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Tags: Housing, Coronavirus, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, the Greens will be supporting the Homebuilder Grants Bill 2020 although, up front I do say that we have some serious issues with the eligibility and the framework around the Commonwealth Homebuilder Grant which we believe is poorly targeted and, yes, brass taps and marble benchtops is what it potentially will lead to and in Tasmania, where we have lower incomes than many other mainland states, I cannot see too many people building a property of up to $1.5 million in value. Certainly the average income of the average Tasmanian who is working does not reach $125 000, which is the individual income limit for eligibility for the Commonwealth Homebuilder Grant.

We believe that the Commonwealth stimulus funds should have gone to low-income households. They should have been allocated towards renovating and upgrading social and community housing where the stock desperately needs maintenance and where the effect on employment, making sure that we keep those skilled residential building and construction workers in Tasmania, would have been the same. Because you have to be agnostic about where the money is being spent, investing it in low-income households and people who live in social and community housing provides the same job stimulus as investing it into renovations or house builds for people who are on much higher incomes, in fact, couples with up to $200 000. So, we maintain that it is poorly targeted. When I first saw the legislation on Monday afternoon my instinct was to try to block those aspects that are poorly targeted Commonwealth HomeBuilder grants but, of course, many Tasmanians will benefit from this Commonwealth grant when you sit it alongside the state contribution for first home builders of $20 000. So, I restrained my desire to see social justice reflected in legislation. We will not be opposing those aspects of this legislation.

We too wonder whether it is realistic; some of the provisions in this bill about commencement of works after a contract has been signed. When you look at the definitions in the legislation 'the commencement' is defined basically when the slab has been laid. I was interested to hear what Ms Butler said in her very well-researched contribution about cutting the site as being what the building and construction industry regards as substantial commencement. That was the excuse that Gunns Limited used when it was trying to build its pulp mill on the River Tamar; arguments over what 'substantial commencement' actually meant.

There are issues here with the capacity for the building and construction sector to be able to commence works within three months. I accept that the legislation provides that the Commissioner for State Revenue can extend for up to another six months. Again that may not be realistic, particularly if the commencement definition remains what it is in the legislation at the moment.

We still maintain that the best stimulus spend is in housing. The best social and economic return is to spend stimulus money in housing. Wayne Swan was Treasurer when the global financial crisis struck in 2008-09. It is a fact that the decisions that were made at that point by the federal government staved off the worst effects of the recession in Australia. They also led to some outstanding new infrastructure in our schools and a very substantial increase in the stock of affordable housing. In Tasmania, for example during the Labor-Greens government under a Greens housing minister, which Labor consistently tries to erase the truth of, we built with assistance from the federal government, as well as the spare change that was in the housing fund, 2200 new affordable energy-efficient homes. If you want to kickstart your economy while you are tackling social inequality, investing in new affordable homes is the best 'bang for buck' so we were delighted when the Premier announced two weeks ago that Tasmania would embark on a housing-led recovery.

According to evidence that was put to the parliamentary inquiry into housing affordability, research undertaken by UTAS, drawing on Ahuri research, shows that the shortage of affordable housing in Tasmania right now is about 11 000 homes. While as a consequence of all the economic breakdown following the pandemic, we have seen more residential rentals enter the market, it is not sustainable. People who are now successfully applying for former short-stay properties are being offered leases of six to 12 months. The concern, one which is held by local government as well as TasCOSS and Shelter Tasmania, is that as soon as the economy starts to recover, and the visitor economy recovers whenever that may be, those tenants will quickly be turfed from their new-found properties.

This is an excellent opportunity for us as a parliament to get on top of short-stay accommodation. We passed legislation here late last year, which is the short stay accommodation act. It provided the framework for gathering data on the impact of short stay but it had nothing in there about compliance, giving local government, for example, a capacity to adjust the settings depending on the pressures that are in place or any demographic change. The short stay accommodation act needs amending. Now is the time to get those policy settings right so that when we come out of these dark months, potentially some years, we are not in the same situation where the short-stay accommodation market is sucking homes out of the residential market, putting more pressure on the housing system, on homelessness services and potentially leads to more families trying to find a bed at a place like the showground in Hobart.

We hope that while Government is looking at the housing picture through the pandemic, it takes this opportunity to make these minor adjustments to the short stay accommodation act that ensure once we come out of this, we have a better regulated framework in place where our priority is homes for Tasmanians.

I was interested to hear this morning the Minister for Education and Training talk about a skills summit that is coming up. In Tasmania, we have an extraordinarily skilled residential building and construction sector. What we need to do is make sure that we are at the cutting edge of green skills development, so we are the best in the country at installing distributed generation, solar panels, energy efficiency, not only into existing homes but when we design and construct homes. We have a capacity here given the skills that we have on this island in residential construction to further improve those skills to make sure that we have the best green builders in the country. We should be building, every single time, seven star energy efficient homes.

While there is some fantastic work happening on that front, it is not necessarily consistent. It has not necessarily been taken on as a primary objective in building design and construction. When you do that, you keep people healthier by having more thermally efficient homes and you are also bringing down the cost of living, as we did when we were in government under a Greens minister. We rolled out around 9000 energy efficiency upgrades for free to low income households, small businesses and community organisations, bringing their power prices down by on average about $500 every year which when you are a single mum living in Bridgewater is a huge amount of money.

We would like to see the Government continue to evolve its approach to housing policy. We believe that there is a gap in the market for low income working families and individuals to be able to rent to buy their homes. We have a great program going through Housing Tasmania, which is Homeshare, but that is for existing homes.

What we need to have in Tasmania is a housing policy setting that enables government effectively to be the bank for low income households to be able to rent, then buy their homes. In contemporary Australia, one of the most significant ways that a person can generate wealth and security is to own their own home. As someone who did not own my own home until I was elected I know how it can make you feel insecure when you are in a rental property, particularly with four children fanging about and putting holes in walls and the like.

Many everyday Tasmanians can only dream of owning their own home. As a society, which through this pandemic period has made a decision to leave no-one behind, we should be able to look at the approach we have to housing in a way that does not exclude low-income people from owing their own home. The only realistic way to do that is for government to initiate a rent-to-buy scheme for new homes that low-income Tasmanians can apply for, because the biggest issue for many people will be securing the deposit. There is certainly a capacity for people who are already paying high rents to cover off on a mortgage with some careful budgeting and the support of the Government behind them.

I am interested in the minister's answers to the questions Ms Butler asked. I have no specific questions beyond a few of those ones that I am particularly interested in. I understand this is a national partnership agreement arrangement, but I went to look for the Commonwealth home builders grant legislation and there was no Commonwealth legislation that established the Commonwealth's temporary home builders' scheme. It would be good to understand the arrangements through that partnership agreement that allow the state to legislate, manage and disperse the money.

With those few short comments, we will be supporting the legislation. It is half-solid.